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Monday, October 24, 2016

Americans are working longer and harder, while losing their protections and guarantees. An aging generation faces the likely prospect of pulling second shifts during their golden years, while young people go up against predatory loans and workplaces where basic benefits, livable wages, and opportunities for advancement are increasingly rare. The labor movement is barely hanging on. Not only is the notion of “unions” disappearing, but even “employees” are being phased out in favor of independent contractors. In place of human beings, we have corporations of one.

In Only One Thing Can Save Us, author and veteran labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan examines our current predicament, and issues a call for a new kind of labor movement. In the following excerpt, Geoghegan illustrates the challenges facing the rapidly diminishing middle class.

You can purchase the book here.

“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.

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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.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Geoghegan. This excerpt originally appeared in Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement  published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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  • joe schmo

    The ‘Labor Movement.’ Duhhhhh. That is part of the problem. America has been totally spoiled rotten. Unions started out as a good thing. They eliminated unfair labor practices and abolished child labor. I will give it that, but unions are outdated and a new form of working and doing business is now required. Good riddance.

    Swing to modern day. Unions have become like the albatross around Americas neck. They only helped entice and legitimize outsourcing for Corporations. Along with high business taxes and regulations, labor unions have only been an added burden for those in the U.S. trying to make a living. Subsidies through other countries have also encouraged business men to look for more economical ways to turn a profit. Not having imposed import tariffs on China has only allowed it to become richer, thereby; making America a poorer nation, literally, under China’s thumb. We are now 2nd to China and I am sure that if this trend continues we will continue to escalate down the ladder.

    I suppose now you can just say things are going hunky doory with this idiot in office……? Looooser

    • charleo1

      Joe, you really are an idiot, when it comes to this. And, not by any means are you alone. A big part of the problem labor has today, is people like yourself, that thru ignorance, partisan political thinking, and probably a good dose of hatefulness, perpetuates, and even encourages the situation. Why? Because, you’ve bought into the myth, hook line, and sinker, that American labor has by some mystic measure, had it too good. And I suppose, for lack of a better way to put it, needs taking down a rung or two. We’ll call that notion, one for the corporate hot air machine, and, zero for the dummies. The second point made by the slick talkers, thru their corporate bullhorns, is the myth that American jobs were outsourced due to outrageous union demands, and onerous govt. regulations, and profit sucking taxes. And not, $60.00 dollar a month third world wages, made by a voiceless labor class, in horrid conditions, enriching a Communist State. All due to lopsided, trade agreements, written by the same enemies of the Middle Class, that are paying the politicians to pass them, shipping out the jobs, and making record profits. All the while telling you, there would be more jobs, if, if, if. Myth three is that getting screwed in this way for the last 40 years, is Obama’s fault. That if only he wasn’t so hostile to them. If he understood more about Capitalism, or business, or, whatever. Right? It’s absolute bullshit, and provably so. But it doesn’t matter, as long as people buy into it, and oppose anything that would help to level the field. Score another point for corporate, with the dummies livid about the Liberals, and big govt. ruining the Country! Myth four. That the unions helped do away with unfair labor practices, and child labor, so we don’t need them now. While unfair labor practices, and child labor in the third world, is the reason we’re losing the manufacturing jobs, you blame on unions, taxes, liberals, regulations, and Obama for killing.

      • joe schmo

        Honestly, I think that I am getting so attacked because…….drum roll here……the liberal party is imploding.

        Maybe, I’m just a wee bit right and because I am, it pisses you off.

        • Buzz Waldron

          . You voted for EvilBushJr., so don’t try to distance yourself from him… you still wear him around your neck…

          • joe schmo

            I also voted for knothead the first time around. So does that make me a Republican or a Liberal?

          • charleo1

            Since you haven’t voiced an iota of support on any of the issues Barack Obama ran on as a candidate. I’m
            left wondering why it was you felt compelled to vote for him in the first place? You thought he was more conservative than McCain? That McCain would have
            bailed out Wall Street, and let the rest of the Country
            work it out? (No Stimulus.) That McCain would have deported all illegal immigrants, despite the McCain-Kennedy, Immigration Reform Bill? That McCain would have, “Bomb, bomb bombed, Iran? Starting yet
            another war, estimated to take at least as long, and be
            three times at least as costly as Iraq? Give yourself some credit. Maybe that’s why you voted for, “The Knot-head, Obama? And maybe you just like to bitch.

          • joe schmo

            Haven’t voiced any positives because he is a HUGE disappointment and failure. Hate his principles and ideology. To Communist for my liking. He could have been such a uniter.

