Sarah Anderson

Sarah Anderson: Things are bad but have been much worse for unions

The Knights of Labor seal.

The Knights of Labor seal.


The U.S. Supreme Court has just dealt unions a bruising blow. In a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that public-sector employees who benefit from unions’ collective-bargaining services will no longer have to pay for them.

At least initially, this is expected to result in a steep drop in union resources and bargaining capacity, which will likely reduce employee pay. One Illinois university study, for example, predicts that public-school teacher salaries in that state will drop by an average of 5.4 percent.

But over the course of its turbulent history, the American labor movement has survived much worse. And it will find a way to get back on its feet.

One of my ancestors was in the center of the drama during one of labor’s most roiling eras. Albert G. Denny, my great-grandmother’s brother, started out as a child laborer in a glass factory. He eventually became the national organizer for the Knights of Labor, the leading voice for U.S. workers in the 1880s.  

Compared to the challenges Albert faced in the 19th Century, the new threat against organized labor still seems bad — but not as bad.

Teachers in several states have already been striking over low pay and school underfunding. In my great-uncle’s day, that could get you shot.

As a young glass blower in Pittsburgh in 1877, Albert witnessed one of the most violent attacks on labor in our nation’s history. When railroad workers there joined a nationwide strike, the governor sent in militia, who opened fire on the workers, killing 20. After more than a month of conflict, federal troops marched in and crushed the strike.

Within a few years of this tragedy, the labor movement began to rebound. Albert became secretary of a glassworkers union that effectively negotiated over wages, apprenticeships and other labor conditions. Later he became the lead organizer for the Knights of Labor, which grew rapidly to represent 20 percent of all U.S. workers by 1886.

The anti-union violence, however, didn’t end.

I have a copy of a telegram Albert sent the head of the Knights of Labor after learning that railroad baron Jay Gould’s goons had shot into a crowd of strikers in East St. Louis, killing six. “You should have Gould arrested and tried for accessory to murder,” Albert wrote.

Instead, the strike failed, Gould got richer, and the Knights of Labor began to implode. Membership plummeted from 800,000 in 1886 to 100,000 in 1890 — an even faster nosedive than the modern labor movement’s decline, from 17.7 million in 1983 to 14.8 million in 2017.

But out of the Knights’ ashes, new forms of organizing took shape. By the 1930s, the movement was powerful enough to push President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to enact landmark labor legislation that workers still benefit from today, including the minimum wage and the 40-hour week.  

Once again, American workers will need to find new ways to build power against big money interests. Fortunately, this is already beginning.

In anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling, public-sector unions have been much more proactively reaching out to their members, hearing about their needs and concerns, and broadening the scope of their efforts beyond pay and benefits to immigrant rights, racial justice, and other social issues.

Traditionally non-unionized workers are also making some progress. Advocates for restaurant servers, for example, just won a Washington, D.C. ballot vote to eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers.

My great-uncle Albert Denny’s union hall is still standing in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood, but it’s a deli/whiskey bar now. Some things change. But the need for working people to be able to come together to negotiate over conditions that affect their lives will not.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-edits Follow her at @Anderson_IPS. 

Sarah Anderson: Past time to go after the opioid-epidemic profiteers



Travis Bornstein never told his friends about his son Tyler’s drug problem. He was too embarrassed.

Then, on September 28, 2014, Tyler’s body was found in a vacant lot in Akron, Ohio. The 23-year-old had become addicted to opioid pain killers after several sports-related injuries and surgeries. Unable to afford long-term treatment, he ultimately turned to a cheaper drug — the heroin that killed him.

“Now I have no choice but to speak out,” the elder Bornstein, president of Teamsters Local 24 in Akron, told a crowd of thousands at the union’s convention in 2016. As he shared the unvarnished tale of how a middle-class, star athlete wound up in that vacant lot, Bornstein lit a fire under the 1.4-million-member organization.

The Teamsters pledged $1.4 million for a nonprofit organization the Bornstein family set up to expand treatment for addicts in Ohio. They’re also going after the drug industry CEOs who’ve been profiting off a national opioid problem of epidemic proportions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription drugs and heroin) has quadrupled since 1999. In 2015, opioid deaths in the United States hit a record-breaking 33,000.


The labor union is targeting the three largest U.S. prescription-drug wholesalers — McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen — for flooding hard-hit areas with the highly addictive pills.

Between 2008 and 2012, for example, these companies shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone opioid doses to West Virginia — 433 for every man, woman, and child in the state. During that time period, 1,728 people in the state overdosed on the painkillers.

The companies deny any wrongdoing, pointing the finger instead at corrupt doctors and pharmacists who sell pills directly to addicts and dealers. But as West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin recently told the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “Obviously, they had to know, with a state this size, and that many pills coming in, that something wasn’t right.”

