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FDL Book Salon: A Country That Works, Week 2


(Today we're joined by SEIU President Andy Stern, author of A Country That Works, in the comments.  Please stop by and welcome him — JH) 

Good afternoon. This is Jordan Barab. I'll be hosting today's FDL Book Salon. It's a pleasure to spend this Sunday with Firedoglake readers and particularly with the author of  A Country That Works, Andy Stern, discussing one of the most interesting and challenging books I've read in a long time. Of course, for me, that's not saying much. As the main blogger at Confined Space , I rarely have time to read real books. So when Jane asked me to host this Book Salon, I was happy to be forced to read an entire book, particularly this one.

Most Americans had probably never heard of Andy Stern, President of the Service Employees International Union, until he threatened to break up the AFL-CIO, the federation of American unions that everyone has heard of. And, as Andy admits in his book, A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track , the press loves stories full of conflict, strong and heroic personalities fighting the good fight, drama, betrayal, tragedy, promise, hope. Even the blogosphere, generally favorable to labor (while ignoring all but the biggest labor issues), began to pay attention. Josh Marshall's TPM Cafe even launched a "House of Labor" section.

The media portrayed the split as a battle between the young dynamic Andy Stern, impatient with labor's fading numbers and influence, and the old fogies led by John Sweeney, who were happy to be lords over all they could see, but weren't paying sufficient attention to the fact that their domains (and influence) were rapidly shrinking into irrelevance. It was portrayed as a fight between those who thought priority should be given to organizing over those who thought priority should be given to politics.  Of course, in reality, it wasn't anything that simple.

Despite all of the media attention throughout the summer of '95, once Stern led the Service Employees International Union out of the AFL-CIO, along with the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE-HERE, the Farmworkers, and the Laborers to form Change To Win (along with the Carpenters who had left the federation previously), interest generally died. Even the TPM Cafe's House of Labor faded away.

Personally, although Andy's organizing programs were quite exciting, I wasn't completely sure what I thought of his crusade to save the labor movement by dividing it. I had first med Andy Stern in the late 1970's when I was organizing a labor-sponsored anti-nuclear demonstration in Harrisburg, PA following the Three Mile Island near-disaster.  Even then, as President of the Pennsylvania Social Service Employees Union, an SEIU affiliate in Harrisburg, he was pushing the labor envelope by providing major support for our efforts, including an occasional couch to sleep on.  Opposing nuclear power was a rather brave stand for a labor leader. The building trades unions were fiercely pro-nuclear and not afraid to demonstrate that to unions like PSSU who strayed from the line. I followed Andy's move to head SEIU's organizing department in Washington DC under then-SEIU President John Sweeney, and then is rise to the top of the union when Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO in 1995. 

At that time, I was running AFSCME's health and safety department and although I was quite supportive of Andy's laser-like focus on organizing above all, I was quite upset when he dismantled SEIU's health and safety department, then one of the largest and most dynamic in the labor movement. I thought then, as I still do now, that there are few issues more useful in organizing than health and safety. (I was equally unhappy and critical when John Sweeney eliminated the AFL-CIO's health and safety department.)

And while it was clear that there needed to be radical changes in the labor movement if it was to have a chance to survive (or indeed, if the progressive movement in this country was to have a chance to survive), I had serious misgivings about whether dividing the AFL-CIO was the way to go.

So, I was quite happy for the opportunity to read Andy's book in order to get an in-depth look at what it was all about and where we are now over a year after the split.  What was SEIU and Change to Win actually doing that is so different from what other unions are doing?  What does it mean for the labor movement and what does it mean for America? 

The problems that Stern identified were very real. Unions weren't spending enough money on organizing. Too many unions represented the same industries, diluting their bargaining power. Meanwhile, America is in trouble.  More and more Americans are working longer hours for less pay, the gap between rich and poor is expanding, a growing number of Americans aren't covered by health insurance. Fewer and fewer have decent, guaranteed pensions. These are not just problems for workers, or unions or even just the middle class. They are problems for the entire country and the only foreseeable way to address these problems in a progressive way is by using the pressure and influence that a large, strong, growing labor movement could put on employers and the political system.

So what are some of the innovative things that SEIU and Change to Win are doing to strengthen the labor movement, and progressive forces in the United States? To name just a few:

  • Organizing entire industries and leveling the playing field for all employers: Instead of raising the costs of doing business for unionized companies alone, SEIU's New Jersey Justice for Janitors campaign promised janitorial employers that they wouldn't start bargaining with any individual company until a majority of the companies in the market recognized SEIU as their bargaining agent. were organized. In other words, SEIU was contributing to their employers' success by organizing all their competitors. The union is now using the same strategy to organize security workers.

If wages are like electricity — where every employer pays the same rates — then efficiency, innovation and quality will diver success.   Employers may complain about the price of labor, but at least they are reassured that their competitors don't have an advantage over them. 

