Beaten down, worked up The past, present, and future of American labor

Steven Greenhouse

Book - 2019

Examines the income inequality and declining social mobility endured by today's workers, along with the decades of worker power reductions and the increasing political and economic control of the wealthy.

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New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2019.
First edition
Physical Description
xv, 397 pages ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 341-380) and index.
Main Author
Steven Greenhouse (author)
Review by Booklist Reviews

Greenhouse, who covered labor for the New York Times, has provided a human dimension to the tale of income inequality, wage stagnation, and employer disrespect for workers. He doesn't steer clear of statistics, documenting the dramatic decline of labor unions over the past several decades, exacerbated by the Trump administration and other antiunion actions, including Scott Walker's in Wisconsin. There are a few positive exceptions: culinary workers in Las Vegas, teachers in several locations, the sanitation workers in Memphis. As the author (The Big Squeeze, 2008) readily admits, this is not a full history of labor, but it covers a lot. The book's historical chapters are overly selective but do include informative sections on the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, FDR's Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and the impact of sit-down strikes. The period of labor's decline, the book's best section, covers the decimation of the air-traffic controllers' organization. The present (Lyft and Uber, for starters) is discussed, including some gains (the minimum-wage movement and progress in Florida and California). Greenhouse also proposes what hopefully are workable ideas for future workers' movements. Copyright 2019 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Choice Reviews

Both history and investigative journalism, this overview of the labor movement in the 20th and early 21st centuries is an important contribution to American social history. The author uses vignettes of events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, sit-down strikes, the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike, the state-centered attacks on public sector employees, and the careers of Walter Reuther and George Meany to illustrate the rise and subsequent decline of American labor unions. The narrative forcefully observes the successes and failures of business, organized labor, and government at all levels to address worker issues. A final section focuses on the emergence of a new worker movement, a story told with an exploration of the efforts of fast-food workers, tomato pickers, the hotel workers on the Las Vegas Strip, and teachers, all of whom are reshaping and often leading the effort to obtain better economic conditions for the American working class. Well written, the book draws on a range of resources including historians of the labor movement, national and local newspapers, government documents, and social media posts to make a compelling case for the title of the book. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.--T. F. Armstrong, formerly, Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, UAEThomas F. Armstrongformerly, Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, UAE Thomas F. Armstrong Choice Reviews 57:03 November 2019 Copyright 2019 American Library Association.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Greenhouse, who covered labor for over two decades at the New York Times and won New York Press Club, Deadline Club, Gerald Loeb, and Hillman honors for his efforts, here addresses the long-term decline of labor power as wages stagnate, low-wage jobs multiply, and unions lose their clout. He profiles dozens of American workers to clarify these issues and argues for new ways that workers' power can be set fire again. Copyright 2019 Library Journal.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Journalist Greenhouse presents a sympathetic but critical survey of American labor since 1900, providing rich portraits of individuals and groups who have faced challenges in their working lives. While focusing primarily on efforts to organize employees and the situation of unions, the author nonetheless occasionally considers the plight of laborers outside of that movement, including low-wage and independent workers in recent years. Rather than a clearly defined chronology, he describes vivid episodes about laboring people over more than a century to demonstrate the historical development of labor conditions and counteracting actions by workers. Since this is not a survey of labor history, some decades, events, and people get noticeably more attention than others. Dramatic chapters cover tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, successes such as the Sit-Down Strikes, and failures, including the PATCO Strike. Portraits of union leader Walter Reuther's effectiveness are followed by discussion of failures by the next generation of officials and more recent developments in the gig economy. VERDICT Although somewhat uneven in its coverage of labor history, this lively and informative read will appeal to those interested in the current challenges facing American workers. [See Prepub Alert, 2/18/19.]—Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato Copyright 2019 Library Journal.

Review by PW Annex Reviews

Greenhouse, a former labor reporter for the New York Times, offers an inspirational greatest-hits look at the past, present, and future of American workers' movements. He argues that a decline in the power of organized labor has been both cause and consequence of several other blights over the past 40 years, including income inequality; wage stagnation; the proliferation of low-security, low-wage jobs; and the rise of a political culture dominated by corporations and billionaires. Greenhouse kicks off with a series of illustrative, diverse "profiles in courage"; there's Clara Lemlich and the garment workers' strikes in turn-of-the-last-century New York City, or United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther's efforts to lift auto workers and others into the postwar middle class from the 1930s on. The author follows them with episodes from labor's subsequent stagnation and embattlement, through which he considers the effects of deregulation, globalization, automation, the rise of "investor capitalism," anti-labor politics, and "labor's self-inflicted wounds" (corruption, complacency, ambivalence about social justice movements). Greenhouse ends with some recent labor successes—including the "Fight for $15" and the profitable, harmonious relationship between workers and management at the hospital chain Kaiser Permanente—and suggestions for a broadly revivified labor movement. This collection will satisfy readers who seek an introduction to labor history or ideas about how American workers can regain some power. (Aug.) Copyright 2019 Publishers Weekly Annex.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

Examines the income inequality and declining social mobility endured by today's workers, along with the decades of worker power reductions and the increasing political and economic control of the wealthy.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

The award-winning labor correspondent and author of The Big Squeeze examines the income inequalities and declining social mobility endured by today’s workers, contrasting decades of worker power reductions against the increases of political and economic control by the wealthy.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

“A page-turning book that spans a century of worker strikes.... Engrossing, character-driven, panoramic.” —The New York Times Book Review

We live in an era of soaring corporate profits and anemic wage gains, one in which low-paid jobs and blighted blue-collar communities have become a common feature of our nation’s landscape. Behind these trends lies a little-discussed problem: the decades-long decline in worker power. 

Award-winning journalist and author Steven Greenhouse guides us through the key episodes and trends in history that are essential to understanding some of our nation’s most pressing problems, including increased income inequality, declining social mobility, and the concentration of political power in the hands of the wealthy few. He exposes the modern labor landscape with the stories of dozens of American workers, from GM employees to Uber drivers to underpaid schoolteachers. Their fight to take power back is crucial for America’s future, and Greenhouse proposes concrete, feasible ways in which workers’ collective power can be—and is being—rekindled and reimagined in the twenty-first century.

Beaten Down, Worked Up
is a stirring and essential look at labor in America, poised as it is between the tumultuous struggles of the past and the vital, hopeful struggles ahead. 

A PBS NewsHour Now Read This Book Club Pick