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Andy Stern: 'We need to make ourselves more involved in these people's career planning'

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In the final days of the health-care reform effort, organized labor has stepped up as the bill's most able enforcer, threatening primary challenges against recalcitrant Democrats and ignoring substantive setbacks (like the excise tax) in their push to get the bill over the finish line. Earlier today I spoke with Andy Stern, who heads the Service Employees International Union, one of America's largest unions and unquestionably the one that's been most engaged and influential on health-care reform.

It's been fascinating watching the left come together this week. Both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, despite having to swallow a strengthening of the excise tax, are aggressively lobbying for the bill's passage. Dennis Kucinich decided to support the legislation.

Dennis was particularly significant and symbolic. It really said something to people who've been arguing that this bill is not a step forward and will take us away from progressive reform. No one has better credentials than Kucinich. There are differences of opinion here and Kucinich was the only one in Congress able to reassure people in the progressive flank that they're covered, that they won't be called unprogressive for supporting this.

In fact, I was on a radio show earlier and a called attacked me from the left for supporting the bill. And I said, "sir, any time I'm on the same side as Kucinich and the opposite side from the insurance industry, I feel pretty good."

What has SEIU been doing over the past week or two? Has the energy been in negotiating the final text of the bill? Organizing around it?

You can't get through to a congressional office right now. We're on mail, phone, member meetings in the field, letters to the editor. Our top leaders have been on reminding these Congress people, like [Rep. Jason] Altmire, that when they first came into our office because they were running and wanted our support, they said they were running for Congress because they wanted to fix health care. We're reminding them that they were right then and the time is now. Or [Rep. Bill] Foster, who we ran a significant independent expenditure for, we're telling him what it is our workers thought they were working for him for.

I have never seen our members and our leaders on the phones like this. We had members who worked three to six months on these people's campaigns. They were there when they first ran for office. We've been essential to how they got to where they are. And we're privileged that we get face time with them.

In order to hit the deficit targets in the reconciliation bill, Democrats made the excise tax stronger by indexing it to inflation rather than inflation plus one percentage point. How did that affect your support?

I appreciate that many people have incredibly serious policy issues they're dealing with, whether you're dealing with immigration issues or facilities in your district. We've been doing that, but we appreciate that none of it matters if we don't pass the bill. We've spent a certain amount of time on policy but it hasn't prevented us from being all-out, full-time supporters.

The level of mobilization here at the end has surprised me. Moral suasion is pretty common in these campaign, but I've never seen this many public threats of primary challenges.

The last time it was threatened -- and it was more hollow then -- was NAFTA. But the third rail that's being discussed today is whether if you have two candidates, a Democrat and a Republican who are both representing insurers, whether you'd run a candidate representing reform. That line has never been crossed by major groups like unions. But we're crossing it now.

How much of the labor movement's urgency is driven by their history of almost passing health-care reform, only to see it perish towards the end?

It's based on a deep understanding of that. But it's also that if Democrats can't rally to do this, then there's an incredible feeling of frustration that for all the work our members did to build these majorities, that it didn't work. We had 60 votes and we had to make major changes in the bill due to defections, and now in the House we're scurrying around looking for votes despite having more than 37 votes as cushion. There's the feeling that there hasn't been enough accountability, that we're being taken for granted. If careers, rather than issues, drive the decision making, then we need to make ourselves more involved in these people's career planning.

Do you think the bill will pass?

There are lots of positive signs. There are a number of people we've talked to who, now that they've seen the numbers, feel they have the information. The numbers are improving every day. We're not stalled.

And what happens if the bill passes? Republicans are talking about running on repeal. Is there much discussion of a post-passage political strategy?

People are very much talking about it. It'll be helped by which parts of the bill go into effect immediately. It's hard to talk about things that'll happen in 2019. But if you can say to people that if your kid is 26 years old, you can keep him on your insurance plan? Or there are no more lifetime caps? They get that. They get that someone may actually stop these insurance companies.

The bill isn't law yet, but while I have you on the phone, what have been the lessons of this effort?

First, the longer you wait, the harder it gets and the worse it gets. Time for deliberation is appropriate, but indecision and delay are counterproductive to getting something done. The choices don't get easier over time. They get harder.

Second, people have to decide whether people in the same party will use procedural tricks to trip up their teammates. Or whether parties, particularly the Democratic Party, appreciates that the special deals and earmarks that might traditionally have been part of the process no longer work. Politicians used to bring kickbacks home to their district, but now people think the system is corrupt.

Governing honestly and openly and voting based on what's good for the country rather than for your election actually means something right now. It's really dangerous right now to be seen being corrupt in a corrupt system. Ben Nelson used to look like an honorable person in a corrupt system. Then he flipped to looking like one of the corruptors.

Photo credit: David Scull/Bloomberg News

By Ezra Klein  |  March 18, 2010; 5:56 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews  
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Next: Reconciliation

Comments

ezra,


i'm so so disappointed you refer to the excise tax as a "setback". I know you meant to say it was a setback that it was so hopelessly watered down, right?

