Toward a More Perfect Union

For quite some time now, the labor union movement in America has been on a steady decline, in terms of its membership. Where once about a third of America’s workers belonged to a union, today the number is hovering around 10 percent. But the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — which has janitors, home healthcare aides, nurses, immigrant workers — has broken the mold and become the fastest-gowing union in the nation, with 1.8 million members. Much of that growth has been attributed to its president, Andy Stern, the 54-year-old dynamo who has begun to reshape not just the image of the union boss, but the reality.

Stern, who took over as president of SEIU in 1996, has begun to question whether union leadership in America shares some of the blame for the declining union movement. As Matt Bai pointed out in a Jan. 30 profile of Stern in The New York Times Magazine: “Last year, Andy Stern did something heretical: he started pointing the finger back at his fellow union leaders. Of course workers had been punished by forces outside their control, Stern said. But what had big labor done to adapt?”

Stern isn’t just concerned about the union movement, but about the larger progressive movement in America, and more specifically, about the Democratic Party and its inability to relate to working class Americans. Stern recently talked with AlterNet by phone.

AlterNet: So let's do some Monday morning quarterbacking regarding the elections. What would you definitely do now, given what you know now?

Andy Stern: I'd change the primary process. I don't think the primary process is geared towards finding candidates that contend to win in the states that are significantly contested — like Ohios, Wisconsins, or Colorados, Nevadas, or Floridas. I think our process is not geared toward the general election appropriately, so the candidates who can do terrific retail politics in Iowa or New Hampshire may not be candidates that can win in a campaign that isn't about retail politics. You know, that's much more about impressions and media, so a) I'd change the primary process, and b) I'd insure that in the next four years that all the work that was done on a temporary basis, in terms of voter registration and then talking to voters about issues was really institutionalized. Right now, the Democratic Party has been unable to maintain any kind of infrastructure or organization that could talk to voters regularly, so somehow there needs to be a permanent effort like the Republicans have — to register, talk to, get the voters aware of what the issues are, and not just 90 days before an election.

So you're saying it's all about retail politics — maybe we should define retail politics first.

I think it's very important that candidates can relate to individual people, but relating to people one-on-one is only one aspect. Relating to people on television, on a radio interview, at campaign events, where you don't get the time for people to really get to know you — there's a public identity and then there's a one-on-one identity in any relationship. So, I would say, obviously, John Kerry on a one-on-one basis — if he could've talked to every voter — might have been as successful as he was in Iowa, but I think in a presidential campaign, your impression comes across from campaign appearances, debates, interviews, and unfortunately what your opponent tries to characterize you as.

So in a sense, what we need is someone like Bill Clinton then, in terms of personality, with a strong charismatic personality that could override anything that is thrown at him?

I think you need people who either have tremendous political skills like Bill Clinton, who people learn to feel comfortable [about], or you need people very clear and decisive, even if they don't have great political skills, because you know who they are. I think when you look at the difference between the results at a federal level, and at a state and local level — for instance, George Bush won Colorado, yet there were huge gains in the State House and State Senate for Democrats — I think people make two very different judgments in their electoral life: One is what they send people to Washington for, and the other is what they expect people to do in their own state or community. In their state or community, they really want their problems solved, they want their roads paved, they want their schools improved, they want the money to be spent well. I think when people send people to Washington, particularly as their president, they really want to know who they are, they really want to know what's in their heart and in their soul, and I think Bill Clinton was skilled at least in giving people that impression, but people say it was phony and he was a shallow politician, but I think people felt like they knew Bill Clinton, that he was the son of working-class people, his family had a tough time, he was human and made mistakes, and you know, I think he genuinely gave people an impression at a different era in history, when people weren't looking as much for someone to be there commander in chief, someone to sort of recognize what average working people were facing, because the economy was bad at the end of the [first] Bush administration, so they were looking for someone who could feel their pain, who had a plan to help them. I think in this case people were looking for the commander in chief and I'm not sure Bill Clinton would have as easily passed the test in 2004.

So you're saying now it's about terrorism, and fear, and security, [more] than it is about economics?

