As the national conversation about income inequality and corporate power continues, two new books by award-winning journalists are must-reads.
On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, an idealistic young labor worker was having tea with friends in New York’s Washington Square when the nearby Triangle Shirtwaist Company caught fire. Frances Perkins joined the crowd of helpless onlookers, who watched as 146 workers, many of them teenage girls, perished. It was a defining moment in labor history for many reasons, not the least of which was its enduring impact on Perkins, who became secretary of Labor for Franklin D. Roosevelt. She described that tragic afternoon as “the day the New Deal was born.”
Steven Greenhouse’s Beaten Down, Worked Up is a riveting reminder that most of us never learned this history in school. “Millions of Americans know little about what unions have achieved over American history, how the labor movement has played an important, often unsung role in making America the great nation it is today,” Greenhouse writes.
Yet he does more than focus on the labor movement’s milestones. By tracing what he calls “the downward arc of the union movement and of worker power,” he shows why income inequality in the United States is now worse than in any other industrialized nation. He also identifies obstacles to change in our political landscape and the campaign finance system. “That system,” he notes, “is dominated by ultra-wealthy, conservative (and vehemently anti-union) donors like the Koch brothers.”
Christopher Leonard picks it up from there. His extraordinary new book, Kochland, is the perfect complement to Greenhouse’s, providing a fascinating, in-depth analysis of Koch Industries and its astounding influence and power. Don’t let its 700-page length put you off: Leonard’s book reads like a thriller, and a dark one at that. It’s peopled with myriad characters as fascinating as those in “Game of Thrones” (and a dictionary of significant people is included).
Leonard begins his tour de force in 1981, when 45-year-old Charles Koch, who had run Koch Industries since the age of 32, turned down an offer to take Koch public. The strategy of remaining private has been integral to Koch’s success, Leonard argues, laying the foundation for “decades of continuous growth.” It’s also brought unimaginable wealth to Charles and David Koch, whose combined worth is estimated at $120 billion.
Leonard covers a lot of ground, but especially significant is a chapter analyzing Charles Koch’s long-held opposition to climate regulations. “A carbon-control regime would expose Koch to a brand-new regulatory structure, but it would also choke off decades of future profits as the world shifted away from burning fossil fuels,” Leonard tells us, reporting on a speech Charles Koch made in 2009.
Leonard devoted seven years to this book. In the acknowledgments he tells his kids that “all of it is for you.” Indeed, Kochland is essential reading for anyone concerned about the America our children and grandchildren will inherit.