[Cross-posted at Daily Kos, for whom the interview was conducted]
Andy Stern is on a quest for whatever he thinks is new. As Matt Bai explained a month ago in the New York Times Magazine, Stern—President of the Service Employees International Union, the largest AFL-CIO union in America—is pushing for dramatic structural change in American labor, and part of his crusade to restructure organized labor is an openness to remake or even break labor’s traditional ties to the Democratic party and create new institutions and alliances for working families. With his embrace of whatever seems innovative and new, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Andy Stern has embraced blogs. In fact, the same weekend he was on the cover of the Gray Lady’s magazine, he took some time to talk with me, on behalf of Daily Kos, about labor, politics and his challenges—and threats—to the leaders of the labor movement and the Democratic party.
Stern has fired a shot at the rest of the national unions
that make up the AFL-CIO, but it may ricochet toward the Democratic party. He has threatened to pull SEIU from the
national federation unless the affiliate unions adopt SEIU’s organizing model
and act on his plan to merge the federation’s 58 unions into just 15, with the
current jurisdictional overlaps between unions supposedly eliminated by
consolidating into single unions all workers in a given industrial sector. (See Trapper John’s primer on the AFL-CIO Executive Board meeting for a summary of the
competing proposals, and his update on the latest developments.)
He also thinks that his fellow labor leaders don’t face up to the grave threats facing labor. [Note to Matt Bai and all other journalists and editors: democratically elected union presidents are labor leaders not “labor bosses;” the only people in America who get to elect any of their “bosses” are public employees. And drop the term “big labor” from your working lexicon until you start distinguishing “big labor” from “little labor.”] Back in the 1950’s, when unions represented 1 of every 3 workers, labor leaders, he believes, “began a trend of protecting what we have instead of trying to get stronger.”
Stern thinks labor has spent the last several decades refusing to admit its problems, and as a result labor must change or die. He’s pushing for his fellow labor leaders to change, and he’s determined to make other unions face up to the realities he sees and embrace the new solutions he claims to have discovered. And he’s willing to force that change. “You don’t get to die on your own,” he said. “We’re all workers…in the end, if I can’t convince people to change, all I can do is try to do the best I can for my own members.” Stern accuses too many in the labor movement of a “complicity of silence,” by people who think like the labor movement is in “silos” and who don’t understand “we live in a very integrated economy, growing more global every day.” For Stern, the time has come to reexamine all assumptions, and ruthlessly toss aside many cherished beliefs and traditional ways of doing things. And that may even mean changing or even ending the long-time bond between organized labor and the Democratic party.
But Stern’s infatuation with whatever he thinks is new and innovating can also appear reckless and uninformed. And his apparent difficulty with being a team player in the ranks of labor and the Democratic party has led him to say some strange things and make some questionable alliances. During the Democratic convention Stern told David Broder of the Washington Post that organized labor and the Democratic party would both probably be better served by a Kerry defeat. Last Summer SEIU gave more than $500,000 to the Republican Governor’s Association. He lauds the DLC, and told me that SEIU is a member. And he’s talked of his admiration for Stephen Moore and the Club for Growth, the doctrinaire free-marketers who’ve spent millions in Republican primaries sniping at moderate Republicans on behalf of right wing candidates, almost all of whom have either failed to unseat the incumbent Republican or who’ve lost to a Democrat in the general election.
Labor and the Democratic party need to embrace new ideas, strategies and ways of thinking about themselves and the world around them. But are Andy Stern’s “new ideas” the right ideas? And even if they are, can Andy Stern learn enough from his rivals that they may make an effort to learn from him?
More below the jump.
One of the first questions I asked Stern was what unionism meant to him. As with just about everything, Stern began by setting his ideas in contrast to those in labor who he thinks are stuck in the past. “Too often unions trap themselves in sort of 1930’s class struggle terms…it’s evolving,” Stern told me. “It’s an organization of people who are trying to change their lives or other workers’ lives in this country and it shouldn’t be confined, certainly not in the 21st century, by 1935 legal definitions.”
