In 1950, about a third of American private sector workers were union members. Today, it’s roughly a tenth. As the power of the unions declined, so did the number of labor reporters covering them. Brooke speaks to New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse who is one of just a handful of full-time labor reporters left at major papers.
BROOKE: Now, on to the labor beat. You might think the number of union workers in the U.S. has plummeted in recent years, but the fact is, the actual number of unionized workers actually isn’t down dramatically. The percentage of union members in the workforce is. In 1950, about a third of American workers were union members, now its roughly a tenth. And as the power of the unions declined, so has the number of labor reporters covering them. New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse is still on that beat. Welcome to the show...
GREENHOUSE: Great to be here.
BROOKE: So, the labor beat isn't dead. But give me an example of how it's currently limping along.
GREENHOUSE: The L.A. Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post all used to have full-time labor reporters. Many, many papers did. And now, as far as I can tell - just me and one reporter at the Wall Street Journal are the only full-time labor reporters at major newspapers. I used to go to the AFL-CO's winter meeting - and when I first went around 1995/1996 there must have been 15 reporters from daily newspapers. Now when I go to cover a AFL-CO meeting in the winter, sometimes I'm the only daily newspaper reporter. They'll be one of two wire reporters and then, three or four reporters from lefty newspapers that many people haven't heard of. The news media just don't think the AFL-CO and unions are very important.
BROOKE: Some of the reason for why they might they're not important is the aforementioned decline of unions. And some of this can also be chalked-up to the overall decline of papers, where are fewer resources. So, why put diminishing resources there?
GREENHOUSE: A lot of newspapers devote a few reporters to cover the Dow Jones Industrial Average, what's happening on Wall Street. Investors are interested in that, but 150 million Americans go to work everyday, every week. And they're interested in what's happening with wages. What to do about bullying bosses. You know, 'what happens if my company is not offering me paid sick days. Oh, pensions are disappearing. That's bad. What I'm a going to afford retirement.' I think there are many, many important, not necessarily union but workplace related issues that millions of workers are terribly interested and I think they'd love to see you know their newspapers writing more about them.
BROOKE: Give me an example of a story that you saw, and you wrote about because you're on the beat. Something that a general assignment report might have missed.
GREENHOUSE: So I flatter myself to think I'm a reasonably intelligent guy who keeps my ear to the ground. Two years ago I did a front page story about the growth part-time work and especially this very erratic, uneven scheduling where you might work 3 days a week and have a different schedule each day on the job. And that's creating havoc for workers. A) because the often don't get enough hours to live on and B) that makes it hard for them to go to college, to arrange childcare to take care of their ill parents. Because I follow developments in the field I talk to a lot of people. I get ideas for stories that many others do not.
BROOKE: Are there some stories that are routinely being missed because there aren't beat reporters there to see them anymore that would've once been covered.
GREENHOUSE: A few answers to that. I wrote a book in 2008 called The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. And the reason I wrote that book is that back in 2004/2005/2006/2007 under the Bush years when the stock market was a record levels, productivity was at record levels, corporate profits were at record levels, workers were doing very badly. Wages were more or less stagnant. More and more workers were losing pensions and healthcare. And that was getting very little coverage in the news media. And I thought there's something wrong there. That this was a huge story that there's a real disconnect between how companies are doing and how their workers are doing.
BROOKE: But you did say that some stories about the condition of workers has finally made it on to the front pages. And you've also observed that the number of labor reporters has ticked up recently.
GREENHOUSE: There's this big labor story in Wisconsin where Scott Walker the governor of Wisconsin tried to greatly reduce collectively bargaining. There was the big bankruptcy of GM and could the UAW and General Motors figure out a way to get the company out of bankruptcy. You had Michigan passing a right-to-work law. And the bankruptcy in Detroit is a very labor-related story. Then Occupy Wall Street really raised issues of inequality. And now we have this big fast food movement where thousands of fast food worker around the country demanding 15 dollars. And a think a lot of editors who for a while thought 'Hey we don't need labor reporters. Labor is a dead issue that doesn't really interest our advertisers very much.' I think a lot of editors are seeing that it's delinquent of them now not to have some reporter - maybe a half time reporter - who's covering labor issues because they just keeping pushing into the news. Some of the most emailed stories in the New York Times are stories about you know workplace trends, early retirement, discrimination in the workplace.
BROOKE: Do you think there's the same aggressive reporting when it comes to covering the plight of undocumented workers say in the US?
GREENHOUSE: No, unfortunately. There are stories that I sometimes say 'Gee, I wish the news media had written about this'. And then you'll see Colbert or the Daily Show do a very nice segment partly 'cause they think there's probably a vacuum of coverage in the mainstream news media.
Daily Show Clip: Farming. It's the backbone of this country. But did you know it benefits workers of all sizes? (male voice) "Children as young as 7 are legally working in US tobacco fields." Yes, according to a loophole in our labor laws, our hardworking tykes are free to pick as much tobacco as they want....
BROOKE: You didn't know about Samantha Bee's piece about kids and the tobacco fields, but you're about to come out with one yourself.
GREENHOUSE: Yes. But we're not aloud to discuss on the radio till it appears. I think a lot of what's happened is that editors that grew up in the 1930s grew up living breathing labor issues. Union issues. Strikes. The depression. Editors who grew up in the 1970s - they knew much less about unions - they're just not interested in assigning union stories. Unions you know have a real challenge. They're often perceived as not very interesting not very innovative. But I think that's change somewhat in recent years. With things like the Service Employees Union 'Justice for Janitors' campaign. Unions try to re-invent themselves by kinda forming economic justice movement. This fast food workers movement, it's really gotten huge public interest. Especially among millions of young people. And that's also getting coverage in newspapers, on TV and on The Daily Show.
BROOKE: Thank you very much.
GREENHOUSE: You're very welcome.
BROOKE: Stephen Greenhouse is THE labor reporter for the New York Times.
Daily Show Clip: What will be next? Will they not be able to be out in the heat picking pumpkins? Will they not be able to pick green beans? Samantha Bee: First they came for our child tobacco farmers, and I said nothing... because I had acute nicotine poisoning and was doubled over in pain. Male voice: You never appreciate a good job, until you've had a bad one. Bee: You're so right, those children are going to appreciate the sh-t out of their next job.