Chicago Breakdown

Thomas Geoghegan, Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (The New Press 2014)

Thomas Geoghegan has devoted his life’s work to the defense and advancement of the American labor movement. The author of seven books, the most well-known his first,Which Side Are You On: Trying To Be For Labor When It Is Flat On Its Back (1991), Geoghegan graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He has long been a partner in a Chicago-based, union-side law firm and has represented, among other unions, the United Mine Workers, Illinois Nurses Association, and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (the rank-and-file opposition movement within the International Brotherhood of Teamsters). In addition, this activist lawyer’s many articles have appeared in The Nation,The New York Times, Dissent, Harper’s, and The New Republic. In 2009, he ran for Congress in Illinois’ 5th Congressional District on a strong liberal, pro-union platform, seeking to replace Rahm Emanuel. He finished sixth.

It is important to remember Geoghegan’s deep commitment over many years to the American labor movement and progressive causes in light of the tone and structure of his most recent book, Only One Thing Can Save Us. For as the title suggests, a deep despair suffuses the text. There is but one option, he suggests—to revive the middle class—and he is anything but optimistic of success. With labor movement membership currently at 11.1% of all non-agricultural workers (down from the mid-30% range in 1955) and the private sector even lower at 6.6% (a figure below the estimated 10% in 1910), the situation is indeed grim. But Geoghegan’s analysis veers toward fantasy as he searches for solutions that are rarely grounded in historical precedent or contemporary political experience.

He opens with a blunt declaration: The task of progressives is not to bring back labor but rather to bring back the middle class. He cites recent work by Paul Krugman on income inequality indicating that the bottom 80%’s share of income between 1978-2007 dropped almost 10% while the top 1% share grew by approximately the same percentage. Geoghegan’s call to arms is meant to address this steady growth of inequality, which has squeezed the middle class as well as the poor and working class. He promotes a “new kind of labor movement” focused on the problem of inequality that will speak to the broad middle class. Political morality matters to Geoghegan but he recognizes more practical considerations as well. His economic priorities seem to be (1) getting the middle class out from under heavy consumer debt (2) getting the federal government’s debt under control (3) addressing America’s foreign debt imbalance. He doesn’t really examine these issues or think through the specific challenges. But that doesn’t stop him from rushing to offer his ultimate solution: Build a new corporate model, based on labor-management partnership.

Geoghegan argues that the “old” labor movement with roots in the 1930s is simply incapable of addressing contemporary problems. Traditional labor can envision a struggle to raise wages but not one “to give people more rights to determine the way we work.” (39) Higher wages are important but a focus on the way we work is now more critical in order to balance power relations on the job and in the larger society. What is missing from Geoghegan’s analysis, however, is an understanding of how the American labor movement (in tandem and in conflict) with corporate employers, created the present conditions of working life. As my colleague Jefferson Cowie and I wrote a few years ago, the New Deal influence remained potent into the mid-1970s, a consequence of the enormous federal expenditures for defense during the war and the decades of Cold War that followed. Union membership sharply increased and income inequality for the lower 60% of wage earners declined.

But as welcome as those decades were, they proved to be more of a “Long Exception” than a permanent transformation. The 1984 election which witnessed the demolition of the last New Deal Democratic standard bearer, Walter Mondale, by a triumphant Ronald Reagan (who amassed 46% of the trade union vote), signaled the end of the Exception. The formation a year later—by Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Al From—of the Democratic Leadership Council, with the explicit purpose of moving the Democratic Party away from the New Deal framework, marked another. The economy as well was in transition. The decade of the 1970s saw the decline of the United States steel industry as the U.S.’s former enemies, Germany and Japan, out-produced this country’s technologically antiquated, highly unionized firms. Some of those domestic firms which survived in steel, auto, and other mass production industries, moreover, also opened new plants in the right-to-work states of the American South. There they found themselves in serious competition with already established foreign manufacturers. Little wonder then that the United Auto Workers, which in 1979 had 1.5 million members, has less than 400,000 in 2015.

