On October 27, the Workers’ Rights Advocates (WRA) and Stein Public Interest Scholars at Fordham Law presented an in-person discussion with Steven Greenhouse, a former labor reporter for The New York Times and award-winning author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.
The conversation was moderated by Professors James Brudney and Jennifer Gordon and the event was well-attended by Fordham Law students interested in labor and employment issues.
Greenhouse was already acquainted with both Gordon and Brudney through their own involvement in labor issues—Gordon for her work with immigrant workers and the founding of the Workplace Project in 1992 and Brudney for his expertise as “one of the nation’s leading experts on international labor rights,” said Greenhouse.
Greenhouse began by speaking about the long history of labor issues in the United States that he witnessed in his nearly 20 years as a labor and workplace reporter. His first book, released in 2009 and titled The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, explored the growing gap between corporate profits and worker wages.
“I saw that corporate profits were great, employee productivity per hour was booming, Wall Street was doing great, but everything was going backwards for workers,” Greenhouse said. “Wages were stagnating, health benefits were getting worse, pension benefits were getting worse.”
For his second book, Beaten Down, Worked Up, Greenhouse wanted to write about the role of the labor movement in America, with the hope of engaging and educating young people who may not be aware of the developments in labor protections that had been made before they were born.
“There are far too many Americans, especially young people, who have little idea of the pivotal role that labor unions and worker power have played in making America a fairer, more democratic, and more equal society,” said Greenhouse. “Although unions certainly have lots of problems … labor unions really played a pivotal role in building America’s middle class.”
The History of Workers’ Struggle in the U.S.
Greenhouse spoke about how sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee were paid such low wages during the 1960s that many lived below the poverty line. Workers, he explained, would carry large tubs above their heads filled with garbage that would fall down their arms and onto their clothes. Workers did not have access to showers at the workplace, forcing them to take public transportation or walk home smelling of garbage.
After the deaths of two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck, the city’s sanitation workers decided to go on strike. A few weeks later, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—an avowed labor supporter—came to Memphis and organized a march in support of the strike. Following King’s assassination in the city shortly after his arrival, President Lyndon B. Johnson quickly sent in Department of Labor officials who settled the strike. Workers were then able to get the protections and wage increases that they had demanded.
Greenhouse recalled speaking to sanitation worker Elmore Nickleberry, who was present at the 1968 strike. Reading aloud a portion of Beaten Down, Worked Up to the Fordham Law audience, Greenhouse described Nickleberry’s reaction to the outcome of the strike. “‘We got a good raise, we got showers, we got better working conditions, [and]we got health benefits for the first time,'” Nickleberry had said. “‘The union came in and we got respect.'”
Strikes of the Present Day and Lawyers’ Roles
Waves of worker strikes and unionization have recently spread throughout the country. So much so that this past October was called “Striketober”— which may phase into a “Strikesgiving” and extend into the holiday season, according to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Low-wage workers who were deemed “essential” during the pandemic have been organizing in droves for their right to safe and fair working conditions. These workers risked their lives, at most receiving a few extra dollars per hour as “hero pay,” Greenhouse said.
Additionally, pandemic-induced labor shortages have pushed employers to offer higher wages and have increased workers’ chances of winning their union efforts, he added. “So long as there’s a labor shortage, workers will continue to feel emboldened,” Greenhouse said. “Because if you’re on strike, it’s hard for employers to find people across the picket line.”
Greenhouse, who graduated with a law degree from NYU after earning his journalism degree at Columbia, talked about how legal protections for workers have steadily declined since the passing of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. He also highlighted the role that lawyers can play in supporting worker rights and protections.
“Mr. Greenhouse offered insightful commentary on where we go from here,” said WRA member Anthony Damelio ‘22, “especially for future lawyers seeking to ensure a more just economy for all.“