Yes. Clearly, these are all broad generalizations, but amongst voters that are trying to make up their mind and that are not hardcore base voters, free of party, I think the moment of history that we're in is very important, which it makes very hard to decide what you want in 2008. It's hard not to imagine 2008 not having something to do with security, given the way things are and the Iraq situation doesn't look like it's going to end up in a stable manner, nor does Afghanistan look like it's going to end up in a stable fashion, so I think security will be there. But if there were no more terrorist attacks in the U.S. between 2004 and 2008, I think it would become less of an issue. But clearly, god forbid, if there was another terrorist attack, obviously it would raise the issue rather dramatically in terms of how important it was.

So do you disagree with people on the left, especially with writers like Jim Hightower or Tom Frank who say the answer is a stronger economic populist message?

No, I don't think you can win an election on it alone, but I think you could definitely lose an election, which I think hurt John Kerry by having a party that doesn't have clear issues it stands for. I think it only adds to the question of who is this person. What does he or she stand for? And so, even more than the specifics, I think people want to see someone who has core-strong convictions, and I tell you, the Democratic economic message is not strong, is not core — it's either let's go back to FDR and defend values that are now almost 60 years old, or let's be against what the Republicans are for. I don't think average working people look at the Democratic Party and say — I know what they stand for in terms of changing my everyday economic life. I can't tell you where they stand for in changing all the workers in our unions everyday economic life, so I think it only just adds to who is this person, what does he actually believe in? I think people are looking for different kinds of choices and do live in the world where they change jobs much more frequently and they do have a health care crisis that's raging out of control, but aren't looking for a single-payer national health care system as a solution. I do think there's a desperate need for a clear Democratic economic message that appeals to workers, not to entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and intellectuals.

You’ve said before that a Kerry victory would have hurt the chances of reforming the Democratic Party and the unions. Do you see his defeat as an opportunity rather than a setback?

Well, I think it's a tremendous setback — for the country, for our union, our whole life. Our plans for the next four years are fundamentally changed because instead of thinking about making progress for workers in America, we're going to be trying to stop some terrible things happening to our environment, our Supreme Court, our health care systems, our security, things that are really important to the members of our union, so there's a tragedy for workers.

Now, in terms of changing institutions, clearly, it has unleashed a sense that something needs to change and no one has quite agreed on even what it is. That's why I think understanding what happened in this election before we rush out to make the wrong conclusions is important. But one thing I can certainly say is having the Democratic Party stand for some economic issues that are important to working families, I'm willing to say, has to be pretty high on the agenda.

What is an effective union strategy, given that we're living in a highly globalized economy?

The first key decision you have to make is whether what you said is true. I happen to think it is, which means you have to rethink everything. You're not thinking about a country anymore, but a world. You're not thinking any more about jobs people hold for a lifetime, or jobs that can't be be outsourced or can't have people come to the country and do them instead. The solution is not to go back and try to say we should have closed the borders. Or that NAFTA was a bad idea. Yes, it didn't do the job it was supposed to do, but it's here now. The question now is whether we can change NAFTA.

So you just have to suspend history as an anchor and make it more of a guidepost. You have to integrate it with what's happening in today's world. So then the question is how do you have global unions when you have global employers? How do you have global institutions that not just protect patents of big corporations, but also make sure that people get their environment protected, people get their wages protected? So we're just not protecting property, we're protecting people. That we globalize rights, not just globalize capitalism and finances.

The labor movement was created appropriately (for its time). We had local employers — whether they were in construction, or hotels, phone companies — that then went on to be, in many cases, regional, national, and now international. Unfortunately, we have not been growing in proportion to the growth of these enterprises. So we're falling farther and farther behind because they are changing in nature, and because we represent less and less [sic] workers in the private sector. Had we done nothing differently, companies becoming global makes us — the U.S. part — the smaller part of their overall enterprise. And that in itself makes us have less strength in dealing with them.

So what are the basic premises of a retooled strategy for unions?

