Andy Stern: The exit interview
Andy Stern is the president of SEIU, a service employees union with 2.2 million members. He led the breakaway unions that split from the AFL-CIO and formed Change to Win, and he's been a key political player during the Obama era, visiting the White House more than any other individual. Today, he announced his retirement. In a wide-ranging interview conducted at his office yesterday, Stern talked about his reasons for retiring, the need for unions to partner with employers rather than fight against them, and why the working class has every right to be angry at Wall Street, politicians and the rich.
Ezra Klein: Let's start where we need to start: Why are you leaving SEIU?
Andy Stern: In 1972, I signed a union card for SEIU. And for the last 38 years, 14 as president, it's been my life. I've seen the most miraculous, spectacular things. But there's a time to learn, a time to lead and a time to leave. And my leaving really has two basic parts to it. One is the union's never been stronger. We've elected a president. We have passed health-care reform. We have the strongest and most diverse group of local union leaders in our history. We finished the restructuring of the union; our political program is spectacular in terms of the 100,000 members that participated in the last election; we have the largest PAC. But every institution needs to renew itself and I've seen way too many labor leaders stay way too long -- and politicians -- and I have no intention of doing that. The union is ready for renewal, and the first renewal is electing new leadership and then another generation of leadership to take the union to the future.
On a personal side, I'm turning 60. My father died at 68, got cancer at 65. I lost a daughter eight years ago, which I've been running from, so to speak, ever since. I need to get hold of my own life and my own future and my own responsibilities, and at the same time the union needs to get hold of its future and its future leadership, and we've met at the same moment.
EK: And where do you leave the labor movement, beyond just SEIU? Density remains low. There's infighting among different unions. Where is labor now?
AS: It is the greatest middle-class, job-creating mechanism that we have ever had in America that doesn't cost tax payers a dime. I'd say the institution serves the right purpose, but as I've said many times, it needs to exist in the 21st century. We are proudly the only union significantly growing at this moment of history. At one time I might have thought this was a structural issue, but I don't think this is an issue of "Is the labor movement united or divided?"
I think it's really a question of how, in the 21st century, do unions have the focus, spend the resources, have the plans, have the partnerships with employers, have innovation and deal with the fact that workers are going to have seven or 12 jobs by the time they're 35? It's not our fathers' and grandfathers' economy. The labor movement needs to make a leap here, and we've done a lot of that work, but even in SEIU, you see the focus now on quality public services, you see the focus on whether defined benefit pensions can really exist in the long run in a globalized economy. Over time, there's a question of whether health care can be employer-based. So I think we're at a moment where the labor movement both has to grow stronger and has to be responsive to the changes of a new century.
EK: It seems like you're saying that the labor movement itself needs to be less employer-based.
AS: I think the labor movement needs to be more industry based, more sectoral based, and more focused on the needs of workers. I don't think it can be simply as based on work site by work site, work rule by work rule, as opposed to industry by industry. In SEIU, in places like New York or California, we've built a different kind of partnership in health care. When St. Vincent's Hospital closes, there's a way for workers who lose their job in one hospital, in our labor-management partnership, to be retrained to move to another partnership. We take a lot of the employment costs off individual employers and share them amongst a group of employers. So I do feel like trying to figure out how to partner with employers, appreciating that it takes two to tango, is important. Our work has always been best when we try to make our employers successful and we share in that success.
EK: Are you yourself leaving labor?
AS: I mean, I spent my whole life trying to change people's life at work. Clearly the president's fiscal commission [which Stern has been appointed to] is a big opportunity between what happens to Social Security and Medicare, who pays to fund our country, our huge issues. I hope to do more work thinking about the next iteration of a labor movement, about whether there other dimensions to add onto a labor movement, the pension issues.
How I'm going to do that, where I'm going to do that? The good news is I'm in good health, the good news is I've been vetted in order to get on the fiscal commission. I'm not running from any particular problems, I just want to take some time and figure out in my life where I can keep doing what I'm doing but in a way that I can also honor what I want to do for myself.
EK: Obviously one of the big changes in labor in the past couple years was this split between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. If you could go back, would you still do that the same way?
AS: If I could go back, we'd have the same debate and I think the result would have been the same. I'm not sure we wouldn't have formed Change to Win differently, have a little more integration and less of a federation; more of a sharing common service and sharing of common politics. It's too late now to go do that, but I think that a union movement needs to be focused on growth, and needs to share responsibility for things like politics and health care and immigration reform. The model of the AFL-CIO has much more been allowing independence rather than interdependence.
EK: You mentioned the labor movement's integration with national issues. It's been much remarked upon that you're the most frequent visitor to the White House. You're close with them. But the Obama White House has not reacted to the financial crisis the way the Roosevelt administration reacted to the Great Depression, where the revitalization of labor was a core element of their strategy. There's not been put behind card check, and that now seems dead. Can labor revitalize without a Democratic Party that sees its interest, or a government that sees the rights of workers to organize as core to a balanced economy?
AS: I don't think that there's any way for the country to succeed without wage growth and job growth, long term. Unions are simply a way that people get to share in the success, so that it all doesn't end up among shareholders and executives. Ben Bernanke would say that 23 percent of the inequality in America is due to lack of labor power in collective bargaining.
Without a viable private-sector mechanism that's nongovernmental to deal with this, I think we will see what we saw unfortunately before the financial collapse, which is that the Census Bureau said for the last five years before that American workers hadn't gotten a wage. Goldman Sachs had said profits were at record high, wages were at record low. So we had a huge problem before the financial crisis of not recognizing we needed wage growth. We got credit growth instead of wage growth, and you can't run a country on debt.
EK: Before the financial crisis, when there was some attention on efforts to rebuild labor, one of the things you received a lot of plaudits for was beginning to change the public perception of SEIU, its role in the debate. But as time has gone on, a lot of the coverage of labor has been about its internal battles, not only the split with the AFL-CIO. but with your breakaway union in California, your battle with Unite Here.
AS: Obviously, there's been a long history of unions competing, and it's only because we became so big and so prominent that there's any even attention on it. I would say no one did more than we did on health care. We had 400 full-time people, we ran a war room, it certainly did not slow us down at all. We are going to organize 120,000 new workers this year in SEIU, we were able in 2008 to run the most aggressive, effective political program in the presidential, so I think when an institution becomes as big as we are, and gets as high profile as we are, people misconstrue what goes on every day. I think it's an interesting subject for the press, but it doesn't really occupy a lot of time of the union, and the proof is in the results.
I think there's a bigger question, all those unions who supposedly aren't having problems, how do they get bigger, stronger and have a more effective voice for change in our country? Because everyone's refereeing our behavior, but they're missing that we're the ones who are, across the board, from financial reform and holding Wal-Mart or Goldman Sachs accountable, we're the ones who are being successful.
EK: But one thing I think that folks will say about the SEIU is that the big legislative wins are important to workers, but they've not translated into gains for labor. It still appears to be managing decline. It isn't clear where the shock comes that moves it towards growth.
AS: I'd say two things. For us, we're trying to manage success, so we have a different framework since we've grown by 1.2 million members. And we also decided at our last convention that the union wasn't going to be just about us, it was going to be about justice for all, and that really became the theme. And we said we wanted to win health-care reform for every man, woman and child, we wanted to win immigration reform, we wanted to deal with failed taxes, and we wanted to grow even stronger so we could deal with even more.
The question is always "What is the role of a labor movement?" How much is about collective bargaining, how much is about social change for all workers? And I think we understand we cannot make social change for all workers until we have enough strength, membership strength, and at the same time having membership strength and only making change for a limited group of workers is not what our country really needs for people that work.
EK: What did you learn from health-care reform? SEIU was obviously very involved and you personally were very involved. You worked with think tanks and corporations and built coalitions and were a frequent guest at the White House. What was your takeaway from that?
AS: Focus and tenacity matter. It would have been easy for us to say, "God this has gone on in our case for six years, why are we still doing this?" But when something's important and there's passion and dedication on the part of our members, a big institution can actually make a difference. And the partnerships we've built with Wal-Mart and Better Health Care Together repositioned, somehow, the health-care debate. The fact that we could do things with the Business Roundtable and talk about what's good for America competitively, not just what's good for American workers, taught me that you can actually create an environment that makes change easier.
