David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

If America ever hopes to aspire to be a great country for all its citizens, it will be on the backs of workers — the people who built this country — and a strong labor movement. That’s the chief takeaway from a new book by author and journalist Steven Greenhouse entitled: Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor.

Earlier this week Greenhouse spoke at a Community Service Society forum, part of a guest speaker series bringing together prominent thought leaders, researchers, activists, and engaged New Yorkers in conversation about the most pressing issues of inequality and upward mobility facing cities today. Certainly, the role of organized labor and its prospects for the future is one of them.

At a time when the power of workers in unions has fallen to its lowest levels in decades, foreshadowing a rise income inequality, contributing to wage stagnation across industries and skewing our political system in favor of corporations and the wealthy, Greenhouse reminds us of the many victories won by labor. As the saying goes, if you have a 40-hour work week, an 8-hour workday and workplace protections, you can thank the union.

Greenhouse also reminds us how unions historically empowered the most marginalized members of society, from young garment workers in New York in 1909, to black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968, to hotel housekeepers today.

In the first part of his book, Greenhouse recounts pivotal events in the history of the American labor movement. Many of those events occurred right here in New York. In the chapter “Out of the Ashes,” he describes in haunting and horrific detail the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where 146 garment workers—mostly young immigrant women—perished in the flames because of inadequate safety and because doors to the exit stairways were locked to prevent theft.

One of the eyewitnesses who watched as the fire raged and workers leapt to their deaths was Frances Perkins, an investigator for an anti-sweatshop group at the time. She would go on to create public works jobs and unemployment insurance as a key advisor to then New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. When FDR became President, Perkins became Secretary of Labor, and her programs became the New Deal.

But why does this book have such urgency for us today and for CSS, as an anti-poverty organization? Because the union movement has been the bulwark against corporate greed, ensuring that workers get a fair shake, decent working conditions, their slice of productivity gains and profits. All working Americans owe an enormous debt of gratitude for what unions achieved.

However, as Greenhouse says in his book, “In the 1980’s, everything seemed to go wrong for labor. A confluence of forces—recession, imports, deregulation, technological change—clobbered the nation’s unions.” In 1983, unions represented 20.1 percent of wage and salary workers. In 2018, it was 10.5 percent. (New York State and City are outliers, by the way, with a unionization rate of over 21 percent.)

According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a correlation exists between diminished union power and stagnating wages. Indeed, the decline of union membership over the years has given rise to dramatic increases in income inequality. But there is also good news.

Greenhouse devotes the final chapters of his book to signs of resurgence and hope. He recounts recent victories—New York also leading the way on the “Fight for 15,” paid sick days, paid family leave and fair workweek scheduling.

I would argue that two things are distinctly different in this recent successful push to raise labor standards and pay. One is the emergence of a real partnership between unions and nonprofit research and advocacy groups, like New York Communities for Change, NELP, Make the Road, A Better Balance and certainly CSS. In some cases, the impetus driving change has come from the nonprofit and grassroots community organizing groups.

For example, the campaign for the city’s paid sick days grew out of the research of CSS’s own Nancy Rankin, founder the Unheard Third survey, which showed that most low-wage workers lacked even a single paid sick day. But these campaigns would not have succeeded without the political clout and member power of unions like 1199, 32BJ and RWDSU.

The second difference is that these efforts were not instances of employees bargaining with management to win better working conditions at a single firm, or even an industry. These were campaigns to pass laws to raise standards and pay for all workers, whether in a union or not.

Pressured by unions, Governor Cuomo championed the $15 minimum wage, and got paid family leave done. On the city level, Mayor de Blasio expanded paid sick leave, advanced the Fair Workweek scheduling laws, and has now proposed requiring two weeks of paid vacation for workers each year. And candidates vying for 2020 Democratic presidential nomination are proposing some of the most robust, pro-labor policies we have seen.

So, what have we learned from the past? Simply this: a strong union and a more democratic nation go hand in hand.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.