One, you have to start with a premise that we need global unions. Without global unions, you'll never have the strength to deal, build partnerships, and add value to global employers. Two, the labor movement has to organize itself so that different unions have the focus on industries. Most companies are not both retailers and biotech companies at the same time. Because there are different issues in every single industry, there are differences between workers who take care of your children and workers that fix your television set. Unions need a focus and a concentration that matches up with the employers' focus and concentration or else we'll never have the attention or the consistency of effort. Or there will be internal competition amongst the unions and the employers will never have to build any relationship with the union. Like with the airlines, where there are all these different unions that companies have to deal with all the time. So I think having global unions; having more of a focus; having institutions focused on uniting the strength of workers rather than representing a small group of workers in a company or country — these are three of the essential building blocks.

You’ve talked about taking on Wal-Mart. What do you have in mind?

Wal-Mart is the largest employer in our country, and the largest employer in Canada, and the largest employer in Mexico, and the largest employer around the world. It's also the largest purchaser of goods from China. So this is not just about what is the SEIU going to do. It's about what our world is going to do about the Wal-Mart business model, which is low prices on steroids. Will we pay no attention to employees, pay no attention to buyers, and only honor the bottomline of low cost? If this is going to be the dominant business model of the 21st century, it's a tragedy for the world.

So we want to change their business model. In order to do that, we clearly need to build coalitions with workers, environmentalists, small businesses, big businesses, all people who believe that the Wal-Mart business model is not a responsible way for the largest employer in the country to act. At the same time, we're trying to get the AFL-CIO particularly to increase its efforts against Wal-Mart, specifically on the union side. We hope that the AFL-CIO and the UFCW, the main union in the industry, will try to get Wal-Mart workers into unions in the face of some very difficult odds because of a very aggressive anti-union employer.

How do the unions fit into the larger plan of building a revitalized progressive movement?

I have a tremendous fear that we're going to have a progressive movement that's based entirely on social issues, or based on being against what someone else is for. What we need is the kind of progressive movement that judges itself at the end of the day not only on what we do for our environment, but also on what happens to people who go to work everyday. Do they have healthcare? Do they have a secure retirement? Can their kids go to college? That is the core test of why America was founded. It's not just about freedom of association, but also about being the land of opportunity. And right now, we're failing the test.

So if there's going to be a progressive movement, the goal is to change the lives of people who go to work everyday, which is what 80 percent of Americans still do. And that has to be built on a model of changing the way wages are distributed and benefits are provided in our country. One way of doing that is to imagine the government making all the rules — but that is not the choice America has made in the past. The way General Motors or mine workers got good jobs was through the idea that individual workers united their strength. The only way workers have any power is through having their own organization, which is the union.

How do we resolve the tensions within the Democratic Party between blue-collar and white-collar workers, be it over globalization or social versus economic issues, especially since the party is losing ground among the working class but gaining ground amongst professionals?

First of all, we have a global economy. We're not going to stop it — it's here. It exists and it's getting bigger and stronger. The questions are: What are its rules? How is it regulated? How do workers benefit, whether they be blue- or white-collar? We now see white-collar jobs enormously threatened by the movement of jobs to India and China. If they're feeling secure now, they shouldn't feel secure much longer, given the trends that you see and the projections that you read about. People also want to stereotype blue-collar workers as against globalization, or see white-collar workers as supporting globalization without rules. What everybody is really saying is that we have a global economy, but it's hurting some people and that it should benefit as many people as possible. That's the right discussion to have.

Secondly, the Democratic Party does have core values about choice and about rights for all people. I think those are good values. The problem is that you don't win elections on those values. You win elections by building a majority — the majority of people are not white-collar, intellectual people living in urban areas that make $50,000 a year, and many of whom are up-and-coming professionals. Building a majority comes from bringing in single women, folks in the working class, people with families raising kids. I don't think anybody after this election is going to claim that we're going to win a majority of people in the United States by having positions on choice and rights alone.

What do we have that reaches out to people whose real issues in life are how to put a decent meal on the table, get health care for their family, take care of their mother, pay for their prescriptions? Those are the issues that most Americans, because of their economic situation, deal with everyday. Choice and other issues are clearly important to one segment of the electorate, and I think important to the country as whole. But it's also very important to understand that economic issues are missing in the debate. The Republican Party has some very clear economic messages and some very clear security messages that ring very true in voters' minds.

A version of this interview will appear in the forthcoming book by AlterNet, "Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics," edited by Don Hazen and Lakshmi Chaudhry. It will be available in April, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.

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