State of the Unions: A Q&A with Steven Greenhouse

State of the Unions: A Q&A with Steven Greenhouse

State of the Unions: A Q&A with Steven Greenhouse
April 13, 2015

Steven Greenhouse, a veteran labor reporter for The New York Times, left the newspaper in December—but that doesn’t mean he has stopped reporting.

As a freelancer for the Times and The Guardian, Greenhouse has been covering the push to raise fast-food wages, a unionization campaign by graduate students and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s ongoing battle with organized labor. He is also working on a follow-up to his 2008 book, “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.”

In an interview with City & State Senior Correspondent Jon Lentz, Greenhouse talked about the challenges facing organized labor over the years, the different ways public and private sector unions have been affected and how coverage of labor issues has changed.

The following is an edited transcript.

City & State: You are one of the most experienced journalists in the United States covering the labor beat. What are the biggest changes that you have seen with organized labor?
Steven Greenhouse: I’ve covered labor for The New York Times for 19 years, and I’d say that the biggest difference is that unions have become a good deal weaker over those two decades. Inequality has worsened over those two decades. The leverage of workers collectively and individually vis-a-vis their employers, usually corporate America, has grown weaker. And as a result, we’re still seeing things like wage stagnation, even when the unemployment rate is down to 5.5 percent. Another big difference is in the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of Republicans worked closely with labor unions and labor unions worked closely with Republicans. Now, generally Republicans are engaged in the concerted nationwide effort to weaken labor unions in many ways, whether it is pushing to enact right-to-work bills or to abolish the prevailing wage.

C&S: To what degree does the weakening of the labor movement or labor unions factor into that increasing inequality?
SG: There have been several academic studies finding that the weakening of the unions, the decreasing density in the United States, have contributed to 25 to 30 percent—one can debate the numbers—of the increased income inequality. Generally in American history when workers have more leverage, have a stronger collective voice in the workplace, they’re able to pressure their employers more to share the profits and prosperity.

C&S: Have these trends affected public sector unions any differently than private sector unions?
SG: In the 1980s and 1990s, we saw a great weakening of private sector unions because of competition from abroad, because of deregulation, because many companies got much more aggressive in locking out workers and even permanent replacement workers. And during that time public sector unions were getting stronger, and as of two or three years ago, there were more union members in the public sector than private sector workers nationwide. So the private sector workers took it on the chin in the 1980s and 1990s, and public sector workers continued to do quite well. And we reached a point where pensions for some workers were generous and with the budget problems exacerbated by the Great Recession caused by the financial sector, a lot of political leaders said, we need to tackle problems like generous pensions and pension underfunding. So in the last five years or so, led by Scott Walker seeking to curb collective bargaining of public sector unions, they have really sought to weaken the unions and roll back public sector union gains in pensions and health coverage. I think many people would agree that in some places, the pensions for public sector workers are quite generous and some cities can’t afford them. In other cases, some politicians see that they can make a lot of political hay by going after public sector unions, period.

C&S: What has this meant for teachers unions?
SG: So a lot of hedge fund billionaires have adopted the cause of charter schools, abolishing tenure and using high-stakes testing as a way to determine whether teachers should receive bonuses or get fired. A lot of them say that they’re pushing this only to improve the schools, for education reform. Teachers unions feel that these hedge fund billionaires who are pushing this educational agenda—also part of that agenda is to weaken or cripple teachers unions. And teachers unions feel that there is a target on their head. Everyone admits that there are problems with public schools, but the teachers unions find it very frustrating that there’s very little academic proof that charter schools do a better job than public schools. And they say that the time when teachers are being beaten over the head, a lot of people are reluctant to go into teaching, people feel discouraged and it’s going to make teaching that much less attractive. And the teachers unions also say that high-stakes testing that will determine whether teachers receive tenure or get bonuses or get fired—again, there’s very little academic proof that that is a good way to assess teachers. Teachers feel like they are being unfairly targeted, and that’s why in state after state, beginning with New York State and Governor Cuomo, there are huge fights between some lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, and the teacher unions.

C&S: In 2008 you came out with your book, “The Big Squeeze.” What will the topic of your next book be?
SG: I’m going to write about the state of workers in America and the not-so-happy state of labor unions in America. And there’s really much more than that, but I don’t want to show my hand too much.

C&S: You took a buyout from the Times, but you’re still freelancing for them. Is there enough coverage of these issues? Which reporters do you read?
SG: I think the decline of labor journalism, labor coverage, is exaggerated. There really has been a dip. Seven to 10 years ago when a lot of newspapers were shrinking their newsroom and they said, we don’t need labor reporters any more. Labor is boring. You know, we need lots of people to cover Beyoncé, but we don’t need labor reporters so much. But with the Great Recession and the high unemployment rate, and then with Scott Walker and John Kasich and other Republican governors going after unions and that becoming a huge national story, and then in many states—Rhode Island, Detroit—the huge fights over pensions, here in New York as well, I think a lot of editors and publishers said, we need someone covering labor. And then we’ve also seen Occupy Wall Street, and the Fight for 15 is quite a big story nowadays, and there’s still a lot of labor disputes over teachers unions. So I think there is a great deal more labor coverage now than there was even five years ago, even seven years ago. I think Noam Scheiber, who’s replacing me on the labor beat at the Times is excellent. Lydia DePillis at The Washington Post and Josh Eidelson and Bloomberg Businessweek are very, very good to follow. And now there’s someone at The Boston Globe, someone at the Chicago Tribune. The Wall Street Journal has one and a half labor reporters. TheBoston Globe, the L.A. Times—they’re all following labor pretty closely, not all the time. But again, there’s much more than there was a few years ago. 

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s editor-in-chief.