Thomas Geoghegan, Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement, (New York: The New Press, 2014), 244 pages, $25.95.
Labor lawyer and union attorney Thomas Geoghegan has returned with another book that starts with a question. “Do you think labor will ever come back?” Geoghegan never answers yes or no, but as the title suggests, he argues the economy and the middle class will never do well if the labor movement does not revive.
The book has twelve chapters divided into three sections. The six chapters in the first section identify and discuss a variety of specific problems that plague the labor movement and the middle class.
We learn early the author is sixty-five years old and thinking how much longer he will have to work to keep living in the disappearing middle class. The stories and discussion in Chapter One introduce matters Geoghegan takes up later in detail. Include in this list the Democratic party that does so little for labor; that more education alone will not reduce inequality; that Senate filibuster rules and gerrymandering U.S. House districts help prevent labor law reform; that organized or unorganized labor should consider a variety of hit-and run political style strikes and disruptions. And most important America has to restore the labor movement to keep what’s left of the middle class.
Chapter two, entitled “There’s No Middle Class,” suggests the low and stagnate wages eroding the middle class result from deliberate policies of business. Management expects to hire and fire at will without regard for the effect on the middle class. Discussion compares practices and attitudes at American companies like Boeing and Caterpillar with business operations in Germany. In the U.S. innovation comes only from the top; in Germany it also comes from the bottom.
In Chapter three Geoghegan declares labor too weak to fight, at least with the old and conventional methods. Too many legal and constitutional limitations along with too much hostility in bad press generate fear or indifference in the working class. Here he describes building a labor movement that targets short-term strikes and disruptions.
Geoghegan continues with the disruption argument in Chapter four by writing about the 2012 Chicago teachers strike. This chapter is the first of two lengthy discussions of Chicago’s public education, which comes up again in Chapter nine. Georghegan lives in Chicago and he was the attorney for the Chicago teachers union for two years before the strike so readers get a detailed discussion of education and labor abuses by Democrat Rahm Emanuel and his cronies. He concludes strikes today must be political strikes, as opposed to demands for economic negotiations. With disruption and publicity the Democrats might get embarrassed enough and nervous enough to actually do something for labor.
In Chapter five Geoghegan offers a personal story from his run for the U.S. House in a Chicago district. He tells readers only 11 thousand votes were cast for the winning candidate when there were more union members than that who could have given him a victory. Here he blames labor leaders when the rank and file split their vote or didn’t vote at all; he hopes they will stop fretting about right to work states and confront reality. He makes the charge that organized labor acts at times like a bunch of elite academics.
Next lawyer Geoghegan becomes economist Geoghegan by discussing John Maynard Keynes book, General Theory of Employment Interest and Money. The General Theory is not a general theory at all, but a theory of special cases. The book was published in 1936 in the middle of worldwide depression, but economists still insisted economies operate as self-regulating markets where unemployment would be temporary until lower wages and interest rates restore full production and employment. Keynes identified potential conditions where markets fail and do not work. He cautioned falling wages might not restore full employment for decades, or ever.
Geoghegan uses several of Keynes special case discussions to warn readers that America’s ever bigger personal debt, government debt, and foreign debt are symbols of today’s market failures. Geoghegan expects the failures to continue unless the labor movement recovers to restore middle class buying power.
Part Two entitled Education and Democracy has three chapters. Here Geoghegan ask why demoralize the party base by pushing college education as a savior for the working class? Census data show about 35 percent of adult Americans have a BA degree or above and Bureau of Labor Statistics data show only about 25 to 26 percent of Americans jobs need college degree skills. By acting like college degrees will solve the country’s problems, Obama and the Democratic Party ignore and disenfranchise 65 percent of the working class. The Democratic base votes Republican and Geoghegan argues they will continue unless the Democrats work to restore the labor movement in the way the government built the labor movement in the great depression.
Chapter eight reviews the educational principles of John Dewey, an early twentieth century writer and educator. Dewey believed schools in a democracy should teach children to act collectively as part of a community. Successful education gives children the confidence to extend democracy everywhere into politics, work, schools, and neighborhoods. Chapter nine looks at the dismal record of employee participation and democracy in the workplace and at the growing demand by corporate America to privatize the schools.
Part III has three chapters of hope and policy. Geoghegan begins this section by declaring labor must come back as something different if it can come back at all. The new labor movement needs to involve members who can and will do more for themselves and with less dues revenue.
Then he makes three proposals for change. The first suggests amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by adding to the list of discrimination from race, creed, color, age, and gender with the phrase “and on the basis of union membership.” The legal differences of labor law and civil rights law get a thorough review and evaluation. Here there is excellent discussion of Martin Luther King’s efforts to link civil rights with the goals of organized labor and end the legacy of slavery.
The second proposal wants to end the filibuster rule, which Geoghegan thinks of as the “ultimate” labor law in that historically it assured the defeat of Congressional efforts to end slavery, the ultimate system of cheap labor. More recently it was used to defeat labor law reform and to neutralize labor law enforcement by blocking nominees for the National Labor Relations Board. Here discussion becomes a speculative conversation of problems and possibilities with an emphasis on hope.
The third proposal wants to change corporate law, which is broken because there is no stockholder influence, nor input from employees that work in a dictatorship. Geoghegan recommends that states require corporations to have elected work committees to monitor compliance with labor law and contracts, or to have employees serve on corporate boards to increase managerial accountability. Here the pros are assumed; cons do not exist in a discussion of political possibilities and the chances it can result.
That concludes Chapter ten, which brings two more proposals for change in Chapter eleven, entitled if “All Else Fails.” The two additional proposals are not overt legislation like those in Chapter Ten, but they amount to a change of attitude and practice by organized labor. The first proposal recommends that organized labor work toward more employee participation in managerial decision making. He describes German labor relations that include a thorough discussion of the UAW efforts to organize works councils in the VW plant at Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The second proposal in Chapter Ten suggests giving up on exclusive representation and organizing a minority in the workplace willing to pay their dues. Here Geoghegan raises a variety of political, legal and practical pros and cons. He parcels blame to the right wing that wants to bust organized labor, and to organized labor for getting complacent with the money from agency shop fees and exclusive representation. There is also some more dark discussion of Supreme Court rulings. Geoghegan finishes part III with a short Chapter Eleven confined to hope, as the title “Why We Live in Hope” implies.
The book has the elements of a serious academic tract but tilts away from academia in a chatty conversational voice, which could be unique. There is technical discussion of labor law. Also the book does not use references or supply a bibliography, although reference to some authors and titles appear in the text. The book does have an index.
Geoghegan likes to summarize the merits and demerits of back and forth conversations with peers, colleagues and friends. At one point he is having dinner with a friend in a Washington restaurant and the conversation turns to labor reform. He recounts the conversation, but his friend’s conclusions leave him in shock; he did not realize how few Democrats in high places are friends of labor.
He also likes to ask questions and sometimes doubts his answers as in “Of course, I’m being ridiculous” and go on to elaborate the complications. He likes to repeat controversial conclusions others tend to avoid and then to add another jab or two for good measure as when he mentions the GOP stole the 2000 election, and then adds but nobody cares.
Books like this need hope and this one has hope, but I also read his first book, “Which Side Are You On?” That book maps out the many problems for organized labor as of 1991 with a clear discussion of the elements of labor law and the problems of negotiating and administering collective bargaining contracts. He did that in much the same conversational style he uses now, but I do not recall lots of optimism in his earlier work. In the twenty-five years since 1991 labor, and organized labor, has continued in decline, but I feel relieved he did not measure hope then with hope now. I hope what’s left is not as small as it appears to be in 2016.