Steven Greenhouse on “The Challenges Facing America’s Workers and Labor Unions”

Greenhouse's seminars will be held every Thursday at 3pm. All seminars will be held in the IOP Living Room unless otherwise noted. All seminars are students only and closed to press/off the record.


In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in worker issues because of growing concern about income inequality, wage stagnation, globalization and automation and also because lawmakers in Wisconsin and several other states have sought to hobble labor unions. Public interest in worker issues has further increased in recent months because blue-collar workers delivered victory to Donald Trump in several crucial states of the Midwest.  

This eight-week seminar will examine the state of American workers, the rise and decline of America’s labor unions and how worker frustrations and organized labor’s decline combined to help elect Donald Trump. This seminar will also explore labor’s golden age and how America’s labor unions helped to build the world’s largest and richest middle class and how unions helped to bring us pensions, the New Deal, civil rights laws, Medicare, OSHA, Obamacare and more.

This seminar will also examine why America’s unions have declined, and what this decline means not just for workers, wage stagnation and income inequality but also for U.S. politics and for labor’s ability to fight to improve wages and working conditions in the Trump era and beyond. The seminar will explore how such developments as globalization, trade agreements, the gig economy and anti-labor political efforts have weakened unions. We will also take a close look at the Fight for 15, the Freelancers Union and other important, innovative recent efforts to fight for workers and reverse labor’s decline.

Steven Greenhouse was a reporter for the New York Times for 31 years, including 19 years as its labor and workplace reporter. He is author of “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker” and is writing a new book on worker advocacy and the current state – and future – of America’s workers and labor unions. 

Session 1 (April 6): The State of the American Worker - Economic Gain, Economic Pain and Why Did So Many Blue-collar Workers Vote for Donald Trump? | RSVP

Here we’ll take a deep look at how American workers are faring, examining such issues as the drop in unemployment, job growth and wage stagnation -- and why so many Americans think the economy is doing poorly. We’ll examine the forces that have pulled down many workers --- pressure from globalization, outsourcing and trade agreements, the spread of automation and robots, corporate America’s greater focus on maximizing profits and stock price, business’s increasing use of temps, part-timers and independent contractors, the GOP’s attacks on labor, and last but not least, the decline of labor unions.  

We will also explore how workers’ anxiety and frustrations, especially in the Midwest, caused millions of blue-collar workers, including many union members, to vote for Donald Trump.

Session 2 (April 13): How big is Big Labor’s role in politics? | RSVP

Here we will discuss numerous issues: How big is labor’s influence in political campaigns?  How much has labor’s political strength declined?  For example, how much has labor’s political clout in Wisconsin declined because the percentage of that state’s workers in unions (8 percent) has dropped to half the level of a decade ago? How much did labor’s weakness contribute to Trump’s victory and Clinton’s defeat? How does labor’s ground game work and how effective is it?

We will also examine whether labor’s political efforts are being swamped by billionaire donors and corporate America. Could labor even begin to compete when the Koch Brothers and their allies pledged to spend $889 million in the 2016 cycle? This seminar will also explore  what can be done to make labor more effective in political campaigns.

Guest Speaker: Michael Podhorzer (political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.)

Session 3 (April 20): The rise of labor unions in the U.S. and how unions like the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers helped build the world’s largest middle class | RSVP

Here we’ll do a broad survey of U.S. labor history – The Wobblies, Samuel Gompers, the Uprising of the 20,000, the Triangle Fire, the New Deal, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the Flint Sit-Down Strike, the UAW’s trailblazing contracts that were pivotal to establishing the middle class, the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968 strike in which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez, the rise of the public-sector union movement. We will also discuss how unions pushed for key legislation like Social Security, Medicare, civil rights laws and a higher minimum wage.

We will also look at some recent labor victories, such as those in digital media like Gawker and Huffington Post and those involving adjunct professors and graduate teaching and research assistants at campuses across the country. We will also discuss the recent minimum wage hikes that unions and worker advocates have won in numerous states and cities.

Session 4 (April 27): The Decline of America’s Labor unions and what it means for workers, the economy, and the future of America’s democracy | RSVP

Here we’ll examine in detail why American unions have declined.  Today, just 10.7% of workers belong to unions, down from a peak of 35% in the 1950s.  What are the factors behind this decline?  How much are offshoring, global competition and the decline of manufacturing responsible?  How much is corporate America responsible for this slide, by combating unionization drives and promoting right-to-work laws?  How much are unions responsible for their own decline?  How much have Republican attacks on labor, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, weakened unions?  Have the Democrats in ways hastened labor’s decline? We will also discuss whether the nation’s labor laws are obsolete and undermining unionization efforts.

