In a New York Times op-ed, Professor Zephyr Teachout explores the main lessons of “Beaten Down, Worked Up,” a recently published book by former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse.
Greenhouse probably knows more about what is happening in the American workplace than anybody else in the country, having covered labor as a journalist for two decades. He achieves a near-impossible task, producing a page-turning book that spans a century of worker strikes, without overcondensing or oversimplifying, and with plausible suggestions for the future. This is labor history seen from the moments when that history could have turned out differently.
For several decades, it was fashionable to see the forces of history as inexorable. Big-idea books like “Guns, Germs, and Steel” or “Why Nations Fail” told people not only why things happened, but why they had to happen the way they did.
Greenhouse indulges in no such fatalism. The arc of history doesn’t bend toward justice or toward tyranny. In his telling, history is made by human beings facing difficult choices about whether or not to strike, how long, how much to demand and when to compromise. As such, this is a book that breathes hope based on contingency. If history wasn’t overdetermined in 1930, 1981 or 2012, it isn’t overdetermined now.
The book is full of high-stakes episodes in which the right decision is not clear. The “powerful sword” of the strike gets special attention throughout. In the 1970s, there were nearly 300 large strikes — comprising at least 1,000 workers — every year. After Reagan, that number plummeted to under 60. From 2008 to 2018, the average number was just 13.