  • Allowing SEIU members who worked in industries where SEIU lacked expertise to join other unions that could better represent them: SEIU had advocated a reduction in the number of AFL-CIO unions by mergers, and focusing each union on a unique industry sector. As Stern argued before leaving the AFL-CIO thirteen union operate in the airlines industry, twelve organize hotel workers, thirty represent health care workers and on construction sites, "employers had to contend with fifteen building trade unions divided into narrow, archaic craft jurisdictions that technology and new work processes had rendered obsolete."
  • Working with New York hospitals, SEIU Local 1199 coordinated their efforts to jointly lobby for increased reimbursements that translated not only into stable balance sheets for employers, but better wages and benefits for union members.
  • Building Labor-Management Coalitions: SEIU locals across the country are working with hospitals and health care organizations to improve the quality of health care for patients, as well as the pay, benefits and working conditions of nurses and other health care workers.

Of course, while working with employers to construct win-win scenarios, SEIU didn't swear off use of the stick when needed. As Andy writes:

Although we preferred to lead with the power of persuasion, with many resistant employer we were often left no choice but to use the persuasion of power. In those cases, we issued reports that documented the disparity between the lives of the workers and the CEO's who managed the companies where they worked. We publicized company failures to meet production or worker-safety regulations We talked with member of the companies' board of directors. We submitted shareholders' resolutions and mobilized community supporter. We asked elected leaders to intervene. And, of course, we also used effective old-school tactics: We demonstrated, picketed, and led strikes when necessary.

SEIU's recent hard-fought victory at the University of Miami testified to the fact that while the union is breaking new ground in constructive cooperation with management, they haven't forgotten how to take off the gloves and fight. And it's fight that will be needed if we're ever to civilize (and organize) a company like Wal-Mart.

And it all seems to be working — at least for SEIU. In 1996, when Stern took over the union, SEIU had 1.1 million members. Today the union is rapidly approaching 2 million members. 

So SEIU under Andy Stern is clearly doing some different things that actually seem to be growing the union and developing new ideas. But that's just SEIU. The question still remains, was the split with the AFL-CIO still necessary or could individual unions have followed SEIU's model from within the AFL-CIO? And will the other Change to Win affiliates be able to emulate SEIU just because they're now outside of the AFL-CIO?

In an American Prospect article last summer, labor writer Harold Meyerson points out that with few exceptions most of the big campaigns promised by Change to Win haven't materialized. The problem is that despite the formation of the new federation, responsibility for organizing falls on the individual unions. And while SEIU and UNITE-HERE have gone through the painful process of restructuring themselves into organizing machines, "with ample treasuries, smart corporate researchers, hundreds of organizers, and perhaps a dozen senior lead organizers who know how to run major campaigns," 

Two of Change to Win’s three million–member unions — the Teamsters and UFCW (SEIU is the third of the mega-unions) — haven’t done large-scale organizing in decades. The inability of these unions to organize, the UFCW in particular, has doomed the mega-campaigns that [Change to Win Organizing Director Tom] Woodruff rightly said were necessary. For as General Motors and Ford were to the CIO, so Target and Home Depot, and ultimately Wal-Mart, are to Change to Win — the commanding heights of the service economy.

One longtime union official who has worked with unions now in Change to Win sees the fundamental problem as structural. “They went and recreated the federation structure,” he says. “And the UFCW and the Teamsters still can’t organize. So they’re paralyzed. If you’re gonna bust up the labor movement, you better do something!”

Other questions remain. To what extent does SEIU's formula translate into more effective organizing in the shrinking industrial sector like automobiles? What about sectors like airlines where the older "legacy" carriers are being driven into bankruptcy by the newer, low-cost airlines that essentially compete on lower labor costs? SEIU has been hiring organizers to go to foreign countries to help organize multi-national concerns on a global scale. Sounds good, but can it work with the huge existing disparities in wages, benefits, working conditions and environmental safeguards?

Two things that Andy impressed on me throughout the book were that the labor movement has nothing left to lose. It's dying and something has to be done. Second, we just need to keep thinking strategically, coming up with new ideas and trying them. A lot of them won't work. But if we're brave enough to keep trying, if we sit down and analyze our failures as well as our successes, we'll eventually find a path that works.

Finally, I picked up the book expecting to read a book by a labor leader telling us about where he was going to take his union and the labor movement. When I put it down, however, I realized that it was really an account by an American leader telling us what needs to be done to reshape this country — and how it needs to be spearheaded by a vibrant, dynamic, growing labor movement that will help make the American dream come true:

Americans understand that hard work and personal responsibility are the foundation of our economy. People want a hand up, not a hand out — a chance to rise as high as their abilities can take them. Families want to live comfortably. They want to be able to pay their bills and put food on the table — without the recurring monthly worry that they won't have enough to cover their expenses. Or that an unexpected health crisis would empty their bank accounts.

Americans expect their government to work for them, opening the doors of success and ensuring basic fairness for everyone. American workers grasp that the world and work are changing from 9-5 to 24/7, and that global competition is forcing employers to change as well. Workers hope their employers will treat them as assets, not as necessary costs in the balance sheet of change.

Sounds like plan not just for the labor movement, but for a certain political party that seems forever in search of a positive, constructive theme to lead America into the future.


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Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab