Paul Krugman, Elizabeth Warren (Reuters/Bob Strong/AP/Charles Dharapak/Photo montage by Salon)

The one thing that can save America

Why a new kind of labor movement is the key to avoiding national oblivion


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Thomas Geoghegan
January 2, 2015 10:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from “Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.”

“So, do you think ‘labor’ will ever come back?”

As a union-side lawyer I hate when people ask that question as if it’s my problem and not theirs. You’d think with tears in our eyes we’d embrace each other and say: “My God, what should we do?” It’s a question now not of bringing back “labor” but of bringing back the middle class. And neither you nor I have done enough on that.

In forty years as a labor lawyer, I’ve yet to figure it out—and now? “You and I are done,” said Ed, who’s my age. “It’s up to younger people to figure it out.”

Well, I’m not done. With my 401(k), I have to keep going.

The other day I spoke to the guy at T. Rowe Price: “What do you think? Should I be in bonds? Maybe I should preserve capital?” He seemed astonished. “You—preserve capital? You still need growth.”

I’m sixty-five and I still need growth. That’s why at this point in my life the collapse of labor is something personal. When I was younger, I thought of it as a problem for other people. But as I get older, I realize: I should have either saved more or made sure there was a labor movement to protect me. As it is, even Barack Obama seems ready to cut my Social Security.

It scares me how many of my friends are scrambling harder than ever. Here’s what one told me: “I thought when the kids were gone, my wife and I would have it easy. But somehow both of us seem to be working harder than ever. Those violin lessons I imagined I’d be taking in the morning? Forget it. It’s as if someone shows up and shouts in your ear: ‘Fine, your kids are gone, they’re all through college, great—NOW GET TO WORK!’”

With no labor movement, no pension, what’s to become of us? And we’re, relatively, well off!

At Starbucks I wince when the little old white-haired lady behind the counter says, “Can I start something for you?”

Start an IRA, for both of us. Only she and I know it’s too late.

At least she’s working. I have friends my age who have no pension, nothing, and know they will never work again. They hope so, but . . .

“There should be a March on Washington,” said my friend Tony, “for all us guys, over sixty, who know we’ll never find a real job again.”

It’s the last act for us: old guys, marching, like the Bonus Army in the Depression. Perhaps, as in the 1930s, General MacArthur will send in horse soldiers to sweep us away—all of us tottering baby boomers who were never in a war.

Of course it’s for the young I feel sorry: after all, it was on our watch that a labor movement disappeared. Am I wrong or do they seem intimidated? So far as I can tell, at least on the El, they seem to shrink from one another.They stare pitifully down at their iPhones, which stare up pitilessly at them. Their own gadgetry sits in judgment of them.

But why pick on them? Everyone seems demoralized. In my practice, I long ago came to accept that when labor disappeared, I’d stop seeing union members. But now they are not even “employees.” More and more I have clients who have signed away their rights to be considered “employees” at all—which means there’s no minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, no Social Security, nothing. Years ago they should have said something when the HR people said: “You’re no longer employees here—but cheer up, you’ll go on working for us as independent contractors.” In one case we have, the boss even made the guys set up their own personal “corporations,” as in “John Smith, Incorporated.” Then HR says: “We don’t pay you, John Smith, but John Smith, Incorporated.” My friends ask: “How can people live on the minimum wage?” But as an independent contractor, John Smith, Incorporated, doesn’t even make the minimum wage. Sometimes I think: one day, every American worker will be a John Smith, Incorporated, every cleaning lady, every janitor, every one of us—it will be a nation of CEOs in chains. “How did I let this happen?”

At some point, maybe 2034, it won’t even occur to us to wonder. We’ll just be too beat.

I’m thinking of the road dispatchers we represent—the guys who come out and jump your car if you’re in an auto club. They used to be employees; now they’re independent contractors, and after they pay for the lease of the truck and the gas, they typically don’t clear the minimum wage.

