Last week, veteran New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse — widely regarded as the oldest hand on a beat that’s waned with the power of organized labor itself — announced he was taking a buyout, and will work on another book about workers (the last one is six years old, after all). We caught up with him to talk about his last three decades covering American workers.

New York Times veteran Steven Greenhouse is on his way out. (Photo by James Estrin) Steven Greenhouse (Photo by James Estrin)

How did you get into covering labor?

My parents were very active in the civil rights movement, they had me listening to Pete Seeger when I was growing up. I guess growing up in New York, you were kind of alert to what was happening in labor. The people  who participated in the March on Washington in 1963, the person who led that was A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porters Union. So I guess I was more attuned to labor than many other people.

You went to law school and did a stint clerking for a federal judge. Why leave law to do journalism?

My first job out of college was as a lackey copy boy at the New York Times, sorting mail, getting coffee. I did that for a year, and after that applied to law school and journalism school. I got into Columbia Journalism School and NYU Law School, and decided to go to journalism school. Then I worked for a year at the Chelsea-Clinton News — that’s Hells Kitchen — and then I went to the Bergen Record, and the Hackensack Record, where I covered economics and labor, believe it or not. I wasn’t very happy at that newspaper, so I decided to go to law school, and I did very well in law school. While I was at law school, I realized the actual work of what one does day to day, that journalism was more fun and intellectually stimulating, I found, than being a lawyer. I decided that if I could get a job at the New York Times or The Washington Post, I would do that rather than being a lawyer. I was a clerk for a federal judge for a year, and I felt blessed that John Lee, then the New York Times business editor, offered me a job as a reporter in September 1983. Many lawyers have said to me that they’re envious that I have such an interesting job, and I turn around and say I’m envious that you’re making five times as much as I am.

You started at a pretty interesting time for the labor movement — as it was really headed into decline. Where did unions go wrong? Were there avoidable mistakes?

For two decades, maybe three decades, unions fell asleep at the wheel in terms of organizing. Under the late George Meany, and under Lane Kirkland, they were working very hard to represent the workers, but they didn’t work hard to grow and add members. During the 1980s, businesses became much more aggressive in demanding concessions from unions in collective bargaining. That was spurred in part by President Reagan firing the air traffic controllers in 1981 for their illegal strike. And also there was the horrific recession of 1982, and that combined with the real pressures of globalization, in the steel industry, tire industry, oil industry. American companies thought they needed to get much more serious about pulling down costs, fighting foreign competition, and they saw that the way to do that was to get much much tougher in fighting labor unions.

When did unions figure out that something was wrong?

In my view, one of the reasons why John Sweeney was elected [as head of the AFL-CIO] in 1995 was that the leaders of other unions realized that labor was doing far too little organizing, that labor was too defensive. He was trying to show more energy to grow and fight back. So in 1995, he had what looked like a very promising plan to reverse labor’s decline. And he got the AFL-CIO to spend far more money on organizing; he worked very hard to ally with immigrants, with young workers, with faith leaders.

If you had a management consultant come up with the 10 things labor needed to do to turn around, I think Sweeney did eight or nine of those things. And even so, labor was really not able to reverse its slide. The main reason for that was continued very strong and sophisticated resistance to unionization drives. And a second factor is that unions were asleep at the wheel in the 1970s and ’80s about spreading their message and making people realize that union members weren’t just a bunch of well-paid workers trying to maintain their privileges and great benefits, didn’t do enough to explain to the public at large the advantages, especially to lower-wage workers.

So when in the late 1990s unions were really trying to rally people, I think a lot of the workforce knew very little about unions, didn’t care about unions, what they heard about unions was always negative, like unions were involved in a strike, closing down rail, there was a fight with teachers unions demanding more wages. Unions allowed themselves to be seen in the negative. If unions were going to turn around, they needed to show more that they were a positive force, that they deliver for workers and society.

In 1995, when John Sweeney led this new voice of labor movement, they saw real promise in turning around and expanding the labor movement. And I think the big difference now with Richard Trumka is they realize, labor’s gotten much weaker, and we really need to ally themselves with other powerful groups in society, with environmental groups, and immigrant groups and progressive community groups. And they realized that labor has been knocked down so many pegs that to really achieve a higher minimum wage or better safety standards, you can’t get that through Congress, it can’t elect the friendly lawmakers it needs unless it works with African American groups, environmental groups, and so on.

