Weekend Reader: ‘Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement’

Weekend Reader: ‘Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement’

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.

InOnly 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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