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What This Country Owes Its Workers

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), made labor history last year when his group broke away from the AFL-CIO to help form a new organization, the Change to Win Federation. In his new book "A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track," Stern explores how both the government and the labor movement have failed to keep up with rapid changes in our society and the effect that's had on average American workers.

AlterNet’s Executive Editor Don Hazen sat down with Stern at SEIU Local 790 in San Francisco.

You're probably the most famous labor leader in America after engineering the pullout from the AFL and creating Change to Win. One of the reasons you bolted is because "rebirth," as you document, was not on the agenda of most American unions. But clearly, across the board, unions were all losing market share. Why were they so shortsighted? Every business or organization knows that you have to maintain market share.

It's amazing how we defied all the basic laws of economics: (a) putting extra cost on our employers that the competitors didn't, and thinking somehow they could compete; (b) at times slowing down the pace of change in a world that is ever-increasing; and (c) not adding value to employers, but in some cases adding problems. All of which makes no sense if you appreciate how an economy works in general, and how a global economy works at even a higher speed.

We all got brought up -- I certainly did -- believing that the employer is the enemy, he's The Boss, and somehow we just go to the bargaining table and make demands, and don't really worry about whether they can afford them or not, and we assume they're trying to short-change us.

Is it psychological? Is it denial? You see people voting for Bush because they don't want to hear about change.

I think you see people voting for Bush because people don't see an economic alternative in terms of a political party yet. One that stands up for economic change. I write a lot about my experience at the 2004 Democratic Convention, with Bob Rubin in the box with Teresa Heinz, people who fired workers when they tried to organize. There was only one elected official who went to the Bloggers' Ball, the rest were all in some high-class corporate event.

But they are changing. It took Howard Dean to teach them that there was another form of communication, which only proves that they're not leading, but they're learning at least. I think we're at a different moment.

I saw you recently on Wall Street Week, and you had great command of shocking statistics on the decline of most Americans, especially the gap between workers and CEOs. The minimum wage is so low, productivity is way up, but there's been no increase in wages. This seems to have gotten worse with Bush, to be sure, but the trend started in the Clinton administration. Are there any political leaders on the horizon, candidates for president that would be willing to put the brakes on the economic problems that you were presenting?

Most American political leaders have not yet come to grips with how profound the change is. It's not just an American change; it's a worldwide phenomenon. We have a global economy. The world is flat. I don't agree with what a lot of a lot of what Thomas Friedman thinks, but it is true. We have an integrated marketplace. Digitization is changing everything, and America has no plan.

I still think people don't understand that we're as far today from the New Deal as the New Deal was from the Civil War. I'm sure Roosevelt admired Abraham Lincoln, but he didn't build an economy in 1935 around 1865 America. And we can't build an economy in 2006 if even our context is wrong.

If you believe, which I do, that employers and employees are getting a divorce, the "one job in a lifetime" economy is over. My son, who's 22, might have nine to 12 jobs by the time he's 35. Only one-third of employers are even going to be around in 25 years, according to most economists. It just means that we're in a profound moment of change. I don't even think we're talking about the right issue yet. We're still talking about Democrats and Republicans.

So nobody's ready for it.

I actually compliment Newt Gingrich for at least getting it. I totally disagree with what he wants to do with it, but he understands it. I think actually Republicans -- you've probably experienced this in your own life -- get the much more individual orientation that people on the internet and young kids are looking at.

The old mass institutions like unions and political parties and churches are beginning to be taken over by evangelical churches, megachurches and MoveOns. The change is very profound. I think John Edwards gets a huge part of the question of inequality, I think a number of people like Barack Obama are figuring out health care. I think Americans are really anxious because of those statistics. And we have not laid out -- either as Americans or progressives, or Democrats or Republicans -- a plan yet that makes sense.

What about the information overload? At the beginning of the book, you recognize the enormous stress that the 24/7 news environment puts on people. You have to stay on top of things all the time. You sound like you're addicted to it, too.

It's like you get something that you've never had before in your life, which is access to every piece of information in the world, and the ability to sit here, pick up my phone, write back to Don simultaneously. I feel like it is such a new thing that there's no self-regulation. All you know how to do is respond. And you're afraid to turn it off, because you're going to miss something.

I don't know what that means for the next 20 years, but I do feel like when my kid gets a new video game, he's on it 24/7 till he figures out a more appropriate relationship to it. I don't think we've figured that out yet.

