History books teem with six-word phrases, from the comforting (“Nothing to fear but fear itself”) to the inspiring (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”) to the embarrassing (“Read my lips, no new taxes”). But the six words, “on the basis of union membership”, could be more momentous than any of those. Though hardly Roosevelt’s rhetoric, Reagan’s bluster or Bush’s clumsiness, the clause could solve America’s wage crisis.
Of course, when Tom Geoghegan told me this in a Chicago park two weeks ago, I almost snarfed my coffee through my nose. Solving major social problems typically demands more than six words. But as the longtime labor lawyer and author explained his idea to me on a muggy afternoon, it started making sense.
Geoghegan reminded me that data show the more union members in an economy, the better workers’ pay. The problem, he said, is that weakened labor laws are allowing companies to bully and fire union-sympathetic workers, thus driving down union membership and wages.
Enter Geoghegan’s six words. If the Civil Rights Act was amended to prevent discrimination “on the basis of union membership,” it would curtail corporations’ anti-labor assault by making the right to join a union an official civil right.
“Hang on,” I interrupted. “Joining a union isn’t a civil right?”
Under current law, if you are fired for union activity, you can only take your grievance to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) – a byzantine agency deliberately made more Kafkaesque by right-wing appointees and budget cuts. Today, the NLRB takes years to rule on labor law violations, often granting victims only their back pay – a tiny cost of doing business.
Union leaders are now focused on reforming the NLRB – an admirable goal – but Geoghegan’s plan implies that workers are harmed by being legally leashed to Washington in the first place. His proposal says rather than being forced to rely on an unreliable bureaucracy for protection, workers should be empowered to defend themselves.
The six words would do just that. Regardless of whether the NLRB is strengthened or further weakened, persecuted workers would be able to haul union-busting thugs into court. There – unlike at the NLRB – plaintiffs can subpoena company records and win costly punitive damages.
Bolstering his argument, Geoghegan told me to consider variations in corporate behavior.
For example, because the Civil Rights Act bars racial discrimination, businesses are motivated to try to prevent bigotry: They want to avoid being sued. This is why no company brags about being racist.
But when it comes to unions, there is no such deterrent. The lack of civil rights protection effectively encourages businesses to punish pro-union employees – and publicize the abuse to intimidate their workforce. By making the six words law, the dynamic would shift. Companies would have a reason – fear of litigation – to respect workers’ rights.
When Geoghegan and I finished chatting, I remembered why I believe he is America’s most talented writer and thinker on labor issues. His relative anonymity is a tragicomic commentary on the media and the American Left. The Milton Friedmans are celebrated by pundits and cast in bronze by conservative think tanks, while the Geoghegans are dismissed by the chattering class and ignored by a progressive movement that regularly venerates Hollywood celebrities as its heroes.
Perhaps, though, this proposal will change things. In developing a way to shift incentives, Geoghegan has discovered a solution that both unionists and economists can love. It cribs the best from liberals’ pro-union sympathies and conservatives’ distrust of Big Government, and should make him famous (or at least a Cabinet secretary). After all, anyone who can bring such disparate ideologies and adversaries together is worthy of serious consideration – as is his six-word stroke of genius.