NY Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse on the state of the US labor movement and labor journalism
By Micah Uetricht (Read full interview)
You’ve seen the decline of the labor movement over the last decades. Do you think the majority of union leaders really comprehend the extent of the crisis that unions are in?
The majority of leaders of major unions – Steel workers, Auto Workers, SEIU, AFSCME, AFT, CWA see there’s a crisis, and they’re trying to get things going. They’re doing more organizing. But one of the major problems unions face now, is even doing more organizing, it’s not enough to overcome the long-term trends that are reducing union density.
The growth of the gig economy, independent contractors, part-time workers, young people knowing little about unions, greater employer resistance to unions there are trends in society undercutting unions. Even if unions increase organizing modestly, if they organize 200,000 workers in a year, it’s not enough to reverse labor’s slide. That would require much larger organizing drives and a greater percentage of success than we’ve seen the past few decades.
I’m not sure whether unions have the will to do that. And if they [do], I’m not sure they have the organizing expertise and money.
Has labor coverage declined because the labor movement has declined? Or is it more about shifting priorities of mainstream media?
Unions used to be a very influential part of the economy, a big part of the national conversation. They no longer are. Union density in the private sector is 6.6%, less than 1/5 what it was in the 50s; the number of strikes is about 1/30th per year what it was in the 40s and 50s. Unions aren’t making as much news as they were 60 years ago.
I think some organizations got rid of their labor reporter because they thought coverage was too sympathetic towards workers and unions. I know this was true at one organization I won’t say which, where I thought the coverage was excellent and straight down the middle, but publishers thought it was too sympathetic to labor and not sympathetic enough to business. That reporter got pushed out.
What does it mean that labor has gone from trying to impede production on the factory floor to staging actions so reporters will come running?
Unions have felt torn. They’ve realized that to grow, to rev up the union movement, they need to adopt the organizing model. But they also realize that their members often like the service model. Even with [former AFL-CIO Pres.] Sweeney’s efforts to convince unions to do more organizing, it wasn’t enough to reverse the decline. Now unions are trying to figure out what they can do. How do we get out of this hole? How do we get create some excitement for labor? In his book Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement, Tom Geoghegan says it’s not worth having a strike unless [it] gets huge attention and public support. You don’t want a strike that’s just ignored as a private dispute that doesn’t call into play larger issues. Fight for 15 is a smart effort to tap into the widespread resentment against low-wage jobs. It’s hard to unionize people in these marginal, low-wage jobs, because people are scared of getting fired. Fight for 15 has done a very impressive job in mobilizing people. What the movement is demanding is very ambitious. But to get there, they will have to exert far more pressure than they have thus far.
This article is reprinted from In These Times magazine, © 2015, and is available at inthesetimes.com.