Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (2014)
Is labor’s day over or is labor the only real answer for our time? In his new book, National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan argues that even as organized labor seems to be crumbling, a revived—but different—labor movement is the only way to stabilize the economy and save the middle class.
But the inequality now reshaping the country goes beyond money and income: the places we work have become ever more rigid hierarchies. Geoghegan makes his argument for labor with stories, sometimes humorous but more often chilling, about the problems working people like his own clients—from cabdrivers to schoolteachers—now face, increasingly powerless in our union-free economy. He explains why a new kind of labor movement (and not just more higher education) is the real program the Democrats should push—not just to save the middle class from bankruptcy but to revive Keynes’s original and sometimes forgotten ideas for getting the rich to invest and reducing our balance of trade, and to promote John Dewey’s vision of a “democratic way of life,” one that would start in the schools and continue in our places of work.
A “public policy” book that is compulsively readable, Only One Thing Can Save Us is vintage Geoghegan, blending acerbic, witty commentary with unparalleled insight into the real dynamics (and human experience) of working in America today.
Were you Born on the Wrong Continent? (2010)
There’s been a lot of throwing around of the term “socialism” by critics of President Barack Obama, who has been maligned as a European socialist by conservatives even though his administration’s agenda isn’t close to that of a European social democracy. But if you really think about it, perhaps we would be happier in cozy Germany or France, where there is a socialist-type government to catch us, than in the wide-open, free-fall United States.
This was exactly what was on Chicago labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan’s mind as he began to sneak out of his workaholic American life to see what life is like in Europe. Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? is his report to his fellow captives here in the U.S. It’s not just that European social democracy is “nicer.” It’s not just that, under European-type socialism, many of us would perhaps be happier. It may be that only with some form of it can our own country, with its ballooning trade deficit, globally compete—or even just keep going without repeated financial crashes and crack-ups.
High-wage Germany, which offers the most bottom-up worker control of any European country, nearly ties with China as the leading exporter in the world, well ahead of the United States. But in China and America we work until we drop while in Germany, they take six weeks off a year (with a shocking number of four-day weekends along the way). It’s not just that the Germans can outcompete us, but they seem to be doing it with one hand tied behind their backs.
See You in Court (2007)
A powerful new argument that right-wing legal policy gives Americans no recourse but to sue one another, by the National Book Critics Circle Award nominee. Since the dawn of the Reagan era, America’s traditional legal structures have been gradually undermined, replaced by a kind of legal rage that has led to an explosion in the number of lawsuits. Why do Americans sue each other as often as we do and how has this basic rift in our civic trust come to pass? Sure to provoke heated debate, See You in Court shows why the right is wrong about the source of our lawsuit culture, and points the way back to civil society.
The Law in Shambles (2005)
It’s an enduring axiom: before there is democracy, there is rule of law. Thomas Geoghegan argues here in his lively pamphlet that as the pillars of the American legal system are crumbling, so too is the American democracy. Geoghegan convincingly explains how the 2000 presidential election was only the first sign that justice is now driven by party politics. He notes how even lawyers are becoming disillusioned with the law, as federal cases are increasingly determined by whether they are heard by a Bush-appointed judge or a Clinton-appointed judge. Geoghegan ultimately contends that the sense of disorder in our legal system has never been greater, and we may no longer have the basic civic trust necessary to preserve the rule of law.
In America’s Court (2002)
The smart, funny, and compelling story of criminal justice and injustice from the author of Which Side Are You On?. In America’s Court is the thoughtful, witty story of labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan’s introduction to the world of criminal law. After twenty years of civil practice, in which “complex litigation” fades slowly into settlement, he is unprepared for the much quicker justice of state criminal court when he assists in the defense of a twenty-two-year-old who, at age fifteen, was sentenced to forty years in prison for acting as the unarmed lookout in a botched holdup. In an America that now routinely imprisons kids as adults, he comes to see this small case as a basic test of human rights. The case leads Geoghegan to reevaluate his own career as a civil lawyer and the ways he might use the law to effect social change. Written with the author’s trademark intelligence and humor, In America’s Court is a compelling narrative and a candid look at the justice that our society provides for its citizens.
The Secret Lives of Citizens (1998)
Now, at a time when the cynicism about our government’s value is a topic of heated discussion, Thomas Geoghegan vividly redefines the terms of the debate. Combining memoir and trenchant observation, he uses his own life to explore what it means to be a “national” civil servant and a “local” citizen. National government and majority rule were once the two great achievements of our history. The decline of the “national idea,” the rise of the States, and the growing weakness of the central government pushed Geoghegan to the local level in Chicago. There, as a lawyer, he fought evils of a new kind: tuberculosis among the homeless, the spread of child labor, the use of jails to house the poor–evils that the progressives at the turn of the century had vanquished but were now back in a new and more virulent form. But now, as Geoghegan vividly shows, the weakness and gridlock of the central government has undermined our sense of local community and local citizenship. In revealing the true nature of the current problems and the connections among them, The Secret Lives of Citizens shows how we might reclaim our right to shape our government and secure for everyone the true promise of American life.
Which Side Are You On? (1991)
When it first appeared in hardcover, Which Side Are You On? received widespread critical accolades, and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. In this new paperback edition, Thomas Geoghegan has updated his eloquent plea for the relevance of organized labor in America with an afterword covering the labor movement through the 1990s. A funny, sharp, unsentimental career memoir, Which Side Are You On? pairs a compelling history of the rise and near-fall of labor in the United States with an idealist’s disgruntled exercise in self-evaluation. Writing with the honesty of an embattled veteran still hoping for the best, Geoghegan offers an entertaining, accessible, and literary introduction to the labor movement, as well as an indispensable touchstone for anyone whose hopes have run up against the unaccommodating facts on the ground. Wry and inspiring, Which Side Are You On? is the ideal book for anyone who has ever woken up and realized, “You must change your life.”
The Moral Animal (stageplay)
Inspired by a “true” story. In 1993, as a lawyer, Tom Geoghegan helped bring a suit that sought to require the City of Chicago and Cook County Hospital to stop the spread of tuberculosis in the city. These epidemics begin in the overcrowded U.S. jails, which are different from prisons – persons in jails are simply awaiting trial.
In the Moral Animal, two city officials are trying to stop a doctor from blowing the whistle, to call attention to the scandalous conditions at the jail. What follows after this set up is an accident, a jail blackout that leads to another accident, a jail fire, and that leads all the characters on a kind of journey – a kind of flip, tongue-in-cheek version of the progress from hell, through purgatory, and into paradise. It is about the progress of love, or put another way, the theme (aside from the nominal political argument) is that since we won’t live forever, we have to love and forgive each other while we can.