Stern’s ideas about unions and where they can leverage their power are different than just about any other labor leader’s. He repeatedly talked about groups like the AARP or environmental groups that are more associations or groups of people with shared goals and values as providing models of organizing and activism from which labor could learn. Such openness to coalition building and innovative ways of organizing and leveraging political power is one of Stern’s great strengths. SEIU has one of the best political operations in organized labor. In areas of their greatest density, like NYC, they can put thousands of highly skilled and tremendously motivated field organizers on the street for GOTV, voter persuasion, or building community support for organizing and contract campaigns. Stern, following the lead of SEIU’s long-time President and current AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, maintains close ties with allied groups outside of organized labor, and continues to develop bonds with new organizations and coalitions. This past cycle SEIU may have been the most generous contributor to America Coming Together. Stern understands how to enter into coalitions with groups outside the labor movement.
Stern is also shrewd about the psychology of movements and getting good publicity. After talking about new and old for several years, many observers have bought into the notion of “old industrial unions” and “new service unions,” even though that dichotomy is simplistic in the extreme. Sweeney’s tenure at SEIU saw a successful effort at empowering the membership to be involved in organizing and political action, but Stern has taken it further, almost creating a “cult of purple,” after SEIU’s signature color scheme, which is ubiquitous at any SEIU event. And he’s the only labor leader in recent years to grace the cover of the NYT Magazine, which is quite a feat. So Stern possesses some obvious gifts. But is Stern’s union and are his proposals for labor and the Democratic party really as new and innovative as he believes? Does he really understand the problems? And are some of his answers in search of problems?
In the NYT Magazine article, much was made of Stern’s embrace of cooperation with employers in the effort to give them comparative advantage against non-unionized employers in the same sector. That may sound to some like an innovative strategy for unions, but only if you’re completely unaware that the building trades have been successfully using that strategy for decades against “rat” contractors. Stern’s commitment to community coalitions may be fairly rare among today’s international unions, but many local and regional union bodies, as well as many AFL-CIO state and local organizations have been working closely with community organizations on issues like living wage laws and support for strikes and organizing drives for years. And in the explosion of union growth in the 1930’s, labor unions were thickly integrated into just about all facets of ethnic urban culture. And Stern’s infatuation with things simply because it’s different and seemingly innovative risks throwing out some perfectly fine “old” ideas in favor of new, untested and possibly dangerous ideas.
Take, for example, Stern’s comments about Social Security. I asked him about his comment in NYT Magazine article where he declared that Democratic party economic ideas are “basically being opposed to Republicans and protecting the New Deal. It makes me realize how vibrant the Republicans are in creating 21st-century ideas, and how sad it is that we’re defending 60-year old ideas.” I asked him if that meant he thought it was sad that Democrats and labor were still steadfastly committed to Social Security as it currently exists, and instead of a major overhaul just doing a tweak here or there to ensure long-term solvency:
If someone wanted to have something better than social security, or different than social security, but that was, you know, guaranteed, and not speculative, and serves a purpose of having retirement security…you know, the means, I think, are an issue, the ends, it seems for me, sort of my life’s work, is how to give workers the right to have their own organization, so they can unite their strengths, how do we get every man, woman and child healthcare, how do kids of workers get to have a decent public education…[but] we’ve taken what are now programs, and kind of conceptualize them as goals, and really they were just a way to do things. I don’t think we should get rid of them.
Social security is the best thing we’ve ever had in this country, and we shouldn’t throw it away, per se, but there may be many issues about how we get retirement security that are add-ons, different, better than social security…
I can’t figure out why we can’t figure out new and better and different ways to do what were the right goals in the 21st Century and why it’s only Republicans, or in the case of the DLC people that have the courage to think out new positions.
What Stern seemed to be advocating is essentially the proposal put forth by Bill Clinton late in his administration, which the Republican dismissed. Why Stern would tout this position advocated by a Democrat and then say the vibrant ideas are coming from the Republicans is beyond me.
