Why Americans need labor unions


During the past 40 years, the productivity of American workers has continued to increase but their wages (adjusted for inflation) have barely increased at all.

Labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, in his new book, Only One Thing Can Save Us, says this is because corporate America has decided that it doesn’t want highly-skilled, well-paid workers; it wants low-paid, replaceable workers.


The middle class is the middle 60% of income earners, between the top and bottom 20%

Many evils flow from this.  Working people and the middle class have take on more debt in order to buy homes, pay for higher education or maintain their material standard of living.

Bankers and financiers find it more profitable to invest in debt than in the production of goods and services.

This results in the financialization and hollowing-out of the U.S. economy.

Geoghegan thinks the one thing that can save us is a labor union movement strong enough to win wage increases sufficient to keep up with the increase in the production of wealth.

This will give working people and the middle class enough buying power to generate a real economic recovery.

It will enable them to pay down debt.  Shrinking the debt industry will free up money to be invested in producing real goods and services.

Labor union contracts will make it harder to lay people off at will.  This will give employers an incentive to invest in training to make their workers more productive, which union apprenticeship programs can help with.

With more Americans earning good incomes, tax revenues will increase and governmental budgets will be more in balance.  With fewer jobs being shipped overseas, the U.S. trade deficit may shrink.

A politically powerful union movement will bring American politics into balance.  The USA will have both a left wing and a right wing rather than, as at present, only a right wing.

He advocates reforms to strengthen labor unions, including:
1.  Making union membership a civil right.
2.  Allowing members-only unions without NLRB elections.


Making union membership a civil right would give union members much more protection that current labor law.

Firing or persecuting someone for belonging to a labor union is an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act.  But to get redress, a union must file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, and then defend against a court appeal.  This can take several years and the best that the worker can hope for is to be reinstated in the old job, without back pay or damages and with no protection against the whole thing happening again.

2.unions&sharedprosperityDefine union membership as a civil right, says Thomas Geoghegan, and the balance of power changes.

A person of color, woman, senior citizen or handicapped person who sues under the Equal Employment Opportunity Act can get – (1) a temporary restraining order against being demoted, (2) a preliminary injunction based on likelihood of succeeding, (3) a jury trial with the chance to get compensatory damages, (4) the chance to get punitive damages, (5) the right of “discovery” of all records relevant to possible discrimination, (6) the right to force the employer to testify under oath and (7) legal fees paid by the loser.

Exercise of these rights, especially the latter three, is a powerful deterrent.

Racial, sex, age and handicap discrimination can be hard to prove, but the point of firing or persecuting labor union members is to intimidate, and so must be overt to be effective.


Allowing members-only labor unions would enable workers to act without going through the process of signing up a majority in the bargaining unit, and then holding an election.

only_one_thing_can_save_us_finalGeoghegan said this is how unions in Europe work.  There is no union shop or agency shop there, but a union representing, say, 30 percent of workers can act effectively.  There are free riders, but there are enough committed union members to be effective.

Actually this is how labor actions are being taken today in the fast food industry and other low-wage industries.  Workers typically don’t engage in long-drawn-out strikes intended to close the employer down permanently.  Instead they engage in quick one-day job actions intended to inconvenience the employer.

The Wagner Act, according to Geoghegan, protects the right of employees to engage in “concerted” actions to improve working conditions without retaliation from an employer.  The only way the employer can put an end to wildcat actions is to sign a labor union contract.


Why Even the Labor Movement’s Biggest Foes Should Be Cheering It On by Thomas Geoghegan for the New York Observer.

The Big Fix by Thomas Geoghegan for The Nation.

The one thing that can save America by Thomas Geoghegan for Salon.

What Would Keynes Do? by Thomas Geoghegan for The Nation.


The rebellious spirit of Matthew Maguire’s first Labor Day is spreading across our country.  Join the parade! by Jim Hightower for The Hightower Lowdown.

A plucky (and smart) grassroots coalition has pushed the dastardly Trans-Pacific Partnership to the edge by Jim Hightower for The Hightower Lowdown.

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2 Responses to “Why Americans need labor unions”

  1. Ken Meyer Says:

    RE: the comment of….

    “Labor union contracts will make it harder to lay people off at will”

    ….yeah, it’s worked that way in the past, hasn’t it? [smile] Given the fact that unions have squandered literally MILLIONS of their members jobs away (over the past few decades, the defining characteristic of union membership has been the vastly increased likelihood of LOSING one’s job!), it seems that what “labor contracts” have done is convince those who have employment to offer that they need to take their jobs elsewhere….and not just “lay off” workers, but PERMANENTLY TERMINATE once-upon-a-time workers jobs.

    Unions need to get over this idea that they can force job creators and maintainers to arbitrarily bend to their will; it simply can’t be done! Domestic workers NEED employers; employers, however, has shown quite dramatically that they DON’T NEED domestic workers! Competition exists on a WORLD scale today.

    The answer, of course, would be for American unions to have something to offer employers, a method of making them WANT TO HIRE their members instead of wanting to GET AWAY from them.

    I’m afraid that, until that lesson is learned, so-called American “labor unions” – and those that support them – are generally going to have a hard time of it.


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