And I think the same thing applies for the fiscal commission. If this becomes simply a question in Washington, D.C., that has been played out in Congress for the last 30 years, we will get one, predictably gridlocked, result. If this is about building a country for the 21st century where businesses can compete, where people who earn money don't pay more taxes, where we have fairness and simplicity in our tax system, where we deal with not just the solvency of Social Security but the adequacy of Social Security, I think we can have a different kind of debate. What I learned in health care is it just doesn't happen naturally. People tend to return to traditional, Washington, D.C., Beltway arguments, and what we learned in health care is you can reframe things.
EK: You've mentioned immigration reform a couple of times. Historically, there have been real tensions in labor about immigrants and the wage competition they bring, but the demographics of SEIU are quite different than traditional unions have been, and it seems to have led not only you guys, but also labor, to a new stance on this. Can you talk about how labor deals with and how labor interacts with the immigrant work force?
AS: I think for us, particularly, this is a union that has always had immigrants. We were founded by Irish, Polish and Italian flat janitors, people who were living by the boilers with their families in places like Chicago, and moving on almost every wave of immigration has people come to the jobs that our union represents. So it's had a much more full-bodied involvement in the union, in the jobs we're in, janitors, security, home care, immigrants are always finding their way as entry-level places in the economy.
Two, I think the labor movement has changed its perspective, thankfully, to appreciate that our members, our communities, our country is becoming more diverse, that we shouldn't be about keeping people out as opposed to letting people in, and that having 12 million hardworking, taxpaying immigrants who have no legal rights, in the long run is just going to undermine the entire wage system in the country much more than the fact that people are here.
It also means we have to be thoughtful, it doesn't mean we just have open borders. Countries have a right to make immigration policy. And I think that's what scares a lot of people. If it's just these 12 million people, we could understand that we need to get them into the formal system for security, wage and other reasons. We just want to make sure we're in control of who else comes here and I think that's fair.
EK: There's a sense right now that the white working class is really angry. They've only abandoned Democrats in recent elections, and they've embraced Republicans, which is obviously not what you say they should do. What would you say is going on there?
AS: I would say that workers in general, and white workers particularly, are correct that their economic wellbeing is deteriorating. Some of it has to do with the fact that manufacturing and other unskilled professions that were union jobs, that allowed people to live a middle-class life, are disappearing both because unions are disappearing and because of the global nature of the economy. So I think people are angry because they're right, their life is not economically as satisfying and certainly is not as hopeful.
Then, I think they're looking for people who understand their anger and are going to do something about it. So I don't think it's about Democrats or Republicans, I think it's about who's going to stand up for me, which I think is why all the earmarks and special deals and people using process to stop progress just infuriates people. Like, I'm out here hurting, and Ben Nelson is getting the Cornhusker Kickback, someone else is doing earmarks, and someone else is thwarting a debate about an unemployment bill, it's like, can everyone just get serious? I think when people don't think the party in power is acting in their interest, they look for change, and that's a very logical thing to do. I think the question for parties in power is: Do they have a set of ideals and issues that appeal to people? I would say it's hard sometimes looking at Washington, D.C., and looking at some of the practices in the U.S. Senate in particular, to say, "There's people fighting for me."
EK: One thing you mentioned in a bunch of your answers and all of our past interviews is the global economy. And you've mentioned it with the debt commission, you mentioned it with the workers' recent experience. How does that actually, in a very specific way, inform your thinking about what should happen? How should workers think about the global economy?
AS: I think Americans know something is very different about work than it was 20 years ago. I think workers all know this is not our fathers' and grandfathers' one-job-in-a-lifetime economy. I think it's impossible to miss the role of China particularly and India also in sort of its presence in the world at almost every economic level. Who would ever have thought that America would be focused on the value on the RMB? Twenty years ago, you couldn't get into China, there was no global economy and no significant trade , and now one of the biggest policy issues in America is, are we going to let the RMB float?
So I think the first thing is we need to know it's a very different economy, and part of it is the kids are going to have seven to 12 jobs in a lifetime. The employer-based system worked for a one job in a lifetime economy. It does not work for a much more mobile and ever-changing economy, because even when workers don't want to change jobs, the employers are disappearing even when workers want to stay with them. America needs a plan. And its plan has to deal with, how do employers in this country, through trade, through how we structure benefits, how we do taxes, how do employers succeed?