The Teamsters are using their clout as pension fund investors to demand that drug wholesalers take responsibility for their role in the epidemic, conduct full investigations of their distribution practices, and hold CEOs accountable.

At AmerisourceBergen, for example, CEO Steven Collis hasn’t coughed up a penny of the tens of millions of dollars he pocketed as the firm was reaping opioid windfalls — even though the company has paid $16 million to settle a West Virginia case over their negligence.

The Teamsters are demanding that some of the CEO’s pay be “clawed back,” in the same way that Wells Fargo executives involved in last year’s bogus account scandal had to forfeit some of their compensation.

They’ve made similar demands on McKesson, where CEO John Hammergren’s compensation has amounted to an astounding $368 million over the past five years.

Part of the problem with accountability at McKesson, according to the Teamsters, is the fact that Hammergren serves as both CEO and chairman of the company. The union is filing a shareholder resolution urging the board to appoint an independent chair.

Meanwhile, Travis Bornstein is continuing to speak out, telling his son Tyler’s tragic story to students, policymakers, and others as he works to expand the availability of drug treatment for communities ravaged by the opioid crisis.

Since Tyler’s death, he’s learned that opioid addiction isn’t a moral failure, but rather a disease, like cancer or diabetes. “Now my son is my hero for everything he was able to accomplish with such a gut-wrenching disease,” Bornstein said. “I was the fool.”

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-edits 

Sarah Anderson: Leaf blowers' assault on our health

Leaf blower

When new neighbors moved in next door, I didn’t hold off long before broaching the Big Question.Even though we live in Washington, D.C., this had nothing to do with politics. For me, neighborly harmony hinges on where folks stand on this divide: leaf blower vs. rake.You see, I’m one of those otherwise calm individuals who goes totally bonkers at the sound of a leaf blower. It would be different if this infernal racket served some useful purpose. When I go to the dentist, the drill doesn’t make my blood boil. I accept that without it, my teeth would rot.When a leaf blower cranks up, I can find no logical justification for my suffering. In a recent article for AlterNet, former Consumer Reports editor Cliff Weathers presents a frightening litany of their multiple hazards.

“Leaf blowers don’t just blow away leaves and lawn clippings,” Weathers wrote. “Their 180- to 200-mph air output blasts away topsoil, microbial life forms, animal waste, allergic fungi, spores, herbicides, pesticides, and even heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and lead.”

That’s gross and scary, but the worst part is what these gizmos do to your health. “This toxic cocktail of engine emissions and dust particulates can exacerbate allergies and asthma in children and adults, and aggravate acute pulmonary disorders,” Weathers explained.

The American Lung Association says we should all steer clear of gasoline-powered blowers, the most popular type. So why are they still in use?

For decades now, manufacturers and many landscaping companies have worked to block anti-leaf-blower efforts. A favorite tactic: Make it seem like opponents are all extremely rich, and possibly even racist. With low-income Latinos making up a large share of landscaping workers, these are sensitive charges.

It’s true that  rich white enclaves were among the first to ban blowers. In California, Carmel and Beverly Hills made the move back in the 1970s. But in most of the country, the higher-income set continues to drive demand for these dangerous beasts.

Industry lobbyists downplay the risks while claiming that regulations will lead to higher costs and fewer jobs. But good old non-motorized tools are cheaper than leaf blowers and, according to several tests, nearly as fast.

In his AlterNet article, Weathers cites a competition the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water organized that pitted a grandmother with a rake and broom against a professional landscaper with a leaf blower. Granny gave him a run for his money.

Detailed analysis of the employment impacts of blower bans is hard to find and enforcement is tough. But it’s clear that in California, where about 20 cities, including Los Angeles, have banned blowers, the landscaping industry has hardly collapsed.

About 103,000 Californians are employed in this industry, and landscapers make up a larger share of the workforce there than in other big states like Texas, New York, and Illinois. California’s median wage in this business is $13.75 per hour, more than 20 percent higher than the median in Florida and Texas.

Nationwide, the areas with the highest concentration of landscaping and groundskeeping jobs include some of the hoity-toitiest holiday and retirement spots. No. 1: Nantucket Island and Martha’s Vineyard, where the Obama family vacationed this year.

If a critical mass of these communities banned leaf blowers, it would transform the landscaping industry away from reliance on machines that are senselessly endangering health and welfare — especially for the workers who operate them.

In response to my Big Question, our new neighbors laughed and assured me I didn’t need to worry about which side they were on. This was a relief. But in a city that restricts leaf-blower hours but hasn’t banned them, I’m still dreading the fall season.

As in past years, I’ll probably hear three or four machines blasting within a few blocks of my yard, while I — quietly raking — try to maintain my sanity.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.    This originated at