Lawyer: ‘We Should Stay on the Parapets and Keep Fighting’

Stephen Franklin

Tom Geoghegan, who has been a union-side lawyer for decades, says that there is no way Americans can achieve a full-employment economy without a labor movement. (Stephen Franklin)

For three years in the early 1970s, journalist Studs Terkel gathered stories from a variety of American workers. He then compiled them into Working, an oral-history collection that went on to become a classic. Four decades after its publication, Working is more relevant than ever. Terkel, who regularly contributed to In These Times, once wrote, I know the good fight — the fight for democracy, for civil rights, for the rights of workers has a future, for these values will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In honor of that sentiment and of Workings 40th anniversary, ITT writers have invited a broad range of American workers to describe what they do, in their own words. More Working at 40” stories can be found here.

Philip Da Vinci had worked as a lawyer for a large insurance firm when he decided he needed to do something that felt useful, he told Terkel in Working. He switched to a storefront law office serving the elderly, juveniles, prison inmates, people dumped” from state mental hospitals, and other residents of his low-income Chicago neighborhood. But he struggled to hang onto his hope. You can change a few things. But not much progress is being made,” he told Terkel.

Tom Geoghegan is a Chicago lawyer who tells In These Times that he, too, wanted to shape the future of the country through his profession. In addition to spending much of his career representing workers and unions, he has also written a number of books. His book Which Side Are You On?” (1991), which chronicled the downward slide of organized labor, was described by Terkel himself as reading like an enthralling novel.” This interview has been edited and abridged.

I became a lawyer because I came of age in the late 1960s. I graduated from college in 1971. I saw the Civil Rights legal revolution and I lived through the Warren Court, which made bigger changes in the country than normal electoral politics. I was immensely influenced by my uncle, who was in Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department and worked on the Civil Rights bill.

I was taken with the idea of going in and arguing for the right and true; and not making any compromises at all but simply going to the max for your client; and that you could make big changes in the country and bring a better and more just way of life. The other reason I did it is that it looked like a better option than being an academic. I was scared that if I tried to become an academic, I would spend years on a Ph.D. that would never get finished. I’m also the oldest of six sons, and so I felt it was my obligation to go out and do something that would pass muster for what an oldest son ought to do. 

Labor law was still a big deal at the time and it was very clear to me that the Democratic Party and organized labor were the two forces of change in this society, and that they were inextricably linked. And as a non-labor person from the outside, I thought the way to have the best possible Democratic Party was to have a well-organized labor movement. I was convinced that there was a terrible rift developing between the progressive left and organized labor.

I didn’t think of labor as an endangered species then. At the time — the late 1960s, early 1970s — people had the presumption that labor was here to stay. It was powerful, and the idea of using that power in a more progressive way really attracted me. 

I still am enthused about labor. I started out as a young law student, and then as a very young lawyer, working for a progressive administration in the United Mine Workers. All these people had basically taken on a corrupt union leadership, which still had some power even after the reformers had taken over. That situation simultaneously exposed me to the best and worst in the labor movement. There is, in organized labor, plenty of gray area, and I understood that later. But at the beginning of my involvement in labor everything was black and white. There were the good guys and the bad guys in the battles of the mineworkers.

I felt that tremendously, too, when I went to the steelworkers and I worked for Ed Sadlowski. We were fighting an entrenched bureaucratic union leadership that wasn’t as evil as the former mineworkers leadership, but in some ways it was worse because you were fighting the banality of a union bureaucracy that should have been the champion of the people.

And that led me to my current job at the firm — now called Despres, Schwarts and Geoghegan Ltd. — where I went to work with Leon Despres, who was this champion of progressive causes. He was not known as a labor lawyer, but that was who he was and how he regarded himself for decades of his career. I worked with him for 25 years until he died at the age of 101.

We were different from other union-side lawyers, because we both represented unions and sometimes sued them because they were not being democratic enough. And that is a very tricky way for a union-side lawyer to live. It is not a good business model, but it is something we felt committed to doing. As organized labor shrank, dwindled, and became less important, it’s become even more of an important cause to me. 

I’m also of an age — I’m 65 years old — where I feel that I have to stay committed to this fight if only to set a good example. There are so few of us from my generation who are out fighting for organized labor compared to 40 or 50 years ago. While I’m not unique, it is still a small number and we should not leave it. We should stay on the parapets and keep fighting.

What has changed about being a lawyer and a labor lawyer?

A million things have changed. But people’s perceptions about what the law can do have changed most of all. Back in the 1960s and 70s, people my age thought lawyers and judges could make big changes in the country. They did make big changes — and they still can and still do — but it is much harder now to persuade people on the Left that they should be using the courts more creatively, because those people have given up on law. And that’s a very dumb thing to do in the American constitutional system. We don’t majority-rule here. We have a lot of gridlock, and lot of checks and balances. Over the years, to break gridlock, you do rely upon the courts to come in from the outside.

You give up on the courts, which I think the Left has done, and you give up the opportunity for making big changes in the American system, because they are never going to come through normal electoral politics.

Let me give you an example of a group that figured out what was wrong. Gay rights. Yes, they demonstrated in the streets. But you’ll notice, with regard to same-sex marriage, advocates really gave up on electoral politics and went through the courts, and they’ve achieved real change that way. I’ve been trying to get other progressive groups, including unions, to realize that there’s a lot that they can do in the courts now. 

I’ve also been pushing this idea of amending the Civil Rights Act to give workers the right to go into the courts to file a complaint about discrimination based on union membership. But it is very hard to convince union leaders of that.

What’s the future for labor?

I don’t know, but I think it is open-ended. [Pauses.] I think the labor movement could come back if there were a real commitment by the leadership of the Democratic Party. I don’t mean Barack Obama and Joe Biden. I mean people at several levels of the party. People who talk about maintaining the welfare state without a labor movement behind it are kidding themselves. You will not be able to have a full-employment economy without a labor movement. 

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A former labor writer for the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Franklin is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations.

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