It’s such thinking that surely exasperates his peers on the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO, whom Stern is merciless in criticizing for being stuck in the past or lacking “the courage to think out new positions.” He was highly critical of the United Mine Workers for not being able to leverage support in the West Virginia legislature to change some laws pertaining to public employees that would make it easier for SEIU to organize new members, citing that as but one example of his frustrations with the labor movement and why SEIU might pull out of the AFL-CIO and try to build something stronger:
Building something stronger…means hooking up with people like the people we worked with in ACT [or AARP, as long a there’s an understanding about labor issues]. If we can’t get our brothers and sisters in the labor movement to fight to build the labor movement, and they don’t want to try in West Virginia and other states to see if we can change people’s minds, it seems like what we have to do is find like-minded people to work with in and outside the labor movement.
We’re not trying to have a fight with the AFL, we always want to be partners with the AFL, but being part of and being partners are two different things.
Stern also took some shots at the Machinists union, whose president, Tom Buffenbarger, is probably Stern’s most bitter foe in organized labor, by citing airline workers as victims of the problems in organized labor:
But the way we organize our labor movement into craft unions and company unions who don’t work together has absolutely and dramatically devastated the airline workers’ pensions, healthcare and wages. Maybe it’s none of my business, but if there was something we could do about that, and no one is screaming about it, it seems, what are we all doing as labor leaders in this country? Now how do we sit and watch the most heavily unionized get eroded in wages and benefits, and not only do we not scream, but we somehow think it doesn’t effect what happens to my janitors or my homecare workers? Of course the [supermarket] strike in California and of course the growth of WalMart effects our members.
Now what Stern failed to mention, and maybe failed to even consider, is that those employees of the airline industry who are losing pay, health benefits and even their jobs, are working for companies that, with the exception of Southwest, have themselves lost huge amounts of money, gone into bankruptcy, in the case of one carrier (United) been purchased by the employees, or completely gone out of business. Blaming the trickle-down economic devastation being experienced by airline employees only on their unions seems grossly unfair, and probably ignorant of the deeper economic effects at play in the airline industry.
For someone who fashions himself a radical, Stern seems quite unaware of—or at least fails to acknowledge—what leftists typically think is the most important factor in understanding economic, social and political change—the economic, social and political structure of society and the economy. He talked about the loss of membership within the labor union, but he never mentioned except when asked the tremendous loss of manufacturing jobs to Mexico and Asia. He talked about how unions need to get bigger in order to dominate their industrial sector, but he didn’t have much of an answer as to how he would account for small unions like the Elevator Constructors who completely dominate their sector, in fact much, much more than does SEIU in low-wage health care, nursing or building maintenance. And other than a dismissive mention of labor laws from 1935 determining the concept of labor unions, he barely mentioned national labor laws—which apply to almost all non-governmental employment—as a factor in the decline of labor’s strength since the 1950’s.
It was curious that Stern didn’t really speak to structural concerns, because it’s a structural weakness of most of SEIU’s bargaining units that led to their building up their greatest strength, their political prowess. SEIU’s membership is clustered mostly in the greater NYC area, California, and a few other areas like Chicago. Were its membership more evenly distributed, its national political influence would certainly rival and perhaps surpass that of AFSCME and the (non-AFL-CIO) National Education Association, two politically powerful unions with members spread across the country. But the reason for SEIU’s political prowess, beyond its commitment to political action the size of it’s membership, is necessity.
Other than some of their public employees and nurses, most of the employers with whom SEIU negotiates contracts invest very little in their employees, and consider them much easier to replace than do employers in most other industrial sectors with significant union representation. The Teamster strike against United Parcel Service is often cited as a tremendous victory for labor, but people often neglect the fact that the Teamsters’ leverage against UPS was great, because there was no way UPS would have been able to easily find tens of thousands of replacement workers with good driving records who could have been bonded for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Replacing janitors or nursing home aid workers making $7.35 an hour is not that hard, so SEIU has had to create capacity to influence employers through other means.