In the book you make an excellent case for the role of unions as a fundamental player in fairness for society -- of help even to those not in unions. But memberships began to shrink, public attitudes worsened. Why doesn't the public better understand the positive role that unions play in America?

I think people see unions as playing a positive role historically; the issue is that they don't see them playing that role currently. Because of this whole change in the economy, it's moving from more muscle-work to mind-work. We have more jobs in retail now than manufacturing for the first time.

Unions are seen as a relic of the industrial era, and what we and Change to Win are trying to do is create a presence, not as a "special interest," but as you said, an institution that's trying to speak out on behalf of everybody who works.

What about John Sweeney? He was the change agent at SEIU. You're here because of him. And you have dramatically changed his former union. Why couldn't he do the same?

In every institution, particularly now, there is not a "moment" of change. It's, unfortunately, constant change, because of how quickly things are moving. So you see companies even moving from public stock ownership. When we started some of our change at SEIU, we were talking about how we were going to do corporate governance work with public corporations, and now much of the money has gone to hedge funds and private equity.

From pension funds to the hedge funds?

Everything to the hedge funds. All of the sudden we have huge masses of capital, like Blackstone, buying real estate one day, hospitals the next day, Avis the day after ... It's just how fast the world is changing. And Sweeney made the initial appropriate changes to get the union improved about politics. He created the right idea about how the union movement needed to be restructured.

He did a very thoughtful report about the economy, which pointed out "these are the growth areas of the economy, these are the declining areas of the economy, here are the dominant unions in each sector." It led everybody to the point of saying, "Well, I guess we should reorganize. I guess we're stronger and more relevant in the places that we are, and we begin to organize in places we're not."

But I think he fell victim to the long history of the AFL-CIO, which was that the AFL-CIO has no power over its affiliates. And he really didn't want to take the risk to force the conversation. So he sort of hit a wall.

In the the book there's a section about you and your daughter Cassie, and how that devastating loss motivated you to fundamentally rethink everything. Can you say something about how that experience led you to take the risks to make this huge change in American unions and politics.

After losing my daughter, it didn't seem like a big risk. It seemed like the right thing to do. I spent a lot of time asking myself, after losing her, was I (a) going to come back into the labor movement, what was I going to do with my life, and then (b) I did come back, but why was I doing this? Was it a job? What was it?

I'd lived a lot for my kids, I live now for my son ... it just seemed like, I'm going to come back and do what I wanted to do. I thought about it and had been too scared to say too often in my life, whether it was the structure of my own labor union, or whether it was what I thought of the Democratic Party or our country.

It really did not matter as much -- what I used to worry about was what people were going to think of me, when they weren't real angry. I'd been through a tragedy, and that was the last thing I needed to worry about.

What would critics say about you now, 14 months later?

I think critics would say, well, they did leave, they did form a new organization, but we haven't seen a revolution yet. That was never my expectation. I mean, we built the new organization, we pointed it in the right direction, we've organized it around principles of a growing, independent politics ... trying to build relationships with our employers and understand the global economy and the competitive environment they live in. I think that we set the stage, and it's a legitimate question of the next five years, for people to want to see what will happen.

Five years at least, before you'll see change?

We've learned at SEIU that you have to get the inputs: You have to have resources, you have to have a desire to change the relationships with employers, you have to have a certain level of staff that can do different kind of work, and that takes a lot of time. But once the inputs are there, you get to see -- as we've seen by growing a million members in 10 years -- you get to see the output.

What we're now seeing in the other unions is the setting aside of the resources, the creating of the right level of strategy and not trying to organize one employer but trying to understand markets and competition. So we now have the right set of inputs. That will begin to produce a series of outputs but, unless there are changes in the law, or we can win some big victories with companies like Wal-Mart, it will be incremental -- but begin to accelerate if we're successful.

Let's stick with the big picture. In the book, you often sound almost wishful focusing on Gandhi and Martin Luther King. You refer to the bumper sticker "What would Wellstone do?" You make reference to "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell, as if you're praying for some big phenomenon here. What is Andy Stern's theory of change? And is it based in reality? How do you see things evolving over the next five to 10 years?

My theory of change is not linear. You can't plan it in a laboratory; it's not like mapping the genome. At moments of history, good leadership meets unique moments and things change. I'm not sure about the guy who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen [Square] or Lech Walesa, when he climbed over the shipyard wall ... like many people who had climbed over shipyard walls, many times in their lives, they didn't start a revolution that brought down a country.

