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Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015 12:01 am

The case for more and stronger unions


Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement, by Thomas Geoghegan. The New Press, 2014.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s first six weeks in office have been an interesting time for Illinois citizens wondering what the next four years portend. His first formal appearance before the Illinois legislature, the State of the State address, even though delivered in an apparently newly minted downhome twang, was not reassuring to many. State employees, public-service union workers and those on the bottom rung of the income ladder found little comfort in the governor’s blueprint for our state’s future. Last week the governor returned to the floor of the legislature for his budget address with more bad news. He called for cuts in health care for the poor, aid to cities and mass transit and announced a new push to put state workers into lower-benefit pensions.

We should not be surprised. Throughout the 2014 campaign and since the November election, the governor has pointed to Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan as shining examples of what he wants to accomplish in Illinois. Our three neighbors share one thing in common: unions and labor in each state have been devastated in recent years.

Thomas Geoghegan is a practicing attorney in Chicago and staunch defender of the American labor movement. He has written six books on labor unions, law and politics. In 2009 he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for the congressional seat vacate by Rahm Emanuel. Only One Thing Can Save us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement is Geoghegan’s “State of Labor” rejoinder to those in government who view labor and workers as the reason for our economic doldrums. He argues that as organized labor struggles to remain viable it needs to be revived in order to stabilize our economy and save the rapidly disappearing middle class.

Geoghegan maintains that we need vibrant unions because we need higher wages. Those at the bottom of the economic ladder do not have sufficient purchasing power to stimulate aggregate demand. Interestingly, Rauner’s proposed solution to this problem is to raise the minimum wage by the magnificent sum of 25 cents an hour each year for the next seven years. That would raise income at the bottom level $520 a year. Rauner takes in roughly $51,000 an hour. As Geoghegan observes, the top 1 percent simply have too much income and cannot spend enough to stimulate demand and create jobs. Regardless of what you call it, income inequality is a continuing drag on our economic future.

To his credit, Rauner recognizes that Illinois needs to improve education and that improvement requires money. But the devil of course remains in the details and money is but one element of improving education. Geoghegan advocates union-based vocational education. This would improve working conditions and wages in a far more substantial way than worthless college degrees from online institutions that lead to minimum-wage jobs and staggering student loan debt. We need a labor movement to provide the education that the current education system cannot provide.

Rauner has proposed right-to-work zones in Illinois as part of his economic revitalization plan. Of course this is step one in making Illinois a right-to-work state, an unlikely occurrence given Illinois’ current political climate. Geoghegan recognizes that labor is fighting a losing battle against a proliferation of right-to-work laws. His solution would be recognition of a new constitutional civil right, the right to join a union. Under Geoghegan’s plan, recognition of the civil rights protection of union membership opens up a vast remedy of new legal rights, including access to federal courts and the potential under the law for the award of legal fees to unions. Given the current political landscape in America, this idea is simply a nonstarter. Still, Illinois with a legislature under the control of a labor-sympathetic majority will be an interesting laboratory in which to test the right-to-work proposals of Bruce Rauner.

As Rich Miller, another contributor to the pages of Illinois Times, recently noted, “The long game on unions has come to Illinois.” The minefield through the legislature is not as favorable for Bruce Rauner as for Republican governors with majority legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. The battle is joined. Only One Thing Can Save Us comes at an important moment in the political debate. Our nation and our state need a strong labor movement. Hopefully, even Bruce Rauner recognizes that need. Over the coming legislative session it will be interesting to see how that struggle plays out.

Stuart Shiffman served 22 years as a judge in Illinois. He is currently of counsel to Feldman-Wasser in Springfield, and serves as an adjunct professor in the political science and legal studies department at Illinois State University.


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