Unions still hope to grow by organizing workers, but they’re not having much success. And many rational union leaders could say, ‘I could invest a million dollars to organize 5,000 workers,’ and rationally conclude that ‘the chances of winning are small because if I invest that much, they’ll send consultants and lawyers and besides a lot of workers may not be that interested.’ So I think a lot of unions are saying it’s not worth throwing a lot of money behind organizing right now. But I think unions are worried that their membership is declining, and the have less dues money coming in, so that means they can do less in organizing, less in politics, and so they’re in a sorry cycle downward and they’re trying very hard to figure out how to reverse that.

So the SEIU has been looking for ways to mobilize low-wage workers. And UFCW has been trying very hard to mobilize OUR Walmart workers. There are a lot of unhappy fast-food workers who feel they’re underpaid, and SEIU saw there was a large pool of unhappiness among the nation’s 4 million fast food workers. So it’s spent several million dollars to get this movement rolling, and I think it’s really caught fire now. I think a lot of fast-food workers are eager to get involved and to protest and to push McDonalds, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, to pay them more.

Whether they can achieve $15, fast-food workers paid just below $9, that’s a very big leap. And you would expect the companies and their franchises to fight it very very hard.

“I do not doubt that if an election were held tomorrow, a majority of the 15 workers or the 22 workers at this restaurant or that restaurant would back a union. But it would be very, very, very hard to get a contract. “

Secondly, the SEIU hopes to figure out a way to unionize these workers. And I do not doubt that if an election were held tomorrow, a majority of the 15 workers or the 22 workers at this restaurant or that restaurant would back a union. But it would be very, very, very hard to get a contract. The SEIU would have to spend millions of dollars on lawyers seeking to negotiate a contract, and it’s going to be very hard to get the companies to agree. So the union’s trying to figure out a way to pressure the parent companies to pressure their franchisees into agreeing to unionization somehow. And if the SEIU pulls that off, it would be a huge coup, but that’s a big “if.”  And it’s conceivable that a unionized franchisee might close down, just like Walmart closed down its first unionized store in Canada.

Are the new employment opportunities created by the “sharing economy” good for workers? Or is it just degrading the quality of what it means to have a job?

First of all, we use this euphemism, ride-sharing. but really, they’re commercial drivers trying to pick up customers — it’s really not “sharing.” If I take my good friend and his kid to a soccer game,that’s ride-sharing , and I’m not charging for that. Ride-sharing is this euphemism that the industry has gotten the public to use. Airbnb, that’s sharing. Maybe in its infancy, Lyft was ride-sharing, but it’s gone way, way beyond that.

So clearly a lot of consumers like Uber and Lyft and Airbnb. But we have a lot of entrants into the labor market, and that’s driving down prices, and that’s great for consumers, and it’s been great for the owners of Uber, because they have this amazing $40 billion valuation. But there are many more people competing to provide rides to consumers. And I think that’s going to be less income for all these drivers, because you have the same size or slightly larger group of consumers, and there isn’t going to be enough money to go around, and at some point there’s going to be a shakeout.

There are some workers who like the gig economy because it gives them more freedom. But I think a whole lot of people want a full-time, steady job. It provides economic security, family security, the security of knowing I will work from 10 to 5 each day and take my kids to day care. People in the gig economy also don’t know if they’re going to make $75 this week or $750 this week.

This is all part of a larger discussion about inequality. Do you think New York Times readers today are less aware than they used to be of the struggles of the kinds of low-wage workers you cover?

In World War II, the rich kid whose father owned a business in Canton, Ohio, or Cincinnati, or Worcester, Mass., fought in the same trench as the son of a Slovak immigrant who was making $8 an hour. Really, coming out of the 1940s, there was a sense that we are a nation in crisis and we all need to pull together. And I think in the 1950s and ’60s, that sense of solidarity really continued. And the rich kid that was the son of the corporate officer in a trench with a poor kid who became a head of HR in the 1960s, they didn’t feel the need to really squeeze the other people. And I think that came out of this national sense of solidarity under President Eisenhower.

