Which Side Are You On?/And Now a World From the Methodists... | Media | Chicago Reader

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Which Side Are You On?/And Now a World From the Methodists...

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By Michael Miner

Which Side Are You On?

"The clown handed me your card," growled the voice. It was a low, thick, nameless voice, speaking from a pay phone (at one point it had to put in more quarters), and it told me the deal with Thomas Geoghegan.

"This," it said, speaking of the clown and his associates, "is a consortium of a bunch of people who are pretty pissed off. Talk to the carpenters and the millwrights in Indiana, the Teamsters here locally. The electricians locally. Ed Vrdolyak. This is a consortium of a lot of groups fed up with Mr. Geoghegan posing as a union attorney when he goes after unions.

"It seems he always takes on the small guy's side, but he has to realize some of the unions he's really hurting. The unions are getting tired of him dragging them into court and depleting their treasuries."

Who's your clown? I asked.

"He's a union member. Of which union I won't tell you."

If you catch Geoghegan's new play, Aurora, which has three weeks to run at the UNITE Hall, 333 S. Ashland, you'll probably run into the clown at the front door handing out programs. "Damn," I thought, after giving mine a glance. "I didn't pay ten bucks to see Geoghegan stand onstage and read a script." The program gave this as the cast:

Union Busting Attorney...

Thomas Geoghegan

Wolfe in Sheeps Clothing...

Thomas Geoghegan

The Magician...Thomas Geoghegan

Villain (Snidely Whiplash)...

Thomas Geoghegan

Not to worry. There's another stack of programs inside the door, and they're the real thing. They tell worried spectators that Aurora will be performed by six professional actors. The clown's a touch of guerrilla theater.

So who's the guy on the sidewalk? I asked Geoghegan, who was standing in the lobby nervously greeting friends and counting the house. Probably someone from Local 134, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, he said.

Outside, the clown was happy to chat. What a great country--clowns and playwrights can say what they think, he bubbled. But he wouldn't say who sent him. Is Phil Krone behind this? I asked. The clown's painted smile revealed nothing.

Wheeler-dealer-about-town Krone was a likely suspect. He's a paid consultant to Local 134, which Geoghegan has taken to court. A couple of 134 members had already confronted Geoghegan at a Hyde Park bookstore. Krone's equal to the drollery in the program lampoon, and lives around the corner from the UNITE Hall.

But the next morning (this was last Sunday) Krone called from Italy's Amalfi Coast to say he had nothing to do with the caper. He said Geoghegan is "a personal friend," though "many members of 134 despise him," and besides, the pamphleting is "counterproductive." He also told me that Geoghegan's Hyde Park appearance "was sparsely attended, so he should be grateful for anybody who came." What's more, he'd bought two books and had Geoghegan sign them. Talk to Mike Fitzgerald, he said.

Fitzgerald's the business manager and financial secretary of the 17,000-member Local 134--in short, the boss. Fitzgerald allowed that a couple of local members had a hand in the bogus program, members he couldn't or wouldn't name. "Greed" is what drives Geoghegan, Fitzgerald said. "He had his snout in the trough in 134 for three years, and we defeated the people who hired him."

That's true to a point. In 1995 the Fitzgerald ticket, the Unified '95 Slate, swept into power at Local 134, defeating an incumbent caucus known as Rank and File. The Fitzgerald camp was reelected last year, but Rank and File's Charles Chathas accused Fitzgerald of violating labor law by soliciting money from contractors--i.e., management--and using it to spend circles around his opponents. Geoghegan, who'd once represented Local 134 in a discrimination case, filed a suit.

The suit alleges that when Fitzgerald took office he and his allies established the "Unified Social Club," which differed from the traditional union social club in that a primary purpose was "to promote the candidacy and political interests" of its founders. On club stationery, and over Fitzgerald's signature, a letter went out inviting "friends and members" to a "romantic evening" at a Valentine's Day dinner dance. "The meal will be first class and there will be wine on every table," boasted the letter. Tickets were $75 a person, tables $750. Ads in the program ran as high as $250.

