The demise of unions, the miserly minimum wage and the absence of an economic fairness movement add up to a dark future for many.
By Thomas Geoghegan
May 25, 2016
The following is an excerpt from the new book Only One Thing Can Save Us by Thomas Geoghegan (The New Press, 2016):
“So, do you think ‘labor’ will ever come back?”
As a union-side lawyer I hate when people ask that question as if it’s my problem and not theirs. You’d think with tears in our eyes we’d embrace each other and say: “My God, what should we do?” It’s a question now not of bringing back “labor” but of bringing back the middle class. And neither you nor I have done enough on that.
In 40 years as a labor lawyer, I’ve yet to figure it out—and now? “You and I are done,” said Ed, who’s my age. “It’s up to younger people to figure it out.”
Well, I’m not done. With my 401(k), I have to keep going.
The other day I spoke to the guy at T. Rowe Price: “What do you think? Should I be in bonds? Maybe I should preserve capital?”
He seemed astonished. “You—preserve capital? You still need growth.”
I’m 65 and I still need growth. That’s why at this point in my life the collapse of labor is something personal. When I was younger, I thought of it as a problem for other people. But as I get older, I realize: I should have either saved more or made sure there was a labor movement to protect me. As it is, even Barack Obama seems ready to cut my Social Security.
It scares me how many of my friends are scrambling harder than ever. Here’s what one told me: “I thought when the kids were gone, my wife and I would have it easy. But somehow both of us seem to be working harder than ever. Those violin lessons I imagined I’d be taking in the morning? Forget it. It’s as if someone shows up and shouts in your ear: ‘Fine, your kids are gone, they’re all through college, great—NOW GET TO WORK!’ ”
With no labor movement, no pension, what’s to become of us? And we’re, relatively, well off!
At Starbucks I wince when the little old white-haired lady behind the counter says, “Can I start something for you?”
Start an IRA, for both of us. Only she and I know it’s too late. At least she’s working. I have friends my age who have no pension, nothing, and know they will never work again. They hope so, but …
“There should be a March on Washington,” said my friend Tony, “for all us guys, over 60, who know we’ll never find a real job again.”
It’s the last act for us: old guys, marching, like the Bonus Army in the Depression. Perhaps, as in the 1930s, General MacArthur will send in horse soldiers to sweep us away—all of us tottering baby boomers who were never in a war.
Of course it’s for the young I feel sorry: after all, it was on our watch that a labor movement disappeared. Am I wrong or do they seem intimidated? So far as I can tell, at least on the El, they seem to shrink from one another. They stare pitifully down at their iPhones, which stare up pitilessly at them. Their own gadgetry sits in judgment of them.
But why pick on them? Everyone seems demoralized. In my practice, I long ago came to accept that when labor disappeared, I’d stop seeing union members. But now they are not even “employees.” More and more I have clients who have signed away their rights to be considered “employees” at all—which means there’s no minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, no Social Security, nothing. Years ago they should have said something when the HR people said: “You’re no longer employees here—but cheer up, you’ll go on working for us as independent contractors.” In one case we have, the boss even made the guys set up their own personal “corporations,” as in “John Smith, Incorporated.” Then HR says: “We don’t pay you, John Smith, but John Smith, Incorporated.” My friends ask: “How can people live on the minimum wage?” But as an independent contractor, John Smith, Incorporated, doesn’t even make the minimum wage. Sometimes I think: one day, every American worker will be a John Smith, Incorporated, every cleaning lady, every janitor, every one of us—it will be a nation of CEOs in chains. “How did I let this happen?”