I have now read all but one of Thomas Geoghegan’s books – and they have all built to this one – a prescription for re-building the American middle class and, essentially, saving our economy.
Only One Thing Can Save Us is subtitled Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement. Tom is a very clear and idiosyncratic thinker, and wanders his own path, circling out and drawing in new ideas. Then, 50 pages later, he reminds us that we are back on the path again.
Inequality, and the long term deterioration in wages and quality of life, is one of Tom’s biggest concerns. The loss of labor unions is now costing us the American middle class – that’s the key message in this book.
He worries about the trade deficit, and why that imbalance is so de-stabilizing for our country. We think it is just about money, but the crisis is deeper than that – and he quotes John Maynard Keynes’ belief that ‘an unfavorable balance may soon produce a state of persistent depression’. Seems like a fair statement of what we might be coming out of, 2 steps forward, one step back. Keynes, by the way, did not believe that we should be a winner-take-all in trade. Also quoted by Tom is Keynes saying ‘a favorable balance, provided it is not too large, will prove extremely stimulating’.
Tom also worries about the message we are giving to the 68% who do not attend college, by insisting that’s the only way to prosperity. He wonders why Democrats are turning off their own base – and why then we are surprised when they vote Republican.
Tom dissects the Chicago Teachers Union strikes – he sees the teachers concerned for their own rights – and striking as well out of compassion for the children. Same with nurses as they work to humanize and upgrade hospitals. And their own working conditions. Interesting that these are both largely women’s professions. He also points out that ‘the best kind of strike is one that targets the “national” Democratic Party, or at least gets its attention’.
We learn a lot from this book about how Germany’s growth has been created and sustained. And unions, plus workers, are involved at every level. There are works councils, and workers sitting in equal numbers with shareholders on the supervisory boards of huge global corporations.
So that’s one set of models we could consider as we look at work in America today – where space for each individual is shrinking, where people can make no comment about their working conditions, where respect and shared achievement simply do not happen.
With labor unions so incredibly weak, Tom knows we cannot go back to the old days. He provides lots of good thinking about how a new labor movement might move forward, how new ideas might be inserted, new partnerships considered and created. How about considering being able to join a union as a civil right? Not carried out as part of labor law, but as part of our civil rights as Americans. And what if unions only represented those in a workplace who wanted to be represented? That actually happens in some parts of the world.
Too bad we only seem to have an on/off switch in this country, and are not much interested unless we can grab all the marbles. Playing nice on the playground has not, up until now, been our style. And yet, as middle class wages have stagnated for over a decade, and the new jobs being created pay much less than those destroyed – it is definitely time to consider new ideas and innovations.
And it seems to me, since I’ve finished this book, that lots of the articles, commentary and conversations I’ve encountered are circling around these ideas. Hopefully, the urgency of Only One Thing Can Save Us will power us into sustainable action, so we can let go of rigid beliefs, consider new ideas and create that world we are looking for.