Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tom Geoghegan's Which Side Are You On?

A book about labor and justice

I just finished reading Which Side Are You On?, published originally in 1991. Written by a labor lawyer in Chicago, Tom Geoghegan, a man who knows too much--about how badly the union movement has been screwed by government and bolixed up by its own leadership and left to die a lingering death by the rest of us--knows too much for his own moral comfort. But Geoghegan's honest and important book should earn him a break from his angst about failing the cause.

Who knows, it has been 20 years since the book came out, maybe he has let some of the guilt and pain go. But last I heard, he was still a labor lawyer in Chicago, still wishing and hoping for the legal case that would break the pattern of rulings against workers organizing to form a union, however improbable such a case would be.

It's hard to say exactly when Geoghegan himself came to the conclusion that such hopes were nowhere near realistic, but sometime during his career, after losing cases that he felt the courts were morally obligated to decide in favor of his clients, he came to the conclusion that labor's decline was directly traceable to the passage "in 1947, over the veto of Harry Truman" of Taft-Hartley, the law that "outlawed mass picketing, secondary strikes of neutral employers, sit-downs; in short, everything that [John L. Lewis and the Mineworkers] did in the 1930s."

Geoghegan writes that it was years before the damage from Taft-Hartley was obvious; the labor movement would grow quickly for ten more years, and even after the industrial unions began losing ground, rapidly growing public employee unions would hide the fact of decline. Geoghegan's not whining here, but he's not the only one to point out that the history of American labor would be a different history if not for Taft-Hartley.

"The CIO, in 1946, was planning a big organizing drive in the South...this drive, Operation Dixie, was pulled back at the last moment to avoid alienating Southern Democrats. and the Republicans, meanwhile [with majorities in both houses of Congress], went on to pass Taft-Hartley, to stop just this kind of mass organizing. If the CIO had organized the South, American history would have been different, because labor would have been a truly national force, and not a regional one, trapped in the Northeast and Midwest."

I'd like to quote so much from the book I'd end up reprinting most of it here, but Geoghegan is also a wonderful writer. Anyone who merely read my excerpted version would be missing the real thing, an intimate view of workers and their families struggling with and for their unions, and of their leaderships, the good, the bad and the ugly, from an informed observer who chose labor's side a long time ago, but knows himself to be an outsider.

I wrote a letter to the Washington Post a while ago, extolling charter schools and asserting that the best practices of charter schools and public school reform efforts needed to be regarded as complementary activities aimed at the shared goal of rebuilding quality public education. In response, a friend, another Chicago lawyer, wrote me arguing that the charter schools were actually part of a systematic attack on the union movement. We exchanged several e-mails on the subject, but she remained convinced that I was inadvertently stooging for a right-wing attack on labor and I came to the conclusion that she saw charter schools as a for-profit conspiracy to privatize education. Had we continued our discussion, I'm pretty sure that we would have found common ground, but I am more certain that our whole discussion would have been broadened substantially had we first read Which Side Are You On?.

Broadened theoretically, at least. After all, nothing in Which Side suggests a practical course of action, especially 20 years later and immediately after the sustained and tortured fight to pass health care reform. Perhaps not so ironically, it is the current day coalition of Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats, not unlike the coalition that passed Taft-Hartley over Truman's veto 60 years ago, that made prompt passage of a better health care bill impossible. Sixty years ago, before Taft-Hartley, unions organized by card check--getting the signatures of a minimum of 30 percent of workers at a plant in order to form a bargaining unit that the employer had to recognize. Today AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions have prioritized the Employee Free Choice Act, which would once again allow for card check, instead of the NLRB regulated elections that employers have learned how to win with regularity simply by firing leaders on the shop floor and intimidating workers.

Lots of questions arise. In many ways progressives are lost without a viable union movement. A few years ago, writing in In These Times and attempting to bridge a perceived gap between labor and other progressives, I wrote this: "Corporate America and the Republican Party have forged a partnership that ... decrees the contours of our economic and cultural life. If progressives ever want to counter this corporate hegemony, they must learn from the past and embrace the strength and potential of the union movement (from "Labor's Future Is Ours," In These Times, January 21, 2005).

It's difficult for me to say now that I still believe firmly in what I wrote in In These Times just five years ago. A better health care bill could have been passed and sooner, if labor leaders had not opposed a provision taxing "Cadillac" health care plans last summer. It would have been a better bill that would have taken a bigger step toward universal, single-payer health care. But after reading Geoghegan's book describing the deck stacked against the union movement for half a century, it seems silly to blame labor for something all of us, unions, the Democratic party, progressives, a vast coalition of non-profits, couldn't accomplish.

But what then are we to do if we can't blame labor or save it? The answers, of course, are complicated. We should certainly support the Employee Free Choice Act, even if it doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell. There is a long list of other things to tackle, including the demilitarization of our economy and foreign policy, underwater mortgages, financial regulatory reform, the restoration of urban public education, action on climate change, and more. All of this would help, were we able to accomplish it. But labor's decline has made progressives much weaker. Perhaps, we've lost clarity about what matters most. Tom Geoghegan's book, written 20 years ago, is still profoundly relevant.
"Lately, I've been writing this book. I've been writing it on weekends and in the mornings before I go to work, and now that I've reached the end of it, I hate to let it go. Because in writing it, I come closer to solidarity with ... well, not the workers, but other people ... than I do in the day-to-day living of my life.

"Here's a depressing thought. Maybe in a book, and only in a book, is solidarity 'forever.'

"But there's a great danger in writing a book. I can already see what's happening. I keep some steelworker waiting on a corner, walking up and down. What kind of solidarity is that?

"That's where the aesthetic view of politics leads. That's why it's dangerous.

"That's why when you shut the door and begin to write, someone should ask you, right then,

"Which side are you on?"

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