What could a new kind of labor movement be?

Sam Seder’s interview of Thomas Geoghegan is about 45 minutes long. 

The rest of the running time is a repeat.


Thomas Geoghegan says American labor needs a new strategy, which would include the following.

  • The right to join a labor union or engage in labor action should be a civil right.
  • Workers should have the right to form unions that represent only their members, instead of a government-determined bargaining unit.
  • On the other hand, unions should strive for works councils in big organizations, which would represent all the employees and not just the union members.

American labor unions have been unable to stop “right to work” laws from being enacted in state after state—even in Michigan.

only_one_thing_can_save_us_finalThese laws forbid labor-management contracts in which an employer hires only labor union members, or requires new employees to pay dues to a union.  Yet, by law, the union contract must cover all the employees in the bargaining unit, regardless of whether they join or pay dues.

Thomas Geoghegan wrote in Only One Thing Can Save Us that it may not be possible to stop right-to-work from becoming national law.  To the average person, it doesn’t seem right that they should be forced to join an organization or make payments to it against their will.  And as fewer and fewer people have any experience with unions, the counter-argument becomes harder to make.

But if unions lose that battle, as well they might, all is not lost.  It is much easier to make the case for the right to join a labor union if there never are any circumstances in which union membership is compulsory.

Geoghegan wrote that, strange as it may seem, workers who are not members of unions have certain labor rights than workers who are.

union_membership_percentage_labor_forceThe Wagner Act of 1935 guarantees the right of workers to engage in “concerted action” to advance their interests.  In his interpretation, that means that if three fast food workers walk off the job during rush hour because they have complaints against their employers, they are protected under the Wagner Act.

But if they were covered by a union contract, they would be forbidden to strike while the contract was in effect.  And under the Taft-Hartley Act, the government could order a “cooling-off period” if they voted to strike.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, firing an employee for belonging to a union is an unfair labor practice.  But it is up to the union, not the employee, to complain, and processing an unfair labor practice complaint can take years.

Geoghegan wants the right to belong to a labor union to be an individual civil right, and give union members the same protection as black people and other minorities.  That means a union member who was fired could sue, a court could issue an injunction against his firing taking effect, and his lawyer could ask for “discovery” of all materials related to the employer’s anti-union activities.

He said a members-only union could be more effective than a union shop or an agency shop.  For one thing, since only the people who believed in the union would belong to the union, it could act more quickly and decisively.

caseagainstunionsI myself belonged to a members-only union, Local 17 of the American Newspaper Guild, during the 24 years I worked for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.  Nobody was forced to join, yet Local 17 bargained for the whole newsroom.

Our union was weak, because (a) we were afraid to strike because (b) we knew we could be replaced and (c) Gannett showed during the Detroit newspaper strike that breaking unions was an even higher priority than increased profit.

Geoghegan thinks few unions will engage in the old-fashioned kind of strike, which was a prolonged siege in which the union tried to make the employer cease operations until it gave in.

He expects that instead they will follow the example of fast-food workers and engage in quick-and-dirty work stoppages meant to inconvenience and embarrass.

His example of a successful strike was the Chicago teachers strike of 2012.  It drew support from parents and the community and not just teachers, and raised issues such as testing and school closings rather than just wages and benefits.  It was settled partly because Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, did not want to embarrass President Obama in his re-election bid.

I don’t think labor unions should give up any existing rights or refrain from fighting for them when they have a chance, and neither does Geoghegan.  But a last-ditch fight to hang on to what they’ve got might not be enough.  Nostalgia is not a plan.


The one thing that can save America by Thomas Geoghegan for Salon (book excerpt)

What Would Keynes Do? by Thomas Geoghegan for The Nation (book excerpt)

The Big Fix by Thomas Geoghegan for The Nation

Ten Things Dems Could Do to Win by Thomas Geoghegan for The Nation


Bringing Labor Back by Chris Miasano for Jacobin.

Let Old Labor Die by Jeremy Gantz for In These Times.

Why Workers Won’t Unite by Kim Phillips-Fein for The Atlantic.

A Shaky Solidarity by Michael Kazin for Bookforum.

A More Perfect Union? by Thomas A. Kochan for Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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