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JOE HARVARD DEFENDS JOE HILL

WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?

By Thomas Geoghegan

Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- 287pp -- $19.95

Organized labor is a distinctly unfashionable subject these days. So most readers might feel little temptation to pick up a book that meditates on the present state of unions in the U. S. But Thomas Geoghegan's Which Side Are You On? is so skillfully written, so witty--and so scathing--that it seems bound to grip even those who find the labor movement boring.

A lawyer who has worked with unions for two decades, Geoghegan has written a highly personal book that is part memoir, part history, and part puzzled soul-searching about why this privileged product of the Ivy League should spend his life with such a down-market, unpopular crowd.

He makes no pretense of objectivity. But his entertaining reflections skewer everyone in sight. He lambasts Reaganomics and corporate executives for the massive layoffs and concessions that weakened unionism in the 1980s. At the same time, having logged countless hours in "the cellar of American labor" representing rank-and-file dissidents, he condemns autocratic labor bosses who still run many unions like fiefdoms.

Geoghegan (pronounced GAY-gan) even brings his sardonic humor to bear on himself. The 42-year-old Harvard law school graduate didn't exactly choose the life of a labor activist. Moping around his college room one day after his girlfriend dumped him, Geoghegan was approached by a friend who knew someone working with dissidents in the United Mine Workers (UMW), then in the midst of government-supervised elections after the murder of its president, Joseph A. "Jock" Yablonski. The dissidents needed volunteers to travel to Pennsylvania to watch the polls. Reluctantly, Geoghegan agreed.

The next thing he knew, he was outside a union hall in Pennsylvania coal country, nose to nose with union goons who demanded to know why he was there. "And what could I say?" Geoghegan writes. "I could hardly say I was up here grieving over a junior at Radcliffe."

The rank-and-file group won, and Geoghegan was inspired to become a UMW staff lawyer. Soon he developed a sympathy for union rebels. A few years later, after the UMW's old guard regained power, Geoghegan left to join another rabble-rouser, Ed Sadlowski, who was running for the presidency of the United Steelworkers. Sadlowski lost, but Geoghegan fondly recalls his style: "He could say the word `Boss' with fifty-five different nuances of contempt."

Geoghegan also represented the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a rank-and-file reform group that has spent 15 years battling mob-influenced Teamsters leaders. And during the Reagan era, he put in seven long years valiantly--and in the end successfully--helping 2,500 former International Harvester Co. workers who had lost their pensions after IH sold a steel mill to a tiny company that promptly went bankrupt. "The deal was so mean, so vile," Geoghegan asserts, "that even the investment bankers gagged."

He has few kind words for Corporate America. But he doesn't just rail. Instead, he asks insightfully why executives let Reaganomics knock the stuffing out of entire industries. After all, it now seems that managers who in the early 1980s blamed the lack of U. S. competitiveness on the high cost of capital and labor were wrong. These factors resulted from the high dollar, and when it fell in 1986, so did the relative price of money and labor. U. S. manufacturers then faced the real culprits in their losing battle with foreign rivals: lagging productivity gains and poor quality. But by then, industries such as steel and autos had lost market share and hundreds of thousands of jobs. "And it was so maddening because everyone knew that the dollar would come back down . . . ," writes Geoghegan. "To me, it was a miracle there was never a riot."

One of Geoghegan's most original insights is his analysis of how the stage for labor's decline was set long before President Reagan made antiunionism popular. Yes, Reagan encouraged companies to bust unions by breaking the air-traffic controllers in 1981. But, Geoghehan maintains, labor had been stripped of its ability to fight back when Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, outlawing mass picketing and secondary strikes. This blunted the 1935 Wagner Act, which legalized organizing and established the right to strike. It didn't really matter, Geoghegan says, until the 1960s, when managers began attacking unions. "It took employers twenty years to realize, at last, how far they could go," he writes.

Geoghegan doesn't like many top union leaders: He sees most as eager to squelch any challenge to their power or perks. Heretically, however, he seems to think the country needs more leaders like John L. Lewis, who led the Mine Workers for 40 years--bullying everyone from union members to U. S. Presidents. Lewis also helped create "an economy in which wages were continually being raised," says Geoghegan. When people speak of the current "triumph of capitalism," he argues, they are referring not to capitalism as classically defined, but to "the mixed economy of pensions, health insurance, cost-of-living allowances, that we owe, at least arguably, to some extent, to . . . John L. Lewis."

Although Geoghegan often lapses into gloomy sarcasm, his concern for the people he represents shines through. As he poignantly describes how his clients lost their pensions to unscrupulous companies or their limbs in unsafe factories, you feel a compassion for ordinary working people that's been all too rare in these United States for a long time.AARON BERNSTEIN


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