Which Side Are You On?

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In this book, Thomas Geoghegan, a career labor lawyer, ponders a problem with personal as well as larger social ramifications. Mind you, Geoghegan is not one of those well-paid union-slayers employed by corporate America. Accepting a substantial loss of income, he remains on the side of “the little guy,” whether that be a union under siege from management or rank-and-file union members under siege from their own union. Geoghegan’s problem begins with the fact that he seems to be fighting a losing cause. Union membership, particularly in the private sector, is in decline, with no sign of an imminent countertrend. Moreover, the recognized leaders of organized labor are out of touch with new economic and political realities. As a result, they are pursuing the wrong strategies in their quest for survival.

The problem, however, runs deeper than this. Even at its peak, organized labor fell short of Geoghegan’s democratic and communitarian ideals. Unions, for the most part, were and are run undemocratically. They have also become depressingly bureaucratized and impersonal. These developments mean that rank- and-file union members suffer a double dose of powerlessness.

Finally, perhaps partly because of his realistic appraisal of organized labor’s achievements, Geoghegan is not sure of his own commitment. Though he sacrifices tens of thousands of dollars in income annually to stay on the side of “the good guys,” his uptown Chicago lifestyle is light-years away from that of the South-Side working-class members he usually represents. Thus, Geoghegan is himself part of a privileged class getting along quite nicely during the Ronald Reagan-George Bush years while deindustrialization and deunionization pull the rug from beneath working-class Americans.

In Which Side Are You On? (the title is taken from an old United Mine Workers strike song), Geoghegan lays out the multifaceted problem outlined above and offers some tentative remedies. Though the book has no systematic organization, Geoghegan’s overall perspective and points of emphasis are clearly revealed as the book proceeds. More specifically, the reader is presented with a fragmentary and idiosyncratic historical overview of organized labor’s rise and fall, an account of Geoghegan’s involvement with the cause of labor over the years, and an ideal of what organized labor and, implicitly, American society ought to be like.

The focal point of Geoghegan’s historical account is John Lewis, fiery president of the United Mine Workers (UMW) from the 1920’s to the 1960’s and cofounder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935. Though he is quite candid about Lewis’ volatile nature, questionable judgment, and disdain for organizational democracy, Geoghegan uses Lewis as the premier symbol of what organized labor was at its best and, presumably, what it might still be had different decisions been made in high places. Under Lewis’ influence, organized labor expanded its influence dramatically, becoming a formidable force in American society during the Great Depression. Lewis himself commanded national attention without becoming part of the establishment.

The trend since World War II has been for organized labor to link itself to the powers that be and to sacrifice independence for stability, or at least the appearance of stability. For the most part, this has included a close relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party.

Ironically, this transition has been accompanied by the legal reining in of organized labor. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1946, along with subsequent legislation, limited the ability of unions to organize workers and emphasized the process of arbitration while severely restricting the right of workers to strike. Arbitration, according to Geoghegan, favors the perceived self- interests of management, which is in a position to arm itself with regiments of lawyers.

These developments have also produced a new style of leadership in organized labor. Far removed from the workers it represents, contemporary leadership is a highly bureaucratized, largely anonymous part of the establishment. Despite its status, however, it lacks the resources, insights, and inclinations to counteract socioeconomic and political forces eroding previous gains made by American workers.

Thus, Geoghegan’s history moves from the successful struggle for acceptance and legal standing during the 1930’s (symbolized by the Wagner Act of 1935) to the ascendancy of organized labor to establishment status after World War II to the decline of organized labor in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Geoghegan’s own part in this history began in 1972, when he accompanied a friend to Sheridan, Pennsylvania, to serve as an observer for a UMW election between Tony Boyle, Lewis’ successor, and a reform candidate, Arnold Miller. Boyle, who would later be convicted of murdering a previous rival for the union presidency, was the odds-on favorite. No challenger yet had been able to come up through the ranks to upset the union’s ruling elite. Somehow, Miller and his entire slate of candidates managed to beat the system, winning the election by plenty and sweeping a new, rank-and-file-based administration into power.

Fresh out of law school, Geoghegan decided to stay on with the UMW, going to work in its Washington office. This lasted until 1976, when a series of wildcat strikes by miners threatened to destroy the union’s...

(The entire section is 2247 words.)