Actually, I do see in a number of areas this country coming again to moments. I think we're coming to a health care moment. By listening to Lee Scott, the CEO of Wal-Mart, say to Charlie Rose that business and labor have to work together to change the health care system. This was in response to a letter I wrote to 500 CEOs. Some of these people called me back and said, you're right, we need to move to a new universal health care system.

When you appreciate how much money this health care system is starting to cost us, I think we can put initiatives on the side of the purchasers to try and force a different quality of health care and wellness.

It says to me that we're going to get to a 1994 moment. Now, in 1994 we didn't push it over, it got pushed back, and I think the same thing is about to happen with inequality. I don't know what will happen, but you watch all the minimum wage initiatives just passing overwhelmingly at the state level; you watch [Alan] Greenspan, Bob Rubin, Warren Buffett expressing concern. The new secretary of the treasury said, "The market's not working the way it should." Productivity is up, growth is up, but wages five years in a row have not gone up. I think people are getting to see the big issues that need to be solved. There's a frustration that certainly this administration has done nothing to solve.

In the health care section of the book, you say any number of U.S. health care models -- government workers, members of Congress, U.S. military, Medicare -- would all be far superior to our horrendous system, where 16 percent of GDP, I think you said, is being spent on health care.

It's gone up to 20 percent.

You call on corporate leaders to take a stand. How can the head of General Motors watch his company go down the tubes and not stand up for this issue?

As appropriate as it is to criticize the labor movement for not getting competition and change, you would hope that the CEO of what was the largest corporation in the world at one time, GM, would appreciate that they can't put $1,500 on the price of a car in Detroit and compete with someone across the river in Windsor [Ontario, Canada] who puts not a penny on the price of a car.

I keep saying, here are corporate leaders who patent the genome, tame the internet, built global empires, and they don't have enough guts to stand up and say, "This health care plan is not going to work for America." Or in the case of GM, it's going to sink the company, ultimately. So you wonder, is there any correlation between having a lack of courage to speak out for their self-interest in health care and their lack of ability to build good cars at the same time?

Sticking to the change theme, you described in a very positive way the organizing around immigration reform and how the issue has been reframed, when in fact, in the end, the momentum didn't have much impact, and the rabid anti-immigration people are still controlling the dialog. Going back to the invasion of Iraq, millions of people were in the streets -- in the U.S. and all over the world -- and were totally ignored by Bush and Cheney. Being in the streets and protesting has historically been social change's most potent strategy, yet it doesn't seem to have much impact.

I think we learned that there's nothing that assures success. We promised a lot of people in our lives that we thought we were going to change a state or a city or a country, and it doesn't necessarily happen. A lot of people spend a lot of time in the streets and in other places protesting, it hasn't seen any change. And that's why my theory of change always takes some combination of factors.

You have to be ready, but something "else" has to happen.

Yeah, something tips it. That's why I wrote about "The Tipping Point." All you can do is speak up, tell the truth, provide proposals, and try to elect people that would make a difference. But if anybody thinks there's a formula here, in the way that there is for making a drug, that produces the same result every time ... unfortunately change doesn't work as conveniently. Why I wrote about Gandhi and Lech Walesa, individual acts of heroism as well as women's movements, Rosa Parks, other movements that may have had a lot of individuals involved, it seems like it's the only way to prepare for change.

No one can look and say that it was that president who really woke up one day and said, "Let's change America." Even health care in 1994 came after Harris Wofford, who ran for Senate in Pennsylvania, said that the Constitution guarantees the right to a lawyer, why doesn't it guarantee a right to a doctor? When he won, and a combination of other forces, and the Clintons' arrival, you know, were the convergence of factors. I would only say that we each have to do our own share of what we can contribute to the change.

Through your organizing against Wal-Mart, along with AFSCME and of course Robert Greenwald's film, it seems like Wal-Mart has had to change some things. You mentioned the CEO talking to Charlie Rose about health care. Do you think that future change is about public relations, about affecting the corporation’s image? And then how affecting that image affects the company’s value on the stock market? It's not having 100,000 people outside of a Wal-Mart corporate meeting?