Technology played a considerable role in this diminishing transition—digitalization and robotics transformed industrial work in ways unimaginable for most Americans in the 1970s. The corporation re-organized itself as well. What had once been a massive institution focused on product lines increasingly became “financialized” as the expansion of a global economy offered new possibilities for both production and marketing. For many in the working and middle classes, the corporate model of the immediate post-1945 decades, with its secure job and modest upward mobility over a career in the same firm, evaporated. Corporate leaders and major stockholders grasped at the potential enormous gains in the buying and selling of their holdings, and those of their competitors, across the globe. Production was no longer always the prime value, nor did the new (often temporary) owners exhibit much loyalty to any work force.

Geoghegan never addresses these issues. He does, however, take up two other themes (in a slap-dash fashion). First, he is intrigued by the German industrial example. In today’s Germany, most industrial firms train their own workers in company-sponsored programs. Geoghegan understands these programs as integral to the development of that system of “works councils” or “co-determination” where union representatives have full voting rights on the corporation’s board. He insists, without discussion, that the sharp differences with the American experience cannot be attributed to cultural traditions. But, in fact, they have everything to do with historical and cultural patterns that go back more than two centuries. The American free market individualist creed (and all that it entails) is remote from the German experience. Ever since the origins of German industrialization, workers in the larger plants expected not only to be trained by their employer, but to grow up in the company. This did not prevent labor strife, but class struggles in Germany occurred in a very different context than in America. In the 1880s, for example, it was the government of arch-conservative Chancellor Otto von Bismarck that established serious health and safety laws, regulated hours of work, and provided medical care and housing for workers. To be sure, Bismarck worried about the growing Socialist movement, but his response drew on a pattern of labor relations rooted in German history and its evolving culture.

Geoghegan contends that the German model of worker/employer partnership is relevant in the American continuum. He cites the economist Richard Freeman to the effect that it might be foreign corporations that bring co-determination to the United States. The example of Volkswagen in Chattanooga in 2014 suggests this is anything but assured, and other foreign auto companies (often without co-determination at home) have remained conspicuously resistant.

Geoghegan then abruptly shifts to another notion about how this country could establish a new corporate model of labor/management partnership: Change the American Constitution to make the right to join a union a civil right, embedded in a Constitutional Amendment. In theory, it is true, such an Amendment would give workers more leverage “to determine the way we work.” Employees, however, ceded that right long ago. It has essentially disappeared from Labor’s demands ever since the dramatic conclusion of the 1945-46 auto workers’ strike against General Motors. Moreover, it is impossible to imagine how such an Amendment might gain approval from the requisite three-quarters of the 50 states, as even Geoghegan allows. So he indulges in one more fantasy, invoking the prospect of nurturing “inside” the corporation a new labor movement that might create American “work councils.” He also embraces the current approach of some progressives to re-orientate corporate law away from stockholders toward a broader category of stakeholders. They mean to use the law to promote the interests of workers and others in the larger environment impacted by corporations. This effort may, in fact, have moral and political potential, but it is far from clear that co-determination would be the end result.

Geoghegan’s treatment of important issues seems cavalier. His book may actually discourage readers led on by his less than clear map of labor’s options. He might have helped his readers more if his discussion had been informed by the excellent chapters on German and American industrialization in Thomas McCraw’s Creating Modern Capitalism. Similarly, on the issue of the next generation of corporation governance, the work of Lynn Stout, David Ciepley, Karen Ho, Kent Greenfield (among others) indicate the possibilities and serious obstacles involved in any evolution toward a more socially responsible form of economic organization in capitalist society. Geoghegan, unfortunately, is content to end with an anemic call for “a new kind of labor movement…[and exploring] how we can lead a democratic way of life.” He can’t shake the self-referent sense of despondency that elevates his own emotional turmoil over any vision of a viable way forward.