‘Beaten Down, Worked Up’

 

Steven Greenhouse, Knopf, 397 pages, $27.95. A dozen years ago, migrant workers in the “winter tomato capital” of Immokalee, Fla., arrived for work around 7 a.m. but had to wait up to four hours, unpaid, for the sun to dry the plants before they could start picking and start getting paid. For many, the goal was to earn $60 a day, which meant picking 4,800 pounds of tomatoes in the blistering sun without any breaks or shade. As Greenhouse writes in his new book, “Beaten Down, Worked Up,” crew leaders regularly cheated pickers out of $10 or $15 of their wages or withheld pay altogether. The pickers’ troubles reflect worker conditions in the United States at the extreme, Greenhouse suggests. But millions of workers generally face dire circumstances. Greenhouse tells the history of the labor movement through the 20th century to today. He recounts some of labor’s greatest successes, such as a 1950 agreement between the United Auto Workers and General Motors, and he resurrects some of labor’s greatest failures, such as air traffic controllers’ unsuccessful strike in 1981. Greenhouse clearly links strong unions to worker well-being. But his book is no paean to unions, which he holds partly responsible for the labor movement’s setbacks, yet tells of the complexities confronting them in the modern economy and how they must adjust. The organizers who led the campaign in Immokalee adapted their strategy to the new world of the investor-dominant corporation. They waged war not only against the fast-food giants but also against Goldman Sachs, a private-equity investor in Burger King.

WASHINGTON POST