Labor When IT's Flat on Its Back  Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Labor When it's Flat on its Back," by Thomas Geoghegan.

Specifically, it will discuss whether I agree or disagree with Geoghegan's question and title of his book.


Geoghegan is a labor lawyer who has a dim view of the modern American labor movement. He believes it is past its prime and usefulness, and will eventually dwindle away, dying a lingering and painful death, and leaving millions of Americans unrepresented in its wake. He believes this will occur if total labor union membership falls below 10% in the United States. "U.S. manufacturing has gone down the drain, and with it, it seems, the entire labor movement. Just 16% of the workforce now [1991], down from 20-25% ten years ago. Maybe it will drop to 12. Once it drops to 10, it might as well keep dropping to zero" (Geoghegan 3).

Unfortunately, the author's predictions seem to be coming true. Union membership has been steadily decreasing since 1962, when over 30% of America's workforce belonged to a union. Today, only 13.5% of the workforce belongs to a union, with most of those members working in lower paying jobs such as the service industries (Editors). Rather than representing high-paid workers who contribute higher wages to the economy, unions are now regulating the jobs of low-paid workers struggling to make a living and jump into the middle class. Geoghegan believes unions are still aiding people in moving up in the world.

You do push those people into the middle class, that's the whole point. The middle class is eroding, it's disappearing, and there's been a whole cottage industry now. You have people on the air all the time talking about the inequality in the U.S. What's driving it is public policy. That is, not letting people bargain for a higher wage. That's what driving it (Author not Available).

The history of the labor movement in the United States is long and varied. While the movement began around the turn of the century, it really did not pick up steam until the 1930s, when the Depression was in full swing, after it floundered and almost died in the 1920s. In 1932, Congress passed the Norris-La Guardia Act, and the author calls it the "greatest labor law ever passed," and the beginning of what we now know as American labor. The Act took away the privileges of federal judges to issue injunctions and hear labor cases. The Act did not give the power to organize, but it gave the power to strike and picket their employers, and the workers did just that. By 1935, Congress passed the Wagner Act, which actually did grant the right to organize. It also created the National Labor Relations Board, (NLRB), which exists to this day. This agency "would 'certify' officially when a union should be recognized" (Geoghegan 44). By the late 30s, the unions were at their most powerful and most influential. They influenced national politics because most of the union members tended to vote the Democratic ticket, and there were many union members in those days. Then the Taft Hartley Act passed in 1947, and the unions were stripped of quite a bit of their power. "And the Taft-Hartley led to the 'union busting' that started in the late 1960s and continues today" (Geoghegan 52). Geoghegan sees the sixties as the beginning of the downward spiral of the popularity and usefulness of unions, along with the merger of the two biggest unions, the AFL and the CIO. "It was like the merger of two football leagues, which merged because they were both playing the same game" (Geoghegan 53). The unions had lots of money at the time, and many of the leaders were corrupt, but the real problem with the unions was the Taft-Hartley Act and union busting hampered them, and they never really recovered.

To prove his point, the author follows the descent and crash of the steel industry, and shows how it fell from one of the largest organized employers in the nation to a small, unorganized industry. "Oh, we would still have a steel industry, and some of it would be new: small, low-wage 'mini-mills,' mostly non-union, mostly in the South" (Geoghegan 85). The steel industry never regained its heyday, and many other organized industries have followed suit.

Geoghegan comes across as jaded and tired in his tirade about the unions, and after reading this book, it is difficult not to see why. His career as a labor lawyer has shown him all sides of the unions, from their heydays to their rapid declines. He has defended union member pensions that were wiped out by crafty corporations like International Harvester, who sold a steel mill to a small operator who went bankrupt, and took the member's pensions with them. The union members finally got a settlement from Harvester that was a mere pittance to what their pensions would have been. It was a sad case for the unions, and points to the unions demise, they simply do not wield the power they once did.

He also talks about cases of union dissidents who are beaten up because of their beliefs. "This is the problem with the Teamsters: Hoffa, the Mob, et. al. have made the Teamsters into an icon of pop culture, life Elvis. It is hard to take it seriously" (Geoghegan 137). The unions today have a bad rap, and part of it is justly deserved. They were (and perhaps still are) corrupt - infiltrated by the mob - little different that some of the corrupt businesses they promised to bust to save their members' paychecks and livelihoods. He recounts union members who the union simply ignores after they have been fired, and illustrates what many union members have found out the hard way, that often the unions look out for themselves before they look out for their members.

He had been *****ed for no reason, but it was of no interest to the Union. He was too small, too timid, to get anyone's attention: seventeen years lost, no pension. The poor man cried, telephoned UPS, sent letter, but it was no use, he would never come back. Maybe he was fired just to show no one at UPS is safe" (Geoghegan 145).

This is probably the most difficult portion of the book to read. It points out how the unions use the people they are supposed to be representing, and when they are no longer valuable, they drop them like they no longer exist. It is terribly sad, and terribly frightening, to know so many people still belong to the unions. It makes me think that everyone planning to join a union, or trying to organize a union should read this book first, and then make a more informed and enlightened decision.

One of the most interesting things about Geoghegan's commentary is his frank admission that he is not of the union. He casually notes the difference between himself, the high-paid lawyer who lives in the best suburbs of Chicago, and his clients, who do are the "rank and file," the everyday members of the unions who get by on their paychecks and look forward to a decent pension and retirement. He is fully aware that he is not a union member, and yet he is "for" the unions in what he does, and what he fights for in court. He is balanced enough to believe in what he does, and still see the down sides of the unions he represents.

Geoghegan also seems to have an almost uncanny sense for seeing what will happen in the future. He wrote this book in 1991, and many things that he talks about in the book seem very close to occurring. In a chilling account of a conversation in Cambridge, Geoghegan seems to prophesize what his been happing in the United States since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Enron scandal. "Do you think there could be another depression?' 'Could there be? I don't know. Some people think so...But one thing we do know, from experience. If there ever is another depression, people will turn on these business leaders and say, 'You sons of *****es'" (Geoghegan 43). Today, the economy is in its worst downturn in a decade, and unions have less membership than ever. Combined with the business accounting scandals like Enron, American business is untrustworthy and corrupt. Pensions and stocks are not safe, with or without any union representation. Geoghegan seems to see the future, and not only predict the demise of the unions, but the demise of our economy, and our trust in American business.

The unions will not go down without a fight, and they are fighting hard to survive. "The first thing he has to do is survive. You know, labor is on the verge of disappearing in this country. I mean, 10- under 10% of the private sector is a real problem" (Author not Available). Their web sites contain information in Spanish,…

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