Or we may all end up like the cabdrivers. Right now we have a suit against the city of Chicago, which sets their fares. We’re trying to get a ruling that after driving forty or fifty hours per week the cabbies should at least be clearing the minimum wage. They drive, and drive, and drive, up to twelve hours a day, but after paying for the lease and gas many end up under $7 or even $6 an hour, and some go in the hole.

What about tips?

Yes, that’s with tips.

It’s true the crafty old foxes make more: they know when to pounce at the Board of Trade. But they have to put in seventy or eighty hours a week. When you’re as old as I am, you try putting in those hours.

So in the case of McDonald’s or Wendy’s, I’m all for raising the minimum wage—to any level Elizabeth Warren wants. But for a lot of our clients, it would be a big deal to make $7.25 an hour, and I don’t just mean the wretched of the earth but even “John Smith, Inc.”

It’s eerie to think that in the famous Great Depression play Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets, those cabdrivers who went on strike had more rights than many of us do today. At least in those days, unlike now, the cabdrivers still worked for actual employers; at least, unlike now, they could count on getting Social Security.

Aside from often not being “employees” at all, I have seen one other big change in clients over the years: they seem much quieter than they used to be.

By 2034 or 2044, when I’m long gone, they may hardly make a peep. Like the kids on the El, everyone will be looking down or glancing away.

Maybe everyone is exhausted.

The other night I went to a class at Northeastern Illinois University. It’s late at night, and the kids come to the night class after a full day at work. I was supposed to talk about being a lawyer, but they were beat, I was beat. Then one young man in the back finally raised a hand: “Where . . . this city, where do you think it’s all heading?”

Though I wanted to say something serious, I was too exhausted. I was ready to say, “I don’t know.”

Come on: give him a real answer.

So I paused. And I gave him a real answer:

“I don’t know.”

I just know my city, this city, the Chicago of the future, can be scary to contemplate. Like the cities of the Midwest, and most of the South, there’s not much mobility here. The private sector is more predatory than ever. The payday loan stores keep spreading, many of them secretly owned by the banks. The Fortune 500 companies have hierarchies more rigid than ever. The kids in this night class at Northeastern Illinois will die when they try to climb those much steeper corporate ladders. In the public sector, there’s still a middle class, but it’s shrinking because we’re selling off the public sector. Chicago’s 36,000 parking meters were sold off to Morgan Stanley, and its partners, who keep extending the hours and jacking up the rates. And now that the city has stopped funding the mental health clinics, we have more people hallucinating and wandering the streets. That may be the Chicago of the future, the city into which all of us clutching our 1099s will be descending.

But will it really be so bad? I don’t know.

For all I know, an increase in inequality may be fun. It may turn out that the city will be full of laughter and dancing, because we’re all poor but happy and no longer care about material things.

Either way it will come down to the same thing: the drop-by-drop disappearance of the middle class.

But might we take some hope from the 2012 presidential election? Yes, we can: sort of.

To be sure, Obama said nothing about unions or labor. But look at the commercials, the ones that raged at Bain Capital or the notorious video of Romney with his rich friends dumping on the 47 percent. Bain Capital cuts people’s wages, and then Romney and his pals snicker at their own workers because they don’t earn enough to pay income tax.

Of course Obama’s majority is being spun as one based on race or even gender. But at least in those commercials, wasn’t the election fought on labor issues?

Bain Capital cut your wages.

Bain Capital is a predator.

That’s what went on the air. The Democrats did everything but use the FDR blast against “economic royalists.” Even that line might have been in a commercial I missed. Based on the ads, one would think that the agenda for a second term would be labor law reform. Oh, I wish the Democrats had the courage of their commercials!

But here’s the sad part: what’s been the follow-up to those Bain Capital commercials?

None. There’s no plan to let people fight back.

It’s true that Obama has nudged up the tax on the top 1 percent, up to a rate of 38 percent, a bump that got the approval even of Grover Norquist. It’s also true that Obama has proposed raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour—and by executive order put it into effect for government contractors. Still, the mimimum wage is an easy one: it’s a way that grateful Democrats can be “pro-labor” without actually having to be for organized labor. But raising the minimum wage absent a labor movement just keeps everything else in place. And so long as everything else is in place, the middle class keeps going down. Maybe Joe Biden would do something more for labor. Maybe—it is half possible to fantasize Hillary Clinton would, in a rash mood. But it’s hard to think Obama—whom I love—will ever do much more.

