Tom Geoghegan likes to challenge conventional thinking. His new book, Only One Thing Can Save Us, argues that America’s labor movement has to completely re-think its strategy, and that, if it doesn’t succeed, we could lose the last meaningful opportunity to rebuild America’s embattled middle class.
In his Chicago Newsroom appearance, he says that both Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that “education, education, education” is the path to a more prosperous life. Yet, he says in his book that 32% of Americans 25-64 have four-year college degrees, and that leaves the vast majority of the country in what he calls “a high school nation”. He argues that much more has to be done to lift the economy for these, the center of the American demographic
Here are a few quotes from Geoghegan, along with time posts to take you directly to that section of the discussion.
“Debt” is a major theme of your book. Why?
350 Henry Ford used to pay people five dollars a day to make the cars so they can go out and buy the cars. I analogize the situation as – today, business is paying people four dollars a day and lending then one dollar at 20% interest to do the buying. An economy that isn’t rewarding people based on their increased productivity is an economy that is going to rely on people going into debt. And even countries going into debt, including our own – trade debt. And an economy that keeps going into debt is going to have periodic shocks like 2008-9.
You say politicians always cite “education” as the panacea for getting good jobs. But in today’s labor market, there seem to be more college-educated people than the market needs.
13:35 College graduates are working as temps. Working at high-skilled jobs. They don’t even have employers, really. They’re independent contractors. They have 98,000 dollars in college debt. And we’re not talking about Macy’s, we’re talking about big companies like Abbott Labs and so forth. Corporations have so little stake in people. They don’t even have to fire these people. People are on their own, nobody’s investing in them, and they’re going nowhere. They’re stuck. That’s what we’ve gotta change. That’s what a labor movement can change.
You use the word “disruption” a lot in the book. You especially want to disrupt the Democratic party.
19:50 We need more disruption in the country. You saw that in the fast-food thing, which shot up minimum wage to the top of the political agenda. The Chicago Teachers Union strike. And it’s not necessary always to win. You can win by losing. Martin Luther King knew that. Go out there and lose. Force the national political parties, and especially the Democratic party, to declare itself.
You argue that organized labor should move toward a “members-only representation model”, which means representing only those people in a plant who want to be in the union. How would that work?
23:40 I don’t mean to be scathing here, or condescending. But let me be condescending and scathing. Most people are sheep. It’s not that they’re against (unions), it’s just that – I’ve got my life to live, I’ve got other things to do, I can’t do this. I wish you guys well, but count me out. That’s where most of the country is. That’s why you’ve got to create a kind of labor model where you can take advantage of the people who are militant. Because I can tell you one thing, as a union-side labor lawyer. All this talk about the United States and their workers’ disengagement – well, most are, but a lot of them aren’t. We have a lot of terrific working people who have the sense of others, who want some meaning in their lives – they’re out there, and they’re all over the place. They’re not fifty-percent-plus-one, but they’re 20%, they’re 30%, let’s take advantage of their energies.
Isn’t the central problem that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around? We don’t make much any more in the US, and what we do make is largely made by machines in vast, automated factories
26:58 Technology is dynamic. It’s always dynamic, and there’s always technology that creates jobs. Let me put it this way. We are skewed toward technology that doesn’t employ people. Because we don’t like to employ people. We have maybe 12% of our workforce in manufacturing. Germany has 25% of their workforce in manufacturing. They’re much more technologically innovative than we are. In the US, the whole impetus is towards that kind of technology that doesn’t employ people. We’re skewed away from the kind of technology that requires skilled people, with innovation coming up from working people at the bottom.