And for unions it means that we need to realize that capital went global, trade went global, finance went global. So how are we going to be local or even national? So our Sodexo campaign, when we're trying to organize these outsourced employers, is really now a global effort on the part of unions around the world. Our efforts to organize these global security companies, Group Four and Securitas, are now done with workers in Africa. We were down in Brazil last month talking to bank workers in HSBC and Santander there. I just think unions are more and more recognizing that we can't be national, we have to be international, they're beginning to figure out how to pool resources and work together and I think for workers it's all good.
EK: So is the future actually international unions? Does the AFL-CIO merge with the German service unions?
AS: I think with every institution there's a series of things that companies have to deal with. There are issues that happen because you live in a geographic place: politics, environmental policy, economic policy, that affect the people in the United States versus the people in France and those are the decisions that will be made by countries and governments through their own processes. But there are things about commerce that absolutely have to be done globally, because we are not going to raise the wages of the Sodexo workers in the United States simply by trying to organize 5 percent of their workforce here when the strength they have is because of their global reach. So I think the future of the labor movement is to neither be national or international, one or the other. I think it's a question of how you blend the roles of organizations to meet the needs that occur.
EK: To move to the last big change in organizing, how has organizing changed since you left college? When I speak to people in the labor movement and ask them what they're doing, it's corporate campaigns, they're looking at balance statements, they're exerting influence on pension funds. It seems like in many ways a very different game than it once was.
AS: The fundamental issue about whether workers organize or not are employers, so look at what's happened in the public and the private sector since I started. In the private sector, one out of three workers were in unions. In the public sector, it was maybe 10 percent of the workforce. And over the last 38 years, you've seen almost a complete reversal, and people who go to the same high school, the same college, go to the same job, if they go to the public sector they tend to be in unions. If they go to the private sector, they tend to be in non-unions, which says to me we've conducted the great empirical study and found that the employer behavior makes the difference, not the workers' behavior.
So now all the work to be done is to substitute for the fact that we don't have a fair way for workers to make a choice because the employers are very much involved in the campaign. We just did a campaign in Massachusetts for people who are taking care of people who are disabled or developmentally disabled, five workers get fired in the last week in a social service agency by Jackson Lewis. So all the work we are doing is unfortunately trying to create an environment where workers can make real choices in the absence of the government having the rules and regulations that it should have, which was what the Employee Free Choice Act was about, to permit that to happen. The effort to get employers to allow workers to make a fair choice, to be neutral, to do other kinds of alternative ways than elections to show majority support, has changed the very nature of traditional, "Let's go get the cards, go to the National Labor Relations Board, have an election," because the employers radically changed during my lifetime from being more willing to let workers to make choices to seeing this as a contest they had to win at all costs.
EK: Somebody made the point to me the other day that part of it has to do with the dispersal of the players. If you want to organize Motel 6, you actually have to have people get in a car and go to every Motel 6 with cards and try to get workers. Does the old model work with that?
AS: I think we've all learned that for employers and unions to be successful, we have to understand the employers' competitive situation. If you organize one food service employer or one office building, raise the wages incredibly high, that employer has every right to say, "How am I supposed to compete for tenants or clients when my wage structure is completely different?" So now in New York, every single worker makes the same amount of money in an office building, who's a cleaner in an apartment house, who's residential. Then the competition's about quality and efficiency.
So unions have to understand the economic reality of our employers, so organizing one Motel 6 worker and trying to get those workers' wages three times higher than the other motels in the area is an economic model that will fail ultimately and force the employer to try to reduce wages and benefits, because they can't compete on room rates. So I think the labor movement has learned a lot more about how the nature of competition works. It took us a little while to understand there's global competition as well as national competition, because we used to compete between the North and the South in the United States. When I started, that was the big thing, that jobs were moving from the North to the South, then they moved south of the border, then they moved to the South China Sea, and that fundamentally changed what a clothing or textiles workers' union could or couldn't do. So understanding economic reality, responding to employers' competitiveness, and then union playing a role of creating the floor, and the competition is then about other factors than low wages. That's what I think makes us successful in so many industries we're in.
