A Shaky Solidarity

Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement BY Thomas Geoghegan. New Press, The. Hardcover, 272 pages. $25.

The cover of Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement

I doubt any writer has suffered longer over the plight of American unions or described their troubles more vividly than Thomas Geoghegan. His first book, Which Side Are You On? (1991), managed to make the struggle to revive what he called the “dumb, stupid mastodon” of organized labor seem heroic, even as the author feared it might be hopeless. Mixing personal anecdotes with his deep knowledge of history and law, Geoghegan, who has been toiling in Chicago as a union-side attorney since Jimmy Carter was a failing president, narrated the movement’s decline through a series of poignant and/or outrageous tales: a charismatic insurgent’s losing campaign to gain control of the steelworkers’ union, the numbing bureaucracy of the grievance and pension systems, the impotence of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in preventing bosses from firing workers who attempt to organize a union.

Since Which Side, Geoghegan has written a number of other smart, engaging books and essays, nearly all of which belong to an unappreciated genre one might dub If Only nonfiction. If only the United States emulated the efficient welfare state in Germany and its cross-class partnerships, which encourage employees at places like Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz to take part in running their businesses. If only we had a legal system that gave wage earners who sue their employers a decent chance of defeating the gaudy teams of attorneys arrayed against them. If only more Americans recognized that unions, for all their problems, are one of the sole forms of democratic citizens’ action that have survived the relentless fetishism of commodified politics. If only the right to form a union were added to the Civil Rights Act, enabling workers to take despotic employers to federal court instead of having to rely on an NLRB that is perpetually underfunded and hamstrung by partisan division.

In 2009, Geoghegan ran for Congress to fill the seat in Chicago vacated by Rahm Emanuel, who had just been appointed President Obama’s chief of staff. As quixotic on the stump as on the page, he vowed to bring “economic security to working Americans”; prominent liberal journalists like Rick Perlstein and James Fallows enlisted in his cause. But in a crowded Democratic primary, Geoghegan pulled down less than 3 percent of the vote.

Undaunted, he continues to roll his little stone of hope uphill with vigor and wit, albeit with louder huffs of exasperation. His new book, despite its title, focuses more on what he views as the three prime culprits in the making of our unequal America—its corporate autocracy, its schools, and its austerity economics—than on the travails of the unions themselves. Labor may be the one thing that can save us, but to do so, argues Geoghegan, it will have to emerge from its defensive crouch and speak out for the good of society as a whole. To become a savior rather than a victim, it will also need a great deal of help from a worker-friendly Democratic Party that does not yet exist. “Like it or not,” he writes sadly, “the word ‘union’ brings up too many mixed feelings. I hope one day we can detoxify the word.”

In the meantime, Geoghegan has an ambitious agenda—or, better, wish list—for labor and its progressive friends to pursue. First, they should demand that workers have a degree of power in deciding how their companies are run and for what ends. He still sees the German system of “co-determination,” in which labor-elected officials sit on corporate boards of directors, as a model. But he also hails the unionized nurses in our country, who go on strike not solely for more pay but to force hospital administrators to hire enough staff to ensure that patients get the care they need. For Geoghegan, the best recent example of labor militance in the public interest occurred in Chicago during the fall of 2012. The local teachers’ union, which he represented in court, walked off the job to demand smaller class sizes, the preservation of neighborhood schools, and better upkeep of classrooms—and they won. For him, “the teachers are like the nurses: their strikes come not just out of anger but out of compassion.”

Of course, this sterling image of the women and men who educate our children clashes with the tarnished one put forth not just by Tea Partiers, who detest every civic institution, but also by such influential school “reformers” as Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education. Geoghegan ridicules their critique of unions that allegedly keep incompetent members on the job, dooming poor children to a life of ignorance and drudgery. The charge, he scoffs, is ludicrously overblown: “Indeed, to hear the Democrats talk, bad teachers are everywhere. . . . And that’s why it’s easy to imagine a young Marlon Brando, mourning: ‘I . . . I could have been a contender—but I got that old Miss Grundy in the fourth grade!’”

Blaming a few subpar teachers, Geoghegan argues, evades what’s really wrong with the American educational system, which pre-selects the already privileged for success while condemning poorer students to economic neglect. He accuses politicians from both parties of overhyping the necessity of a four-year college degree; most students will never have enough time or savings to get a BA or BS. But they do need to learn skills that will enable them to find and retain solid middle-class jobs. To this end, Geoghegan urges that a lot more money be spent in big cities like Chicago, where nearly half of all high schoolers now drop out, most of them poor and black or Latino. He quotes a former teacher: “One day, I’d like to walk into a school without being able to know—just from the condition of the building—the racial makeup of the children in the classrooms.”

Finally, Geoghegan turns to the gap between the rich and everyone else that has lately migrated from economists’ data sets to the center of political debate. John Maynard Keynes, he reflects, was never wiser than when he wrote, “There is no surer way to corrupt a society than to cut the connection between effort and reward.” But in the contemporary United States, the only institution capable of restoring that link is organized labor, backed by a political party led by figures like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—or those who agree with them. Pay American workers wages that keep pace with productivity and they will lift both themselves and the country out of debt. For Geoghegan, it really is that simple.

Only One Thing Can Save Us is a short book about very big problems, and the author seems to have kept updating it until his editor tore the manuscript out of his hands (or hacked it off his laptop). Unfortunately, his arguments sometimes fail to convince readers, even those who, like me, agree with his politics. If we shifted resources from four-year colleges to high schools, for example, who would train the teachers and nurses—those vanguard workers so essential to the well-being of society, as well as to the future of unions? And while the Democratic Party was vital to the victories labor won between the 1930s and the ’60s, liberal icons like FDR and LBJ did not ally with unions because they felt pangs of conscience when they heard picketers sing a chorus of “Solidarity Forever.” They backed labor because labor helped them. Union officials delivered millions of votes for Democrats in the big industrial states and lobbied Congress hard to pass laws establishing the minimum wage, Medicare, and voting rights—none of which directly benefited most of their members.

This year, on Labor Day, Barack Obama declared, “If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union.” No president had ever made such a recommendation before. But neither he nor any future Democratic leader will sign on to Geoghegan’s agenda—which would surely alienate the great majority of employers—unless workers, in and outside unions, compel them to do so. A weak and fragile present thus looms over, and almost certainly vitiates, the future good a more powerful and innovative labor movement might accomplish.

For a man who has contended so long and fiercely for a union comeback, Geoghegan might have presented his case in a more cogent and disciplined manner. Former labor secretary Robert Reich once compared the author’s style of argument to “a dog chasing a scent.” Indeed, Geoghegan moves too quickly from idea to evidence and from quip to anecdote.

In his first book, a quarter century ago, he told beautifully constructed stories that always had an unmistakable point. But here he delivers the equivalent of a good if underdeveloped lecture that occasionally drifts off on tangents. This means that Only One Thing reads more like a series of worthy and provocative op-eds than a sustained strategy for lifting up both American wage earners and their country.

Yet one should still cheer the effort. Perceptive, informed, and witty utopian thinkers are in short supply, particularly ones who spend their days fighting, with infrequent success, to win a decent life for people who are up against the most powerful forces in society. “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus argued in The Myth of Sisyphus, his sublime meditation on the need to revolt against the absurd. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Geoghegan may not appreciate the comparison. But he does what he can to keep the boulder from crushing us all.

Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is a coeditor of Dissent. His most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (Knopf, 2011).