Which side are you on? : trying to be for labor when it's flat on its back

by Thomas Geoghegan

Paper Book, 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."… (more)



Call number




New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Plume, c1991,

User reviews

LibraryThing member mephistia
I'm kind of ambivalent about this book. We're reading it for a class, and I really vacillate from one chapter to the next on whether I find this book helpful or not.

Geoghegan is definitely aware of his class privilege, so when starting out, I assumed he was equally aware of his race and gender
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privilege. He pokes fun at himself regarding the class privilege, and obviously struggles with his apparently conflicting desires to live comfortably while representing those who cannot afford the same comforts. His voice is often wry and sarcastic, which works since he's attempting to appeal to a reader on the same "class" level as him -- he's not trying to convince the union/ labor worker that unions are necessary, he's trying to convince the banker/ lawyer/ white collar worker.

As such, he doesn't really ever outright commit to a view -- as a white collar labor lawyer representing the blue-collar laborer, you'd think he would. But he doesn't. He gets close, then backs away. His ambivalence forces the reader to examine their own preconceptions and determine their own answer to the question: Which side are you on?

Geoghegan refuses to spoon-feed his reader the answer. This strength of his writing is also, unfortunately, it's major failing. His wry, sarcastic, and often self-mocking tone; his refusal to commit to a solid answer -- while both of these do well in forcing a white-collar, middle-class male to assess his the situation, it's a less successful tactic for women and minorities.

I don't think Geoghegan meant to write almost completely to white men, and I don't think he's racist or sexist. I think this is just a textbook (hah!) example of white male privilege, and in this particular book, his lack of awareness about said privileges negatively impacted his very real irony in assessing his class privilege.

It's hard to know when he's joking and when he's serious when he unself-consciously makes a statement about how racism impacted him (he's discussing a black labor leader he supported, and talks about how people would refer to said leader by the "n-word" (he types it out) in his hearing just to "see what his reaction was." By his own accounting, his reaction appeared to be silence.), and then he follows that up with a joke about his reaction to a class difference. It makes it hard to differentiate between when he's joking and when he's seriously just clueless, and (as noted) this negatively impacts the entire tone and voice of the book.

As I said, I do not believe Geoghegan is doing this intentionally. It's just a side affect of privilege, and the concept of race/ gender privilege wasn't as examined when he was writing this book, so he likely wouldn't have really even had the thought to take it into account. It is a good read, though. I'd recommend it, though when recommending it to non-white or female readers, I add a caveat that it's sometimes hard to differentiate his wry voice from his clueless voice.
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National Book Critics Circle Award (Finalist — General Nonfiction — 1991)



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