SEIU’s most successful means of achieving power to influence employers has been through politics. They put huge cadres of campaign workers on the street to help supportive politicians, who in turn are counted on by SEIU to help through legal/budgetary means in state and local governments, and by being respected advocates who can intervene with employers on SEIU’s behalf. (In addition, SEIU’s organizers and members usually possess the ability to cause quite a ruckus through campaigns of disruption, annoyance and occasionally even civil disobedience against bad employers.)
It’s through politics that SEIU has had most of their greatest successes, and Stern was effusive in praising politicians who’ve been supportive of SEIU. I asked him about the organizing drive of a few years back, where Gray Davis, shortly after getting elected (with the help of SEIU) signed an executive order that led to a winning union representation election where SEIU gained about 40,000 new members, the largest single successful organizing drive since the United Auto Workers organized the massive Ford Rouge complex in 1941. Those home health care workers in California went from making $5.15 an hour to $8.50-$9.00 per hour, plus some now qualify for health insurance. With this contract, Stern told me, SEIU is “on our way to making this a job you can raise your family on in the next 5 to 10 years.”
He also praised Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, who recently signed an executive order similar to the one signed in California by Davis. Granholm’s action, he said, is a “perfect example where there’s not only rhetoric, there’s reality.” Others he mentioned included Ted Kennedy, who helped broker a deal with a Boston area employer, and Los Angeles mayor James Hahn.
But all these politicians are in areas where SEIU has large memberships, and all represent strong pro-union areas. What about right-to-work states, or places with huge growth like the Carolinas, Florida or Arizona, where unions are weak? Those are places where it would seem that national labor law changes might help, as would concerted efforts among numerous unions. I just can’t see AARP helping much in trying to organize hotel workers in Florida or poultry workers in North Carolina. For that, you need a national labor movement, and allies in the Democratic party.
Can that happen with SEIU estranged from the AFL-CIO, the “house of labor?” Maybe. But why risk it? And can the Democratic party thrive if SEIU is on the outside of the halls of power, like a more militant but relatively cash-poor version of the Club for Growth, occasionally taking out anti-labor Democrats in primaries held in those areas where SEIU already has sizable and active memberships, but not growing its membership in the growing parts of the country? I think not. I also think, though, that Stern is correct that labor needs to make some changes. About the only area where he offered unqualified praise of labor, and particularly John Sweeney, was for the job Sweeney has done in building labor’s political and especially electoral might since becoming AFL-CIO president in 1995.
But political action is an area where, despite all the good Sweeney and many of the individual unions have done, Stern can set an example from which just about all of them can learn and improve. Few unions manage to put so many skilled and enthusiastic campaign workers on the street as does SEIU, and if the rest of the labor movement could match their political productivity member per member, labor would be able to wrest more support and beneficial legal changes leading to more successful organizing drives, and greater job security and benefits for a larger percentage of American workers and their families. But it’s an endeavor that’s not going to succeed if labor is divided. It’s going to take something that labor has valued since the inception of unions: it’s going to take a commitment to solidarity. And that means solidarity even when you don’t get everything you want.
So, will Stern keep the SEIU within the AFL-CIO? And if not, what will it mean? He told me that the dialogue and counterproposals from unions such as the Teamsters have, since September, dramatically changed the odds of them leaving the AFL-CIO. But what if they do leave? "I'd hope, even if we weren't part of the AFL, we'd be partners with the AFL." But then, probably inadvertantly, he seemed to indicate that the decision to leave had already been made. "We're not leaving to pick a fight, we're just leaving to build something stronger with other allies who share our mission, but not to attack the AFL, or not to not offer to work with the AFL on things they do so well like politics; that will be their choice. But certainly our intention is to compete"--he laughed nervously at the slip of the tongue before quickly continuing--"is to cooperate where it makes sense, but do do everything we can to build something that works for the people who work in our industries if we can't affect how the whole labor movement works." Stern sees what happens next as dependant on the rest of the labor movement. In reality, it probably depends almost entirely on Andy Stern.