Across the bottom of the letter was the legend "Sponsored by Unified in '98 Election Committee."

"What else does the Club do except campaign?" wrote Geoghegan 13 months ago in a letter to the Labor Management Standards Administration. "Nothing, so far as anyone can tell....The Fitzgerald tributes are not money 'under the table.' The employers are actually purchasing the tables! They send the money with testimonials like, 'Brilliant job!' 'Best wishes!'"

Stay calm, Fitzgerald told his people. "I'll keep you abreast of the legal wrangling, but I can tell you how it will end right now," he said last December in a letter to local members. "The U.S. Department of Labor and Charlie Chathas will lose their case, because there is no case."

Actually, Chathas and Geoghegan have prevailed at every turn. The Labor Department has decreed that it will oversee spending in the 2001 Local 134 elections. Federal judge James Zagel issued an injunction ordering the Unified Social Club to stop soliciting employers and to find new officers who don't double as union officers. In February the club asked Zagel to lift the injunction. But the judge, summarizing the plaintiffs' case, called the supposed reforms a "Potemkin village...a sham," and his injunction stood.

The judge is someone who likes to rise to the moment rhetorically. At the same hearing he again paraphrased the plaintiffs' argument that the Unified Social Club is a mirage, this time by echoing Gertrude Stein: "I think what they're saying is there is no 'it' there." Local 134 counsel Patrick Callahan protested. "Does it exist? Yes," he told the court. "I've billed them--they must exist. Even better, they pay."

Zagel acknowledged that an upcoming Saint Patrick's Day dinner might suffer from the injunction. "I'm very sorry if by some chance this diminishes the amount of money that will go into the corned beef and cabbage," he told Callahan. "I yield to no man in my admiration for corned beef and cabbage."

As I read the courtroom transcripts the thought hit me--these lines belong in a play. Not that Aurora isn't an interesting piece of work--lively, often funny, eager to put complicated thoughts in the mouths of passionate characters. The setting is 1989 Chicago, where a strike is being lost and a union is being broken. Hundreds of jobs are vanishing, and a two-tier wage scale is being inflicted on the survivors. The Geoghegan-esque lawyer who captains the sinking ship finds himself in a romantic triangle and an existential crisis that echoes core questions from Geoghegan's first two books--Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back and the recent The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life. These questions are: What to do? What's the use?

The clown outside the hall adds a new dimension to the familiar angst: Unionists picketing unionist's prounion drama, accusing him of antiunion treachery. Here's what the bogus program says: "Thomas Geoghegan...is bringing his ironic perspective on labor to the stage. Aurora is set in Chicago in 1999, where union busting attorney (at least in our opinion) Tom Geoghegan attempts to destroy unions in the city. To accomplish this task he files lawsuits against locals to drain their treasuries. He claims to represent unions, but shows his true colors: is he a labor attorney?

"A true hypocrite?

"Thomas which side are you really on?"

The back of the program strikes an oddly irresolute note: "This is Our Opinion......What is Yours?"

Geoghegan's onstage triangle (one confused man and two women) has been seen before. Geoghegan's real-life triangle (one playwright and two union factions) hasn't. It finds Geoghegan's allies in Local 134 buying tickets and filling seats while the other half of the local demonstrates out front.

"If it were half," says Geoghegan, correcting me. "It's one clown."

He also corrects his friend Phil Krone. Geoghegan doesn't think he'd even met Krone until Krone came over and said hello at the preliminary injunction hearing. And the 57th Street Books appearance actually was standing room only (someone who was there confirms this). Yes, Krone did buy two books. "It was very nice. If he'd bought three I would have been delighted."