            McCain would never have worked. He’s a war mongerer. Voted for the lesser of the evils. Didn’t realize how evil Obama would become. That’s what America gets for sitting on their laurels. I believe in a strong military, not in inciting wars. Like I said I voted for knot head the first time around. Not my problem his approval rating is SO low.

            Like to bitch…..yah right. Unlike you….LOL

          • charleo1

            Well, sure you hate his principles. So, why’d you vote for him, was my question. He was very clear. He was running for President to reign in Wall Street, reform healthcare, and immigration, and end the Iraq War. Which he made very clear, by his principles, should have never been fought. And, already the fallout in that region has proven he had it right, and Bush, and Co. got it wrong. So, there’s that. There’s also been the rise of the Koch Birchers, and their ever present, ’60s bugaboo about Communists. But, with the exception of the Chinese Communists, which doesn’t seem to bother them, or the Right Wing at all, there is no threat of Communism to America. Obama, to the chagrin of the Liberal Left, has actually been far too accommodating to the Plutocrats, and Corporates, to suit me. But the entire Republican Party nowadays, just can’t seem to do enough for them. Or haven’t you noticed? How do you feel about Wall Street once again being allowed to nose up to the public trough, in order to put the Gov. back on the hook for the next round of gambling losses by the big banks? You pay taxes, right? Well, your Right Wing heroes, just set you up for another trillion dollar bailout, guaranteed, in the must pass gov. funding bill. So, who’s really the Communists, and Socialists? The bill also lifts restrictions on even more of the political money, that’s buying our Gov. right out from under us. Not an issue at all, on the Right. Do you ever wonder why that is? Where as I point out all the time, there is just not enough hours in the day, for the Right Wingers in Congress, to do all the things they want to, to serve the wealthy. And pardon me if I’m wrong. But, I don’t believe you’re the kind of wealthy they’re busting their humps for. I know I’m certainly not. So really, what gives with your adulation of them? Sadistic? Like to be tied up, and spanked? Or, what? Or have they got you that buffaloed?

        • charleo1

          So, the Liberal Party is imploding? As opposed to the formerly Conservative Party. Now controlled by a small radical cabal of wealthy corporatists. Who play White rural constituents like fiddles. Who are driven by ignorance, given over to fear, and helping in the crippling of the Federal Gov. Thereby, ushering in a millennium of corporate hegemony. Although, they are completely oblivious to all of it. In case you haven’t noticed, Joe. Our corporations are doing quite well in Third World Countries. Why wouldn’t they want to create one right here? Especially, if they run it?

    • Eleanore Whitaker

      Schmomo has NO job…that’s why he can sit back…live off welfare for his “handicap” (mostly mental) and cry and whine like all CONservatives do…about everyone else..but you see men like this believe THEY are supreme beings with more entitlement to greed than anyone else…Be reminded that men like this are mentally ill because, as any clinical psychiatrist would tell you, greed isn’t just an evil…it’s a mental illness. Don’t believe it? Just watch those nut jobs on the floor of NASDAQ any day of the week…they look like hordes of roaches all massing after the last crumb. A more disgusting, sickening sight, I can’t imagine. No class, no breeding and no culture EVER allows men to act like money hungry roaches.

      • joe schmo

        I’m one of the 1% remember…… I’m retired:) Debunking you all is just plain flat out fun. The older I get the more involved in politics a person gets. You’re just upset because the Liberal party is imploding.

        No class, no breeding, no culture….LOLOLOLOL WOW! You really don’t know me at all…..

        Eleanore, your mantra stands on the fact that you hate the Red states because you feel they harbor ALL the poor on welfare, when that is furthest from the truth. I live in the biggest poverty ridden state of them all and it is a Blue state. God forbid anyone touches YOUR pension. I thought you people were supposed to be so tolerant, and I thought you were supposed to be so generous with regards to charities and the poor. Not! Especially not you. If you were you would give 3/4 of your money and earnings to the poor. Who do you suppose to does that….the middle class conservative church goers.

        Get over it. Life’s too short.

        • Buzz Waldron

          . Never give money to a church… ALL religions are mental illness… religions fuel all the unneeded wars… religions create all the religious terrorists, serial killers, mass murderers… religions fill society with psychosis every day…

          • joe schmo

            Are you an atheist, Buzzy? One of the small percentile of individuals who is ruining this country with your devil philosophy. Remember…’s not nice to fool with God:) He will rectify this situation. ‘Garunteed!’

            …and religion also keeps us principled. Not that you would know that. Sodom and Gomorrah, Rome’s fall=Dark Ages

            No human is so perfect that they are above God. No one.

