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FDL Book Salon: “A Country That Works,” Week 1


The number one New Year's resolution for Americans is not to lose weight or quit smoking – it is to get out of debt. — Andy Stern

I'm honored to present Andy Stern's book to the Firedoglake community.  I'm a blogger at MyDD, and over the past few years of blogging I've noticed that different blogs have sort of different neighborhood 'feels' to them.  My sense is that the FDL community is made up of people who get things done, the people on political campaigns who are the essential pieces, the people who don't need credit but make sure that everything works.  When I have the FDL community on my side, I know you will be loyal, smart, and extraordinarily helpful.  And let's just say that political actors should not get on your bad side, because that's a very unpleasant place to be.

FDL and the union movement have a lot in common.  

Literally nothing in Democratic politics could happen without unions.  Labor provides the money for campaigns, the reliable volunteers who show up rain or shine.  Labor helps with field, GOTV, and media.  It's not just that labor provides a lot of help, it's that labor provides help reliably, cycle after cycle.  Unions don't get bored with politics, they don't decide that politics doesn't matter, and union members show up and vote in primaries up and down the ticket.  They invest long-term in voter registration programs, they build infrastructure that the party committees have traditionally scoffed at, and they have been an immense force in progressive politics for a hundred years, holding politicians accountable for their choices in office.  And from what I've seen, union members are much less likely to make political choices based on race-baiting tactics that the right uses so well.  Unions simply create progressive voters.  

In fact, I just got done reading through Karl Rove's 72 hour program presentation he gave in 2001, which was the blueprint for successful Republican turnout efforts in 2002 and 2004.  Rove based his blueprint on labor turnout programs; he was impressed with the outreach and institutional learning that has been so effective in helping union members have a disproportionate on the electorate in 1998 and 2000.  So when he wanted to figure out how to get evangelicals to have the same impact, he copied labor's strategy and tactics.  It worked.  This isn't the first time the right copied labor; labor practically invented the PAC system to move money to progressive candidates after World War II, which the business PACs only got around to doing in the late 1970s.  So though you may not believe it, unions are politically innovative.  And if we are to have any chance at building a progressive majority, unions are going to be a big part of how we do it.

This of course makes the crisis in union membership a crisis for all of us.  In 1945, nearly one third of all households were union households.  By 1998, that percentage dropped to 13.8%.  The decline of the union movement parallels the decline of the Democratic Party.  The gradual rightward turn of the country, the decline of the nation's industrial base, and a lack of investment in organizing new workers and corruption within union leadership undermined the reach of this largely progressive body of voters.  It's the fairly standard tragedy of industrial America; labor leaders were seduced by their access to power, and rather than work on modernization and structural problems, they held on to the past and allowed their unions to ossify.

In other words, it would be great to win in 2006, but long-term, we progressives have a big problem because a giant piece of our coalition is evaporating.  Labor needs its own 50 state strategy, and we need to be a part of it.  But more than just the politics, we know that an America where work is not rewarded is an America destined for a fall.

Which brings me to Andy Stern, and his new book, A Country that Works. Stern runs SEIU (Service Employees International Union), the fastest growing union in the country and certainly the most dynamic, with around 2 million members who you might've seen clad in trademark purple shirts at political rallies. What's remarkable about that last sentence is the that the words 'growing' and 'union' are next to each other. Stern has for his last thirty years in the union movement understood that a growth strategy is critical to protecting and advancing worker rights and wages. SEIU isn't just remarkable because it's been growing, it's remarkable because of the new sectors and regions in which it is organizing, as well as the way that SEIU tries to ensure that the companies it unionizes are viable enterprises. Last year, SEIU successfully organized 5000 janitors in Houston, a traditional bastion of hostility towards labor. Most of these newly organized workers are Hispanic, a group that is a huge and growing part of the American labor force.

Behind every successful organization is a moral vision, and that's where 'A Country that Works' comes in. This book isn't just about unions, it's about the modern American workforce and our place in a globalized world. The first two chapters describe the challenges facing all of us; an indebted and interconnected workforce with a decimated health care system and increasingly unreliable pension system, competing against China, the most significant economic competitor this country has ever had. The book moves on to Andy's personal story, how he joined the union movement, how he fought for changes, his stewardship of SEIU, his daughter's death, and the eventual break with the AFL-CIO and the formation of Change to WIn. The final part of the book discusses solutions – the need for global unions, the need for changes in the tax system, pensions, health care, education, expansion of the internet, etc. There's a nice part where he goes into problems with politics and how the Democratic Party is structured (we're not the only unhappy ones). His observations about the Dean movement, the Kerry campaign, and the series of economic diversions that obscure the truth about our global economy are also intriguing, if only because it's rare that I hear someone talk about wages and worker rights from anything but a theoretical perspective.

Fundamentally, 'A Country that Works' is a book about leadership and power, about making change within ourselves and within our own institutions to change the country and the world for the better. Stern's rise is due both to his extraordinary capacity as a leader, as well as the singular historical moment we find ourselves in, the same moment that has created the blogosphere as an institutional response to a broken model for press and political organizing.

So once again, I'm honored to introduce Andy Stern's book to FDL. We are from kindred communities. SEIU and the blogosphere is full of progressives; we are both passionate reformers seeking to reshape what it means to be a citizen in modern America. Over the next ten years, I expect real and important alliances to form between what we're doing and what the labor movement is doing. And I wouldn't mess with either of us.

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Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller