Friday, January 2, 2015

Review of Tom Geoghegan: Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement

Tom Geoghegan’s new book Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement is not strictly speaking directed at a labor audience.  As Geoghegan points out, he is writing this book for “people who know little or nothing about—or care little or nothing about or nothing for labor unions, but who may care about ensuring the United States is a going concern.”   With the labor movement down to only representing 7 out of a 100 workers reaching outside of our ranks is a good thing. 

Geoghegan’s book touches a wide range of issues from the need for a labor movement including arguments based on the economic theory of John Maynard Keynes.   He gives his opinions on what  issues the labor movement should be focused on mixed in with antidotes of cases he has worked on.   

One of the recurring themes in labor history concerns whether trade unionism is something fostered by elites or won through the self activity of workers.  Did the 1930s union upsurge happen because elite Democrat policy makers passed legislation including the anti-injunction Norris LaGuardia Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and the National Labor Relations Act?  For labor activists these are not mere academic debates but central to our strategy of reviving the labor movement.  After all if we believe government action primarily created the labor movement then an electoral strategy is warranted.  If we believe militancy and grassroots activism created the labor movement then an entirely different strategy is called for. 

On this question Geoghegan comes down firmly (and I will argue below incorrectly) on the side that the labor movement of the 1930s was primarily a creation of elite policy makers.  Perhaps for this reason, the main thrust of his book concerns how we can convince Democratic policy makers to accept unions.  Much of the book is spent on digressions such as the need for Keynesian economic policy and a critique of the idea that higher education can resolve inequality.  While these issues may be worthy of discussion, they are tangential to the urgent task of reviving the labor movement and geared towards elite policy makers rather than workers.

Reading the judicial winds, Geoghegan points out that unions may very well be facing a judicially imposed right to work scheme in the coming years, pointing out “if the agency shop goes away in the public sector, it will—sooner or later, under one rationale or another—in the private sector.”  Geoghegan does not see much of a future in the current model of exclusive representation but like unlike many other labor analysts suggests all is not lost. 

Geoghegan believes we need to make labor organizing a civil right adopting the viewpoint in Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit’s Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right, a book for which he wrote an introduction.   To get there, Geoghoghan proposes either the labor movement agree to give up exclusive representation and/or utilize a strategy of political strikes to create enough of a crisis to force reluctant Democrats to agree to labor policy changes.  

Although Geoghegan introduces the political strike strategy, which one would think would be central to the book, the proposed strategy is never flushed out.  Although he does mention some examples such as the UE Republic Windows plant takeover, the Chicago Teachers strike, and the Fight for 15 campaign, Geoghegan does not really believe such efforts could create enough of a crisis to force policy makers to restructure labor law.  Instead Geoghegan believes we need explicitly political strikes, say to revamp corporate law to require worker representation on corporate boards of directors.   How one would get workers to engage in such an effort is not explored. 

Geoghegan finds some inspiration for this effort in the Chicago Teachers strike which is an obvious recent example of a very broad based strike with a strong political component.  However, his discussion of the Chicago Teacher strike never explains how the model could be transported into the private sector.  As I explain in my book Strike Back, by their very nature public sector strikes have a political component as they typically involve matters of public concern.    

The true upsurges of labor history have not been scripted public relations events but rather involved millions of workers withholding their labor, hitting corporate America at the point of productions, and creating a crisis by crippling commerce in this country.  Although these strike waves had the ultimate effect of forcing law makers to change labor law, their main impetus was the immediate needs and demands of the workers involved.     
This brings us back to the main failing of the book which is the underlying premise that the labor movement of the 1930s (or indeed the public employee movement of the 1960s) was something granted by elite policy-makers.  It is simply not true and it leads to overstating the role of lawyers and Democratic Party elites in reviving labor’s fortunes.  Whether it be making unionism a civil right, convincing policymakers to accept unionism, or getting seats on corporate boards of directors, any program for labor renewal relying on lawyers and politicians rather than the self activity of workers is bound for failure. 

The reality is unionism in the 1930s was won primarily through the self activity of workers.  With 400,000 workers all across the country occupying factories to win collective bargaining in 1937 alone, and millions more engaging in often bloody strikes, it simply is not true that unionism was granted by elite policy makers.  (And although Geoghoghan does not focus on the public employee wave of the 1960s, in that period it was the strike and militancy which won the goods as well.)

By Geoghogan’s own admission, his primary audience is not the labor movement.  For that reason seasoned labor activists looking for in depth analysis will likely find better sources for labor strategy.  The labor struggles he does touch on such as the Chicago Teachers strikes have been treated in far greater depth by other writers who have pulled out practical lessons from the strike.   That being said Geoghoghan should be commended for writing about labor and pointing out the need for drastic change.