Op-Classic, 1991


American Labor's Dark, Romantic Years




In 1989, the greatest year in history while I've been alive, all I did was pile up newspapers in the back seat of my car. Every day there seemed to be another historic headline about Poland or Prague and I'd think, "Well, this paper I have to save . . ."


By June I felt like a bag lady with a shopping cart.


And now it's happened in the Soviet Union, too. And I always thought that if something great or historic were to happen in my lifetime, somehow America, all of us, would have to be part of it. We wouldn't just happen to watch it on TV.


But instead, in these great historic times, I haven't done any living in history at all. I've been practicing labor law in Chicago. And in my own life, everything that looks like "History" seems to go in reverse.


It's been strange, living in America in these lightning years: watching our own right to strike disappear, watching union membership drop and drop. Once unionized American labor had 34 percent of the private-sector work force. Now it's down to 12.


It now seems at least possible that union labor will disappear (except, of course, in baseball, the last field of dreams). A few friends of mine have asked, "Well, what are you going to do? What line of work will you go into?"


Well, I could sneak across the border into Canada. They have a labor movement there. Or I could go to Paris. Now that would be the best revenge, wouldn't it? Living in Paris, teaching labor law to deconstructionists.


I keep meeting people from Europe who want to hear about the Wagner Act, or Taft-Hartley. It seems to fascinate them. Things that in America I have to explain slowly, in baby-talk, they seem to instantly understand. Sometimes I want to fall in their arms. I want to weep. I think, "My God, somebody's interested . . . somebody understands . . ."


But here in America, even with liberals, their eyes glaze over. Sometimes even my eyes glaze over. The language is so opaque. It's hard to get past words like arbitration or prevailing wages, or thick greasy words like the "Davis Bacon Act," which make you lose your appetite.


So people here give up. They don't know. They don't care. This is the real lost cause, trying to get anyone interested.


Then there's the national labor leadership. Bald old men in Bal Harbour, Fla. Senescent, power-drunk Bourbons, drinking bourbon. Men who still hate the Beatles, for God's sake.


And then every Labor Day, there's the solitary Op-Ed piece, mumbling, "Labor's in a crisis . . ."


Who cares if these guys are in a crisis? And besides, I'm not sure they are. The members didn't directly vote them in. And the members can't vote them out. There are, alas, no Mikhail Gorbachevs in American labor, no one to start the perestroika here. No one calling for direct rank and file elections.


At any rate, on this Labor Day 1991, it's the rest of us who are in a crisis. It's the 90 percent or so who will never get into a union. It's the 10 percent or so who are seeing their own unions disappear.


People sometimes ask me, "How can you compete, with unions, in this modern world economy?" To me the question is: "How can you compete without them?" Every major industrial country in the world has a real labor movement but ours. Germany, France, even flinty South Korea. The one exception is us, America, the Fabulous Invalid, whose economy always seems to be spitting and shaking and coughing. Is that a coincidence? We're the only one that seems to be planning to do it union-free.


We have an economy where people can basically be fired at any time, for any reason. Do we really propose to compete on that basis with countries like Germany and Japan?


And it's a sullen country. People don't vote in general elections. They can be fired at any time. There's no labor movement, no social contract. And for all this, in the new world economic order, we pay a price that's stiffer with each passing year. We have no national health insurance. Private pensions are shrinking. We have a flat or even falling standard of living. In Presidential elections now, we don't even have a two-party system.


The collapse of labor effects every social issue we're now debating. For example, as a lawyer, I have done a few Title VII civil rights cases for blacks or women who have been fired or tossed aside. But most of the time, what these desperate people need is not a Title VII lawyer: they just need a union. Why don't liberals, at least, understand this?


Without a labor movement, I don't see how the Democrats can ever elect a President again. It's a truism among political scientists that unions put Democrats like Jimmy Carter in the White House. But now labor's gone, and that's taken as a given. But why is it gone? But why isn't it gone in Germany or Canada?


We all learned in high school that thanks to the New Deal, American workers have the right to organize. It is burned in our brains: Americans have the right to organize. And on paper this is true. The Wagner Act does declare, grandly, like the Declaration of Independence, that Americans have the right to organize.


But over time, union-busting consultants have convinced employers that they could violate this law freely, without any real penalty. They could pick out the pro-union workers and fire them. They could pick out 1 in 20, 1 in 15, 1 in 10, and just fire them. These fired workers would never come back. Or at least not for three or four years, and then the union would be in ashes.


Of course, the lawyers do well out of it. Under current American labor law, almost every organizing drive turns into a law suit. Some cases go on for years. And meanwhile, back at the plant or the shop, it's like a shooting gallery: Employers keep firing. Bodies keep piling up. Eventually there's a body count that lets the employer win.


This is industrial democracy American style. We're the country of the "disappeared."


The New Deal did not so much redistribute income as it did power. The unions arose, and they redistributed income. In some ways, we're living not in the "post" New Deal but in the "pre" New Deal. We're living in the 1920's, when organized labor was the old A.F.L., and just as ossified as it is today.


So what can we do? We can't change the Wagner Act -- at least not with George Bush in the White House.


Indeed, it probably wouldn't even matter if the Democrats were in. Once in 1978, a Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, did try to change the labor laws. It was just a little change, to stiffen slightly the penalties for firing workers. What happened to the bill? It got mauled, it got creamed. A Democratic President, Democratic House, Democratic Senate. It was annihilated.


The passage last month of an "anti-scabbing" bill in the House was merely cynical. As the House Republicans said, many Democrats knew or expected that the President would veto it. Otherwise, they themselves wouldn't have voted for it either.


So in our democracy, people can go to the polls and vote. But they can't vote in the New Deal. They can't vote in the right to organize. Or the right to elect directly their own union officers. It's hard to see how they can, in this age of the corporate PAC's.


There are only two things I can think of doing. Maybe neither will work.


First, at least try to get people interested in the subject. Maybe some raw, bald appeal to romanticism. Because this is really labor's romantic age, when labor is something secret and in defeat. Isn't that what thrills us in 1989 and brings the Russian kids into the streets? Don't you want to live in History? Be a labor lawyer in Indianapolis?


The strangest dioramas, with private screenings: Korean ladies, striking, being dragged away. Dissident teamsters beaten up at union halls. Why isn't everyone a labor lawyer?


And second, we can try to change labor itself. In a way, the Bal Harbour guys are like Mikhail Gorbachev. Like him, they have no electoral mandate. With one or two exceptions, they've never been elected, directly, by their own rank and file.


Who are they anyway? Fifty years ago, most Americans could name four or five union leaders at least, men like John L. Lewis, Philip Murray, Sidney Hillman and others. How many of us today can name even one?


Make them all stand for election. Every single one.


Maybe something has already started to happen . . . in the teamsters, of all places. There's a little sprig of hope in the garden of Jackie Presser and Jimmy Hoffa. For the first time ever, this December, under a special court order, teamsters will have the right to elect, directly, their top international officers.


There's even a progressive candidate, Ron Carey, who has a real chance to win. This December, in the teamsters, a Boris Yeltsin could climb a tank.


And why not? It can't be 1988 forever, one Willie Horton commercial after another. While it may take many years, sooner or later even in America it will be, will have to be, 1989.


Thomas Geoghegan is author of "Which Side Are You On: Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back."