EK: Unions have traditionally played two broad roles. One is to advocate for their workers on the shop floor with the employer, and the other is to advocate for workers more broadly in the national conversation, things like getting health-care reform passed. And I know there have been some efforts to begin to create a type of union, or something like a union like Working America, that essentially cleaves the national function from the shop floor function.
AS: I just think, if you look at the football players' union, it has a very unique set of characteristics, because they're agents, and what bargaining is looks different. If you take our child care union, where everyone's an independent provider, basically, and their interests are about not only, they're small-business women, mostly, taking care of a handful of people in their homes, they have a different model of unionism. We are wrong when we try to fit everything into these same model of unionism. Nurses have a tremendous desire about professional issues and their patients and quality, which is less of an issue for people who work cleaning office buildings.
So I think the question becomes, how do you build a model that serves the interests of different groups of workers, and that matches up appropriately with how employers compete and how employers are successful? We have to be much more innovative, thoughtful, quality-focused and competitive in understanding the competition of our employers or we'll become an albatross which they're constantly trying to shed.
EK: You mentioned the nature of work, and I saw this David Brooks piece the other day, where he said it's very hard to have class-based politics, or working-class-based politics, in an age when the rich work harder than the poor, they work more hours. That's part of the ideological change you see recently, where there's a sense that you get rich because you're such a hard worker. And there's a sense with unions that a lot of the folks who are in unions are fundamentally lazier, that they get by on rules and contracts that their fathers negotiated rather than making their car company the best car company in the world. How do you deal with the idea that work has become a relative of income in many people's minds, and that unions are seen not as workhorses but work-stoppers?
AS: I would say that for people at the top, since they get to make the rules, the rules work really well, no matter how hard they work. Whether you were born rich and the estate tax is reduced to virtually nothing, or you get legacy admissions into elite universities, there's a lot of history and self-perpetuation of the rich to continue to be rich that has nothing to do with hard work. And there are clearly issues in any employer, particularly the bigger they are, whether they're union or not, whether they can be agile enough, flexible enough, change-oriented enough.
So I think unions can be an institution whose contracts promote change, promote partnership, promote training, or they can be, "Here's Page 32 of the rulebook, and I can't move this chair to the other side of the room, because that's not my job." And I think the world has changed so fundamentally, whether you have a union or not, that trying to figure out how to build a successful company, and for us, how do people share in the success, because we certainly share in the pain. The question really is is when the companies we're employed by do well, how do we do well, and doing well isn't necessarily writing more rules or more regulations.
EK: Before my final questions, anything else you want to cover?
AS: It has been the most incredible journey because of the people I've met along the way, and the one thing I will miss the most are people like Verdia Daniels, who spent 10 years at minimum wage every night to go out trying to organize 74,000 home care workers. Ten years, money out of her own pocket at minimum wage, and then creates the second largest organizing victory in history. Or to watch the hunger strikers in Miami risk their lives because they believed in their own self-worth and their dignity. So to me the saddest thing is to not have the same sort of regular involvement with incredibly unknown, invisible, heroic, courageous, decent people.
I said "brother" and "sister" in the union movement when I first came in because it was part of the ceremonial stuff, but now I feel like so many people are my union family, and that I've grown up with them, I've watched the changes they made. What I'm worried about is looking back and saying, where do I find those heroes and heroism?
EK: You graduated from where again?
AS: University of Pennsylvania.
EK: How do you, if you were talking to a college graduate now who has opportunities to go to Wall Street and make a lot of money, law school and make a lot of money, the Hill and make some change, why should they go work in labor?
AS: I would just say, it is an incredible institution that allows ordinary individual people to do extraordinary things, and that for someone like me who was a public worker in Pennsylvania, to be a voice for 2.2 million people, to help people change their lives and then help me change my life, is just something that money can never buy. And there's a sense of dignity and empowerment and decency that you get doing this work. If you're coming to be rich, you'll do fine, union staff and union leaders do fine, but no one's ever going to be rich. But if you're coming to be rich in terms of feeling like me that when you leave your job you've really done something incredibly important, I am the richest person in the world.
EK: And then the final two, which I have to ask. Would you take a full-time executive branch appointment?
EK: Are you planning to run for anything?
AS: No. I plan to run to the beach.
Photo credit: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
April 14, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories: Interviews | Tags: Andy Stern, Service Employees International Union
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