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 18, 2010 6:45 PM | Report abuse

@VB: its a setback for labor, not necessarily a setback in general. Moving away from the employer insurance tax advantage is good policy even if it hurts people that traded wages for health care in contracts. Stern and his group are biting the bullet for the greater good.

Posted by: srw3 | March 18, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse

srw3,

as long as we know they don't care about cost and just their membership.

how bout this:

People are very much talking about it. It'll be helped by which parts of the bill go into effect immediately. It's hard to talk about things that'll happen in 2019. But if you can say to people that if your kid is 26 years old, you can keep him on your insurance plan?

Do they think the money to pay for this comes out of thin air?

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 18, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Stern,

You've been really impressive through this whole process. If this doesn't pass, please let me know where to send a check to support those primary challenges.

Brendan, (originally from) Detroit, MI

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | March 18, 2010 7:03 PM | Report abuse

"If careers, rather than issues, drive the decision making, then we need to make ourselves more involved in these people's career planning." -- Stern

Fantastic quote, so important and so true.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | March 18, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Andy Stern is a cheap Union THUG whose only interest is to unionize every health care worker in the nation IF this smelly pile of donkey dung happens to pass. It's not enough that corrupt Unions have destroyed the automotive industry and the airline industry, the steel industry, Education and everything else they touch. Now they want to destroy the best health care industry on the planet. This greedy little communist puke has Obummer in his back pocket and pulls him out to give him marching orders. We are on to you, Stern. There are 37 States who are preparing legal forms and lawsuits to be filed if and when this Obamination passes. It is clearly UNCONSTITUTIONAL on many levels and will be knocked down by the Supreme Court. Somewhere in Georgia Jimmy Carter is laughing his butt off. He has been replaced as the worst president in this nations history! You will all go down in flames in November!!

Posted by: coffeenerves | March 18, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

Hey Coffee Nerves, tell us how you really feel.

Well, at least when your "rent-a-troll" contract runs out there's always COBRA.

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | March 18, 2010 7:32 PM | Report abuse

Gee, we still haven't seen everything that's in this bill, but it must be really wonderful if they have to bribe and/or have union officials threaten our elected officials and use cheesy parliamentarian tricks like reconciliation to ram it through. http://presidentsuit.com, home of President Suit, Savior of the World, daily snarky political humor

Posted by: PresidentSuit | March 18, 2010 8:35 PM | Report abuse

Andy Stern is Exhibit A in what's wrong with the progressive coalition today. He cares only about his own narrow interests. He said early on that the public option wasn't important to him and that he would pretty much sign on to anything in return for Obama's vague commitment to support EFCA some day. Andy Stern is not well liked by the rank and file and hopefully his days of leadership are numbered.

Posted by: bmull | March 18, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

Typo alert: "In fact, I was on a radio show earlier and a called [sic] attacked me from the left for supporting the bill."

Posted by: MrJM | March 18, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

Ezra is a lot more interesting when he isn't shilling for flacks like Stern. Stern on corruption? Talk about an expert witness.

http://www.politico.com/static/PPM110_091118_seiu_memo.html

If the SEIU supports a bill, it's a great indicator it's bad for my family, and the country.

Posted by: chris_bunce | March 18, 2010 8:54 PM | Report abuse

I should add that the new excise tax, dramatically increased by Obama, is going to hit UHW hard. Thousands of them are working for $10/hour for the gold-plated health benefits. It's going to be a disaster. No wonder UHW is trying to break away from SEIU.

Posted by: bmull | March 18, 2010 8:57 PM | Report abuse

I think I missed something- why is the excise tax stronger if it's indexed to inflation instead of inflation + 1 percentage point?

Posted by: Lonepine | March 19, 2010 12:56 AM | Report abuse

This bill does nothing to save me from paying $800/month until 2014, even though I only go to the doctor once a year for a physical. It's a choice of paying $9600 for a physical (plus copay) - EACH YEAR - or leaving myself open to losing everything if I actually get sick. That really sucks.

I would rather have the bill pass than not pass, because it will help me (I hope) 5 years down the road, but I'm blood-spitting mad and will get madder every month until then. If Benedict A. Obama thinks I will again donate $2,000 to his campaign and work long hours at his campaign office - or vote for him or any other democrat at all until 2014, then he's smoking something besides cigarettes. In one year he and the senate democrats have turned me from a passionate supporter into an extremely angry enemy.

Posted by: akmakm | March 19, 2010 3:12 AM | Report abuse

I am more afraid of Big Labor than I am of Big Insurance.

Posted by: JBaustian | March 19, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

its interesting looking at the picture and the grin he has, it looks like he's gotten away with something.

hmm.

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 19, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Stern,

I've played violent video games all of my life, and my hopes and dreams are to actually use this energy in some sort of real way. Who wants to tip over Cars after an NBA championship or soccer game. You have millions of people out here who want to hurt and maim in the name of change. Could I threaten these Democrats with you?

Posted by: givenallthings | March 19, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

What was the advertising rate that Stern received for this? Or did Klein just suck up for free? Yuck! Heading to the toilet to puke.

Posted by: parkbench | March 20, 2010 1:46 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for letting us in Illinois 14th know who owns Bill Foster.

Posted by: bill_baar | March 22, 2010 9:26 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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