Changing companies may be different than changing countries, and particularly multinational companies, because brands matter. We've certainly seen that with the sweatshop movement, we've seen when BP or Exxon spills oil, it has a much greater effect than that unique moment, or when people are found dumping toxic waste into rivers. The one advantage of having big companies with one name is the reputation is very, very important to them.

That's why they keep on changing their names like Phillip Morris to Altria.
It's clear that the corporate social responsibility movement hasn't really been successful. They've been successful at getting corporations to adopt some policies, but they are very hard to hold accountable. The right job is getting the companies to adopt a set of principles, but they've never been in a position to enforce them. Now we have people coming out of business schools with degrees in corporate responsibility, but it really hasn't changed enough.

This whole question of having a much more comprehensive approach around brands, around exposing people's policies, like on health care in Wal-Mart's case, or the environment, is necessary. Modern communications, including the internet, are not good for them. On one hand, they've had the ability to buy the major sources of communication, but between blogs, documentaries, YouTube, email campaigns, you just see all kinds of opportunities for people to communicate and organize.

What about Democrats like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and others suddenly honoring the Wal-Mart CEO for being a great newbie environmentalist, while their employees continue to get screwed?

I don't mean to be cynical, but I'll bet you Wal-Mart sells a lot of Harvey Weinstein's movies. There is a problem when 25 to 30 percent of all music and movies are sold by a single supplier.

I think people sometimes see their business interests as separate from their political interests, which is the problem with the Democratic party -- we haven't been able to have a discussion about how are we, in a booming economy, going to make sure that everyone is working and getting paid, not just the executives and the shareholders?

The failure to have that conversation is why Thomas Frank wrote "What's the Matter with Kansas?" It's not people voting against their interests, it's that we don't have enough Brian Schweitzers and other people standing up for people's interests. I think when we do, people respond.

SEIU, more than any other union, invested big bucks organizing around the 2004 election. But it wasn't enough, and one of the charges coming out of that was voter fraud, that machines were fixed; elections can't be won because they'll be stolen. In some cases we have the potential of large numbers of people being cynical or just not motivated.

I'm a huge beneficiary of the current system only in the sense that money does buy access, regardless of what every politician says. But we should have public financing of elections. It's gotten to the point of outrage. I mean, how much money -- even a good senator who's not rich -- has to raise every day to run for reelection is not the democracy that's going to work as well as it does in say, Oregon, where they have two weeks' worth of voting, or by mail. We could have internet voting.

To facilitate voting, there are lots of ways now to validate people's authenticity. But rather than giving the benefit to parties to corrupt the process, we should presume that most people are not going to lie and steal and cheat in order to vote. We should have huge penalties for corruption, but we should presume that people want to vote, and we create a system that encourages universal registration and not limited registration.

You frequently mention the need for unions to work closer with business. One of your tactics is to force organizing campaigns against everyone in a given sector. What are the successes and limits of collaborating?

The successes are the home runs because our members in health care, job care and security see themselves as professionals and go to work not just because they're getting rich, but because they want to help patients or help kids. For them to have an organization, be heard, help the quality of service, get the skills they need to do their job and help their employer be successful, like Kaiser, is something that people really aspire to.

The good news is that when it works, it's what the employers want and what we want. A lot of people told us that we should get into the 21st century, and I say to a lot of employers, "Get into the 21st century. This is not the 1930s, and we shouldn't just be fighting with each other."

Unfortunately some of the things in the 21st century mean no more unions.

Well, exactly. As we like to say, people get choices in life. We're leading with the power of persuasion. We have lots of examples all over the country -- you can call an employer and they'll vouch that there's a way to have a responsible union. And when that doesn't work, we use the persuasion of power, like with Wal-Mart -- to make clear to people about what rights their workers are going to have, speak with one voice with their employer.

You're willing to make national agreements with chains like HCA, in their nursing homes. A lot of people see that as progressive and cutting edge. But doesn't that mean you have to declare some regions and markets to be kind of off-limits for strikes and such? Doesn’t that undermine workers and organizing in some of those areas?

In the agreements we make, we try to regularize our relationship with our employers so that nothing is unpredictable. One of the things we do is talk about where we can best organize the workers so that they will succeed economically. In California, we can say to them, we can organize your competition and organize you.

In other parts of the country like Texas, no one's organized a hospital in 10 years, 20 years probably, so it doesn't make sense for us to have our relationship start there -- as opposed to Colorado or Florida, where we just had two election victories with ACA Florida this last month. You make choices, you try to regularize a relationship.

