“The U.S. may have been founded in a political revolution, but the central myth of America is economic. The poor are ill-served by the myth, while the rich are made to feel morally comfortable.”
—Earl Shorris (New American Blues)
When president-elect Barack Obama gets around to choosing his cabinet, he’d be well advised to put Thomas Geoghegan on his short list of candidates for Secretary of Labor. That is, if President Obama is as serious about assisting the working people of this country as Candidate Obama seemed to be.
A respected Chicago labor lawyer, activist and author of “Whose Side Are You On?”—one of the most penetrating and inspiring pro-labor books ever written—Thomas Geoghegan would bring to the job something that’s been woefully missing for decades in bureaucratic Washington . . . a commitment to labor advocacy.
It’s depressing to acknowledge how far back in history one has to go to find a DOL (Department of Labor) boss who was a genuine champion of America’s working class—rather than merely an ambitious careerist, or “all-purpose” administrator who could be plugged into any government agency (Labor, Commerce, Transportation, etc.) that came along.
With no disrespect to Robert Reich—President Clinton’s man at the DOL, who, unfortunately, found himself more or less “cuckolded” by Clinton’s overwhelming desire to curry favor with Big Business (an urge more powerful, arguably, than his formidable sex drive)—he wasn’t a champion of labor
Even though Secretary Reich did some good things—e.g., helped raise the minimum wage, promoted an ambitious job training program, pushed through the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act)—we have to go back further in history to find a true “champion.”
In fact, we have to go all the way back to the New Deal, to Frances Perkins, the near messianic Secretary of Labor in FDR’s administration, who served for 12 full years (the longest term ever), and was, incidentally, the first woman cabinet member in U.S. history. Perkins’ unambiguous advocacy of unions was instrumental in organized labor becoming the viable social institution it is (or sort of is) today.
Why do we need a “labor advocate” running the DOL at this juncture? Because labor’s noble struggle for parity has been utterly debased and vulgarized. It’s devolved into a mismatch. All one has to do is survey the economic landscape to see that organized labor is outmanned, outflanked and outgunned, with no shortage of adversaries and obstacles arrayed against it
There’s the Republican Party, the Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Congress (including fair-weather Democrats), the right-to-work laws of 22 states, the staggering loss, through globalization, of what were once the sweetest, most sustaining jobs in the manufacturing sector, and a marked shift in public opinion—just to name the most obvious.
Labor desperately needs a national spokesperson whose loyalties lie with Working America rather than Corporate America.
History has shown that if you want to help working people, you don’t do it by providing supplemental welfare or stimulus packages or lectures on “trickle down” economics. Rather, you do it by exposing them to the collective bargaining process, by giving them access to labor unions. As George Meany famously put it, “The greatest anti-poverty program ever invented was the labor union.”
Admittedly, while no cabinet officer, no matter how dedicated or energetic, has the statutory whiskers to single-handedly reinvent America (particularly if the president himself remains ambivalent), an active and imaginative Secretary of Labor can definitely shake things up. Perception is everything. With the right person in office, a policy—a project, a vision, a Movement—can gain momentum.
As head of the DOL, Secretary Geoghegan would advise Obama on whom to appoint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the body that not only oversees union elections in this country, but adjudicates ULP (Unfair Labor Practice) charges made by workers against employers. George W. Bush’s NLRB minions were so nakedly pro-business, they made a mockery of the process.
Geoghegan could also be expected to spearhead a long-overdue mine safety campaign, reinstating government oversight that had lapsed to near criminal levels during the eight years of Bush’s presidency.
Additionally, with a pro-labor warrior at the helm, the DOL would finally be in the position to put the fear of God into Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. By declaring publicly that it will begin a massive, full-scale review of Wal-Mart’s labor practices, the DOL could produce immediate changes. The world’s largest private employer and most influential retailer has been getting away with illegal and unethical tactics for way too long.
So virulently anti-union and paranoid is Wal-Mart, that on the rare occasions when its employees have ignored company propaganda and threats and actually voted to join or form a union, the company either shuts down the operation in question (as it did with meatcutters in Texas), or transfers the union activists to new locations.
An aggressive, tough-minded, and merciless DOL would demonstrate to the world—and to Wal-Mart executives in particular—that there’s a new sheriff in town, and that changes are a-comin’. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to turn the corner . . . a new leader, with a big, bold, contagious plan. Perception is everything.
Another Geoghegan virtue would be his willingness to hold accountable organized labor’s own Establishment. While he’s an unabashed supporter of union workers, he’s no fan of big-time labor leaders who’ve settled so comfortably into the role of “labor executive” that they’ve forgotten what the term “workers’ struggle” means. Geoghegan recognizes that what labor needs is more grassroots leadership, not more well-dressed bureaucrats.
Even if Barack Obama disappoints as president—even if he turns out to be the ideological snake oil salesman many predict—that doesn’t mean his Secretary of Labor must “fail” as well. Arguably, one reason things didn’t work out for Secretary Reich may have been that he was too much the academic theoretician and not enough the crusading street-fighter, a distinction that doesn’t apply to the savvy Geoghegan.
With both men having worked in the Chicago area, Obama is familiar with Geoghegan’s labor creds. Indeed, he has expressed admiration for Geoghegan’s record of community service. The question facing Obama will be whether to put a non-governmental, non-bureaucratic labor “radical” in so important a position. We can only hope.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can reached at email@example.com