And that has changed, and one could say that changed with the people who embraced Ayn Rand, the rise of the Chicago School of Economics, the change in the structure of American capitalism, where it became much less management-driven. In the 1980s you had more financial capitalism, greater pressure from globalization, the huge wave of downsizing in the 1990s, there was much more pressure to maximize profits and share price, and much less focus on making sure Janie and Joe Six-pack will be making a good weekly paycheck.

My parents were born in the 1920s and grew up in the Great Depression. And I remember my mother saying (fast-forward to 2011 with the fight over unionization in Wisconsin and collective bargaining): When I was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s, people said, “Look at what these union members have. They have good wages, they have good working conditions, they have good pensions, good vacations; I want that, I’m jealous of them.” And my mother said, “What happened in American society where now people look at union members and say they have too much, that’s not fair, let’s take it away from them.”

“And my mother said, ‘What happened in American society where now people look at union members and say they have too much, that’s not fair, let’s take it away from them.’”

Partly that’s because lots of union members are public-sector workers, and people think we’re paying for their pensions. And part of it is this decline in togetherness and solidarity. Now, the rich kids go away to Ivy League schools and live in gated communities and take vacations in Nantucket, and the upper middle class and the rich are much, much, much more removed from blue-collar Americans than they were in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. They don’t even see the economic deprivation many Americans face, and the challenges that tens of millions of people in the middle class face.

You told Gawker that you think it’s still really important to go to college. But there’s been all this pushback to that idea, since it costs so much, and we need more people with practical degrees in things like welding and nursing. So is a college degree really all that essential?

I do believe to maximize one’s chances of economic success, of getting a good job to support oneself and one’s family, it’s more important than ever to go to college. Having said that, I realize that many college graduates are not getting good-paying jobs. But the premium of how much more college  graduates are making above high school graduates is at record levels.

Among the problems America faces is that many workers can’t afford to go to college. Whenever I write about the fast-food workers, I’m flooded with e-mails saying: “Why don’t they just go to college?” And I write back saying: If you’re a single parent, or a married couple, making $8 an hour, it’s very hard to afford to go to college, and they wish they had parents who could shell out $50,000 a year.

And the second part is, even if they’re all able to go to college, then we need another 100,000 people to take their fast-food jobs. And if they were all making $8 an hour, they’d still be struggling — many of them would be living in poverty. And the fastest-growing jobs in America in terms of absolute numbers are all jobs that generally pay $8, $10, $12 an hour. So, many people say, all these people should go to college. But we’re still going to need people to do these jobs, and we as a society have to decide whether we think society should support all those people through food stamps, heating aid, Medicaid, when they’re earning $8 or $10 an hour.

What story were you most proud of?

I am extremely proud of the stories I did with Jim Yardley and Julfikar Ali Manik about the horrific apparel industry tragedies in Bangladesh, both Tazreen and Rana Plaza. After those two tragedies, I lost sleep for many nights about how Western industry allowed this to go on, and turned their eyes away from the safety problems. And I felt very proud that Jim and Julfikar and I and the whole New York Times were really eager to shine a light on the problems and how this came to pass.

Some of the most interesting developments in labor recently have come as a result of worker centers — so-called alt-labor — not unions. Can they do what unions did back in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s?

For years, unions did not do enough to try to organize and mobilize low-wage workers. And especially immigrant workers — they were very unhappy, and as this Department of Labor report showed, many of them faced overtime violations, minimum wage violations, hours erased from their paychecks. So these groups popped up around the country, like the Workers Defense Project in Austin, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, the Domestic Workers Alliance in New York and now many other places. They’re not labor unions. Some of them are backed by unions, but they have the same type of vitality, energy and enthusiasm that unions had in the 1930s. And they have won gains for workers, but nothing like the gains that unions made, because they just don’t have the power to really strike and shut things down.

The Workers Defense Project in Austin got Apple to promise to pay more, to promise to provide safety training, to make sure their contractors pay workers compensation. Those are real gains, but unions in their heyday used to win far more.

I remember I was interviewing a top AFL-CIO official a few months ago, and she said a huge problem that American workers face is that they have lost the reflex for collective action, and until workers band together in some form of collective action, it’s going to be really hard for them to make gains. And now with the fast-food movement, and to a lesser degree with OUR Walmart and the protests of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, etc., we’re seeing some seeds of collective action that are beginning to make a difference for non-union workers. And, yes, some of these efforts are backed by unions, sometimes openly, sometimes behind the scenes.