Labor lawyer takes hard look at unions today





Thomas Geoghegan.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

287 pages. $19.95.

This is a tale of the times, but not the usual kind. A Harvard Law graduate recalls his experiences in a flip, "Bright Lights, Big City" style. But this is no my-life-as-a-yuppie story. Thomas Geoghegan stood with those on the underside of all those leveraged buyouts.

He is a labor lawyer. Not a counsel to the Lane Kirklands of the world, but someone who has fought, often fruitlessly, for greater union democracy and to protect the rights of the industrial rank and file.

All this from a man who, after a couple of decades of this stuff, still tells of his living among the young urban professionals with whom he shares much. A man who, like most of us, fell into his vocation by a sort of compounded accident that built on itself until he couldn't let go. And despite the doubts and dichotomies, he slugged it out, unglamorously, with the intractable powers.

What's most important about this book is its hip readability, which brings the pain and trials of "labor" from ignorable abstraction to full, breathing life. It's easy to forget organized labor, shriveling and dying as we cling ever firmer to our notions of individualist pell-mell. Mr. Geoghegan writes: "The subversive thing about labor is not the strike, but the idea of solidarity. The whole thrust of organized labor is to . . . well, not socialism, but something. What does labor want? We want . . . we do not know what we want. But, at the very least, we want to be cut in on the deal."

In the 1980s, industrial workers often didn't get cut in on the deal. We collectively decided that we didn't need to make anything anymore. Post-industrial meant financial services boutiques, not Chicago steel mills.

It's more than a fad in economics. The individual is always "in" in America and not many people care about building a Swedish-model workers' paradise. Mr. Geoghegan writes bluntly: "Individualism is for scabs. This country is set up for scabs. Crossing a picket line, making your own deal. America is the land of opportunity. And a strike, if nothing else, creates lots of opportunities."

About 16 percent of the U.S. labor force is unionized. A growing part of that percentage represents public workers. The percentage of workers who belong to unions has been dropping for nearly 30 years. Still, there's something that lives on known as Big Labor. Mr. Geoghegan is not on that side. He writes, "To me, the best part of being a labor lawyer, or the only part that is any fun in this dark age, is to be with the dissidents."

Mr. Geoghegan's idiosyncratic sweep of the past 20 years in the labor trenches is a revelation of an almost secret history. He reminds us that a labor movement has just transformed a nation in Poland. He tells us that in the democratic United States, most rank and file industrial union members cannot elect their top officials. Local union elections still are regularly "stolen" by entrenched leaders. He says organizing workers has become nearly impossible because employers won't hesitate to fire or intimidate union supporters (the potential penalties for such actions are too weak) and because the federal labor bureaucracy won't come to the aid of these workers. He argues that strikes have become nearly unwinnable.

It's not surprising that as a self-avowed liberal and "New Deal Democrat," Mr. Geoghegan, as a lawyer, thinks laws can fix all this. Make one "tiny" change, he says: "Let people join unions if they like, freely and without coercion, without threat of being fired. . . ." And let those union members vote for their leaders. The thing is, he notes, nobody even knows this is a public-policy issue.

Mr. Geoghegan probably is putting too much stock in the law. There's widespread dislike and distrust of unions in this country. Maybe it's the deep-seated individualism, the unspoken feeling that you're better than the next guy, so why throw in your lot with him? Maybe we've seen (as Mr. Geoghegan himself illustrates) that unions aren't always the friends of their own members. And then we worry about global competition and union productivity. More than laws will have to change before the United States gets anywhere near Sweden.

This book works because Mr. Geoghegan is honest. He doesn't see working-class heroes everywhere (although he has a few). He knows of union corruption and wrongheadedness. The book also works because he's taken a modern urge toward irreverence, toward the boldly stated case, and tied it to something that, despite all the doubts, he cares deeply about.

Why didn't Thomas Geoghegan become a yuppie? He tries to tell us, but he doesn't fully succeed. He doesn't reveal enough about himself. Maybe it's as simple as his description of a Chicago street where as many as 18,000 cannery workers used to have jobs, a place where about 1,000 now work. ". . . I think how divided the city is. On the North Side, there are parks, beaches, giggly girls at Wrigley Field. And down here it is so quiet you can hear the glaciers scraping up and down the street." Happily for us, Mr. Geoghegan didn't walk away from the silence.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer living in New York.

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