Think back to the first Obama-Romney debate, the one that went disastrously for Obama (though he really was not that bad). At one point the moderator asked both men, “What do you see as the role of the federal government?”

Romney’s answer was gibberish: Up with People, or something like that.

Obama’s answer was that of a technocrat: thanks to the federal government, we have “Race to the Top.”

For readers in Seoul or Paris, I should say that “Race to the Top” refers to a program of the U.S. Department of Education to give grant money to states to help improve student test scores. It’s the fact that Obama clearly was not “prepped” that made his answer so unnerving. Left alone, on his own, he thinks the most important thing he can do as president is to make us take more tests.

Labor is not Obama’s thing—raising test scores is his thing.

But I’ve no right to talk. In my brief political career I did no better. Indeed, I write this book as an act of expiation. It was bad enough that a few years ago, idiotically, I ran for Congress; sure enough, I was clobbered. But even worse, during the whole campaign I said almost nothing about the one thing that could save us: the right to join a union, freely and fairly, without being fired. Instead, I ran on other issues: “Raise Social Security.” “Put in Single-Payer Health Care.” “Stop the Bailout—or Make the

Banks Write Down Our Debts.”

But I left out the big thing: pass a law to let people join unions, without risk of being fired.

Why not just say it?

I lost my nerve. “People don’t want to hear that.” “No one runs for office with ‘labor’ as the issue.” Yes, I doubted my own cause. When Moses doubted by striking the rock not once but twice, at least he took some whacks. I was too much of a doubter even to pick up a stick.

I repent.

Of course I know it is the only issue. I also know how hard it is to get our left to think so, as we run off to fight for a thousand causes but beg off from the big one. “But it all seems so impossible!” Yes, the Constitution, with its gridlock, is a big problem. But it’s not impossible to get a debate going, nor is it impossible to push it as the issue of the Democratic Party. Can’t we at least get the party leaders to say the middle class itself is being robbed by the nation’s employers? But if Obama or Clinton or Harry Reid ever had a concrete proposal for a general pay raise for the middle class, then I missed it. I admit they’re getting closer, though. At least there will be a long-overdue tweak of the rules for overtime pay, to cover salaried “managers” and “executives” who may be making just barely over $23,000 a year. But it all adds up to very little. Here’s an easy way for the Democrats to raise the spirit of the country—just by saying, “Your boss should raise your wage.” I mean everyone’s wage, not just the busboy who’s making $7.25. But they don’t. Even Biden, who is by far the best, doesn’t go that far. We need not just a sound bite but a whole principled politics over, yes, a right to a higher wage, but also a right to some control over what we do at work. We need a principled politics, with the ardor of the abolitionists, pressed the way they pressed that kind of politics on Lincoln.

Or we can do it for practical reasons. Here are three practical ones:

It is the only way to get the middle class out of debt—the private consumer debt that is now structural in nature. It’s the debt we have to run up to keep the economy running at all.

It is the only way to get the government out of debt—our public debt. To do that, not just the “1 percent” but most of us should pay more in taxes. But it’s impossible to extract more out of a broke and bitter middle class. In that respect, the GOP has found the perfect way to shrink the government—namely, to shrink people’s wages.

Finally, it is the only way to get our country out of its external debt, our trade deficit—we need a new type of corporate model, one based on a labor-management partnership, so we can be competitive enough to reduce the deficit and maybe even run a modest surplus.

Is that enough?

Maybe I should add one more thing: it is the only way to hold us together as a country and to stop the growing inequality that in thirty years could bring the whole Republic crashing down.

Excerpted from “Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement” by Thomas Geoghegan. Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Geoghegan. Reprinted by arrangement with The New Press. All rights reserved.


Thomas Geoghegan

Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago lawyer, is the author of "In America's Court" and "Which Side Are You On?"

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