Geoghegan has represented reform Teamsters off and on for years. He took on the carpenters and millwrights' union years ago when the international began stripping locals of the right to vote for their business agents. (He lost.) He tells the stories in Which Side Are You On? and in the same book Vrdolyak shows up briefly, but not attractively, as a union lawyer when Wisconsin Steel goes belly-up. Geoghegan supposes the clown's henchmen built up their case against him by reading the book.

Geoghegan wrote that book in 1991, and he thinks the labor movement is in much less desperate shape today. "Even the Teamsters are much more pluralistic. I think it's interesting that even this old guard that was hostile to union democracy--it used to be able to bellow and thunder about people like me. But now it's reduced to having a guy in a clown outfit handing out leaflets that say 'What's your opinion?' As a friend of mine said who got their leaflet, 'You almost want to cry for them.'"

When I'm home from Italy, Phil Krone told Mike Fitzgerald, let's both go see Geoghegan's play. Fitzgerald had heard better ideas. "I didn't say I would or anything," he says. "I said, 'Let's talk about it when you get back.'"

"I can tell them this," says Geoghegan, who takes every empty seat personally. "For $10 and free parking this is the best deal going in town. One of the ways we were going to pitch this thing, especially to the low-income section of the city, was, 'Here's a play about the oppressed of this city, and the ticket price is $70 cheaper than Rent.'"

And Now a Word From the Methodists . . .

A symposium on the recent church trial of the Reverend Gregory Dell was conducted in Chicago Monday by the Garrett-Medill Center for Religion & the News Media. The trial was a big story, and United Methodist leaders central to it gathered at Northwestern's lakeshore campus to discuss the coverage. They agreed that it was sober, sensitive, and accurate.

C. Joseph Sprague, bishop of the Methodists' Northern Illinois Conference, even commented that the media did better by the church than the church did by the media. Sprague signed the complaint against Dell for marrying two gay men, but then he refused to speak for the church because he opposed the church law Dell was accused of breaking. He passed the duties of spokesman to the Reverend Stephen Williams of Franklin Park, Dell's prosecutor, but Williams too decided that silence was the way to go and asked the Reverend Scott Field of Naperville to speak for the denomination. It was an ungainly arrangement, Sprague conceded. "We did not deal the media a full or fair hand."

But there's always room for criticism. "At times," said Sprague, "I hoped and wished the media had done what I hoped and wished we should have done"--which was to explain the 70 percent of the 8.5 million United Methodists who don't support Dell on gay marriage. It's an old complaint: the majority--the status quo against which the newsmakers rebel--is held to be too obvious and uninteresting for a close look.

Field said reporters invariably portrayed Dell as a crusader, victim, or martyr, and he agreed that they could have been more curious about the church trying him. Institutional opposition to him wasn't clearly distinguished, Field believed, from the ranting homophobia of the Reverend Fred Phelps, the Baptist preacher from Topeka who demonstrated outside Dell's Broadway United Methodist Church. Hispanic and Korean Methodists weren't asked for their perspective on Dell's defiance of church law. "There's an assumption by some that religious people are quaint and not to be taken entirely seriously," Field said. One reporter, plumbing the trial's implications, had asked him, "What does this mean to normal people?"

Mark Bowman, executive director of the Reconciling Congregation Program, a network within the church that Broadway United Methodist belongs to, complained that "the media seemed to accept at face value that this was only about the law" (which allowed reporters to frame the story as a clash of good churchmen all doing their duty as they saw it). But there are thousands of church laws the clergy can violate, and surely they often do. "The church must prioritize," Bowman said. Gay marriage went to the top of the list, and he wished the media had asked why.

Bowman suggested that the media found Dell good copy because he offered a certain comfort level. When his own turn to speak came, Dell agreed. "Because I'm white, male, and heterosexual," he said, "this received an incredible amount of attention. There are a lot of invisible folks who are surrounding this issue." But they're gay, they're women, and they're minorities, he went on. The ultimate story, he said, "is not simply about sexual orientation but about how the church will deal with the danger of tyranny of the majority."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.

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