The good news is the workers can. The law allows them to organize at any time they want to, so it's not like we're precluding them, it's just we're agreeing to do the work where we can both be successful.

You think you're getting the best out of those agreements? I heard someone make a joke, saying there's too much class snuggle and not enough class struggle?

I would say, talk to our members. We have some workers in our union -- janitors, nurse’s assistants, and child care workers -- who would never have health care in any other non-union job in the private sector. We find them and they have no health care, and we now have almost every one of them in contracts that have health care in them. So I say the proof is in workers' lives, not in people observing from the outside.

One of the things that struck me about your book is the constant message: work hard, work hard, and you should be rewarded. And I understand that when you're working with poor workers who've never had health care, the American Dream is something they certainly look forward to -- whether it's retirement, or sending their kids to college. But to a lot of workers, including some of yours -- especially nurses and doctors -- this notion of "work work" can feel like a soulless kind of thing. You don't have a personal life and don't have growth. It seems we learned in the '60s that that doesn't work so well.

My hope would be -- I still do believe that people should be able to have one job, and they or they and their partner together should be able to own a home, raise a family, and live the American Dream. So I don't think this is about working more hours. I just think that the work has to pay so that, as I write in my book, parents aren't switching in the middle of the night or the middle of the driveway passing their kids off to one another.

The problem is that this is an incredibly family-unfriendly economy. You look at Wal-Mart now, which has got this "random scheduling." You're taking your kid to church, or playing soccer with your family on Sunday, and you have to be available to get a call and go in for two hours. It's just insane.

I think we have a wrong understanding in America about what the middle class is. You can make $100,000 a year in America and you're not wealthy, with the cost of housing, with the cost of college, with the cost of health care. What we have not conceived of in this country is that if we are going to have family-supporting lives, we're not going to be able to have people work two jobs, or be deep in debt, or have to work the overtime.

But the statistics show that a lot of workers in America don't even take their vacation time when it is available to them.

I think that's just wrong. There's a quality issue to life as well as an accumulation issue, and having lost my daughter ... you understand there's no money, there's no achievement you can possibly make in your work life that could ever compensate for the other parts of your life.

We have no choice; we're stuck with the technology. It's here, and we have to learn to self-regulate. But we're not stuck with working two and three jobs. That's just the choice a country can make, whether it's Australia or other countries, where people still do work one job, they have health care, they have a retirement. They can still work more if they want to, but it's not because they have to.

Just two last questions. Some of the good meat of the book is your proposals for change. I only recently realized that income over $94,200 was not taxed for Social Security -- you say $605 billion in five years could be gained if this ceiling was removed. But I've never seen this on the agenda on either of the parties.

Here's the alleged reason for that: They say that at some point Social Security is supposed to be more like insurance, not welfare. So if people who make a half million dollars are putting in significantly more money than they'll ever get back, allegedly they're going to revolt and demand that it not be an entitlement program, and that it'll only accelerate the personal accounts. I'm going to put in a percentage of half a million dollars, and I'm only going to get $24,000 back.

So these affluent people will shoot down Social Security in the long run.

Yes. And then they say you're also going to lose some of the middle class, $100,000 to $200,000 earners, and I say, I don't care, put it at $200,000. It's outrageous that stock options and interest aren't taxed. So you take a paycheck, from the most average, hard-working person, and you take part of every dime off them up to $94,200, and the United Healthcare guy makes millions of dollars and doesn't pay Social Security. It's an outrage.

Anything that I haven't asked you that you want people to take away from this interview?

My fundamental message is that Americans expect to work hard, they sacrifice for their family -- but we live in a very different economy and we don't have a plan in America. Elected officials either don't get it or aren't standing up for people that work every day, and I think it's time for change.

One thing I do want to add is that after this election, we hope a whole group of people -- not just SEIU, but lots of people -- to start a new PAC that'll be called "They Work For Us." So we're hopeful that these newly elected congresspeople, who've come in on an agenda of change, are going to live up to their promises. And if not, we're going to start as the Club for Growth did, reminding them that they work for us. Accountability does not exist in America as a political system, and it really is time that people do work for us.

Last question: Do you think that people who grew up in New Jersey have better character than everyone else?

I think they have better character, they drink better, they like Bruce Springsteen, they know the difference between the beach and the shore ... [Laughing.]

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