        • Eleanore Whitaker

          Your ability to ASSume is amazing. You can’t tell truth if your life depended on it. You were born and raised to “debunk” until it’s coming out your ears.

          I hate any state that expects me to live on a stagnated paycheck will they jack prices on necessities and then live off my tax dollars. TX…$1.72 for every $1 they pay …my state? 62 cents for every dollar we pay…I’m supporting red states.

          Liars like you feed on anything you only think you can debunk. Middle class church goers? Don’t make me laugh. Men like you get boozed up on Friday and Saturday night, chase skirts and then Sunday Monday, the halos come out on top of your lame brained heads. You are full of yourself.

          I have no plan to “get over it.” That’s just exactly what trough feeders like you want…The rest of us to bust butt while you sit on yours enjoy OUR tax dollars.

          Money giveth….Money taketh away…You joi bois of the right think you have ALL the answers. You don’t. You screw up the economy by your greed and think our money is limitless…Dream on teenage king!

        • Budjob

          Joe Schmuck,It would appear that the best part of you ran down your Momma’s leg!

          • joe schmo

            Obviously, like many liberals, your decadence is showing. Hmmmm, gosh it sounds so familiar…..the end of the Roman Empire comes to mind.

    • atc333

      Why don;t you compare what Bush II did to America’s economy with what Obama (This idiot) has accomplished to rebuild it in 6 years, doubling all major economic indicators since Bush’s economic meltdown, despite Right Wing block and stall? Way too much Faux news on your part. Just think where we could be now, had a real effort to create jobs been allowed by the GOP, instead of deliberately trying to make the Obama Administration fail?

    • 788eddie

      Joe, my impression of you, with your insulting manner, is that you are a person who is more apt to add heat than light to any discussion.

  • atc333

    It boils down to the fact that one party in the US has chosen a disastrous economic theory to lead this nation down. The Right wing has become immovable on its flawed beliefs, choosing to abandon 90% of the American people in its politics. It is very much like a 3rd grade class having to decide between chocolate or vanilla ice cream for all the class. The GOP wants all to have chocolate, an equal part of the class prefers vanilla. Rather than compromise, and have a vanilla chocolate swirl,ice cream, or even a fudge topping, the GOP has decided that it will keep the entire class from having any ice cream unless the the class agrees to chocolate..

    Consider the increases in American workers productivity, the ever increasing profits of Corporate America, the Obscene salaries and bonuses of CEOs, and the declining purchasing power of the Federal Minimum wage, less than 70% of what it was years ago. Consider the fact that that wage is not a living wage, and requires those workers to seek food stamps, rent subsidies, food pantries run by charities, and medical treatment at an ER, costing 10 times what a simple visit to a physician would cost. Consider that those earning minimum wage are not paying taxes, which the Far Right loves to carp about, but are instead costing tax payers money to subsidize. Consider Walmart, and others, who refer their low paid workers to those charities and governmental services.

    Consider when this nation’s Federal Deficits began to soar, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, and the economic and tax polices in effect which caused those deficits, as well as the Bush II Great Recession.

    Consider the distortions of fact utilized by the Far Right to gain votes. Take time to read the comments, and the misinformation being presented in those comments, Consider the Far Right’s source of news and political information, One antiabortion group claims the constitutional right to deliberately lie to the voters, claiming it is up to the voters to determine the truth, Fox (Faux) News, recently was evaluated by one fact finder group to misinform the public on political issues 66% of the time. deliberately incorrect. as well as the distortions of Hannity, Limbaugh, and others.

    So, the 8 year olds in the 3rd grade class of the House and Senate will continue to demand their chocolate ice cream, (tax cuts for job creators, and more deregulation) to create jobs attempting to argue that despite 3 failures of the prior administrations, “THIS TIME IT WILL WORK”, instead of compromising and have chocolate/vanilla swirl with fudge topping.

    All we have seen from the failed GOP economic theories are massive redistributions of wealth to the top 2%, an ever shrinking middle class, and expanding number of American’s living in poverty,and of course, more Federal Deficits, which the Far Right will attempt to slow by cutting social programs made necessary by their failed economic polices, You will not see any actions designed to rebuild our economy or create jobs so long as Obama is in office. It is all about winning for the GOP,, not about the best interests of this Nation or its People

    It took 1400 years for Rome to collapse. The GOP’s failed policies will accomplish the same thing for the US in less than 60 years.

  • 2ThinkN_Do2

    There will likely be a movement that revitalizes the USA, though I doubt it will be a labor movement . . .