Finally, what does the decline of labor unions and workers’ collective power mean for workers, wage stagnation, the economy and income inequality and what does the decline of labor mean for our democracy and for labor’s ability to fight for worker interests in the age of Donald Trump.  We’ll also look at President Trump’s developing relations with labor unions and what Trump is doing – and not doing – to help American workers.  Is he keeping his promise to America’s workers? 

Guest Speaker: Tom Geoghegan, prominent Chicago labor lawyer, former candidate for Congress and author

Session 5 (May 4): The Assault On Public-Sector Unions in Wisconsin, Illinois and other states | RSVP

Wisconsin and Illinois have long had some of the nation’s most powerful public-sector unions – powerful, for instance, in pushing for good pensions and health benefits and in electing worker-friendly Democratic lawmakers. But when GOP governors won office in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, they launched an assault against collective bargaining by public-sector unions. Many lawmakers said they backed this effort to save taxpayers money and to balance their budgets in the face of rising pension and health costs, but union leaders said it was all an attempt to cripple labor’s voice and political might.  We’ll take a close look at Wisconsin, but also look at the fights in Illinois, Ohio and Iowa. This is an ongoing fight and a continuing story in Illinois, with Governor Bruce Rauner pushing hard to hobble public-sector unions and weaken their ability to bargain collectively.  What are the arguments for, and against, public sector unions?  Where does public sentiment land on this issue?

Guest Speaker:  Roberta Lynch (executive director of the main Illinois district council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees)

Session 6 (May 11): The rise, the successes and the shortcomings of alternative worker advocacy groups | RSVP

As traditional unions have declined, numerous innovative efforts have sprouted up to battle for workers. These include the Freelancers Union, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Fight for 15. One of the most successful and innovative of these new groups is The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, based in Florida; it has waged an unusually effective campaign that has won better wages and working conditions for 40,000 immigrant farm workers – a particularly difficult group to organize.

We will examine what made these efforts so successful, and how they can be replicated in other industries and states.  How do the power and successes of these efforts compare with those of traditional labor unions? We will also examine other innovative efforts to advocate for workers, including the the Workers Defense Project of Austin, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and Arise Chicago.

Guest Speaker: Greg Asbed (co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

Session 7 (May 18): Two Newfangled Labor Efforts - The Fight for 15 and the unorthodox campaigns to organize workers in the Gig Economy a/k/a The On-Demand Economy  | RSVP

The Fight for 15 has been one of the most successful and innovative labor efforts in decades, mobilizing tens of thousands of workers and thrusting the issue of low wages into the national conversation. The Fight for 15 has helped get Seattle, California and much of New York State to adopt a $15 minimum wage and Chicago to adopt a $13 minimum.

Much of the talk today is about the on-demand economy – Uber has 500,000 drivers in the United States, and then there’s Lyft, Task Rabbit, Mechanical Turk, Upwork, Instacart and more. Here we’ll examine working conditions in the gig economy. Do they afford the great freedom and flexibility that gig-economy entrepreneurs boast or do they fall short, and what do these jobs mean for job security, pensions and being able to earn a solid living? 

We’ll discuss how much voice and power gig-economy workers have in their jobs, and  the challenge gig-economy workers in seeking to organize to improve their pay and working conditions.   We’ll look at efforts to unionize and advocate for gig-economy workers, such as the Freelancers Union, which has 300,000 members, and the new Seattle law aimed at helping Uber and Lyft drivers unionize. 

 Guest Speaker: Kendall Fells (organizing director of the Fight for 15)

Session 8 (May 25): Will Unions Rise Again, and If Not, Who Will Fight for American Workers? | RSVP  

Here we will discuss a pressing issue: With labor unions growing weaker, with the voice of workers in economics and politics growing ever fainter, what strategies are out there to reverse labor’s decline – especially in an era when the Republican-controlled Congress and so many state governments are eager to weaken unions? We will examine how unions are faring under President Trump. Also, what can be done to strengthen unions and other worker advocacy groups to improve the lot of workers and increase workers’ voice?  We will discuss what can be learned from recent successful unionization drives, whether labor laws should be updated and whether works councils in Germany can serve as a model. And what about the increased use of profit sharing to help workers and what about innovative pro-worker social media efforts like Another key issue: what, if anything, can be done with campaign finance laws to prevent business and the rich from swamping the voice of workers in politics, policy and lobbying?