Andy Stern: 'It may not end beautifully in Wisconsin.'
Last year, Andy Stern retired as the president of SEIU, the service employees union that he'd built into a 2.2 million member heavyweight. During his tenure, Stern was known -- and sometimes reviled -- for his efforts to reform organized labor in America: He struck deals with corporations like Wal-Mart, led a number of unions to break away from the AFL-CIO and form Change to Win, and argued that unions had to modernize themselves and accept the effective end of the corporate welfare state and the dawn of a much more competitive economy, when contracts alone wouldn't be enough. Since retiring, Stern has served as a member of the president's fiscal commission and a fellow at Georgetown University. We spoke last night about where labor goes after Wisconsin. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Ezra Klein: A week ago, everyone I spoke to in the labor movement was convinced that Walker’s initiative was the worst thing to happen to them in a generation. Now I talk to them and they say it may be the best thing to happen to them in a generation. Where do you come down?
Andy Stern: It has that potential. The unions managed to strip the fiscal issues out from all of it, and Walker made such a big mistake exempting the police and firemen’s unions. He mobilized unions members in a way that hasn’t happened in a long time, and brought them together with students and other progressives. It’s turned into a Democrat versus Republican fight, not a good government versus bad government fight. Walker is beginning to look stubborn and inflexible. They’ve clearly raised the price of taking this action to a very high level. It was interesting to see [Indiana’s] Mitch Daniels and [Florida’s] Rick Scott back away from this stuff. But it may not end beautifully in Wisconsin. They have to be really careful about how that end is interpreted -- whatever it is. You have to think about how to not make it a loss, without making ridiculous claims that you’ve won.
But this is what we do best in labor: fight back. Our question going forward is how do we change our posture on budget and fiscal issues so we’re not always looking like an impediment. Budget and pensions are math. There is a problem in Wisconsin next year, as there is in 44 other states. And the union eventually made a decision about contributing to solve the problem, but doing it under duress looks different than doing it as part of a collaborative process.
EK: You mention collaborative processes. I’ve been asking labor experts about the sharp decline of unions in America versus their relative health in Europe and Canada, and one answer some have given is that the animosity between unions and workplaces -- and, to some degree, the conservative party -- in America is unique. In other countries, it’s not so bitter. It can even be friendly. Do you buy that?
AS: I think we grew up in that culture. In the '30s, people didn’t want us to exist. We had to do sit-down strikes and various other things. We had socialist and communist tendencies. We grew up, to speak in Marxist terms, in a world with a lot more class struggle. And there still obviously are differences between people, but it’s not viewed through that light anymore. There’s a difference between saying corporations can be greedy and Citizens United is a bad decision and real class struggle. We have this anti-employer, they’re going to kill us we need to kill them first, mentality. We’ve done a very bad job, for instance, making alliances with small businesses.
We need an ideology based around working with employers to build skills in our workers, to train them for success. That message and approach can attract different people than the “we need to stand up for the working class!” approach. That approach is about conflict, and a lot of people don’t want more conflict. I remember that the first contract I ever negotiated with the state of Pennsylvania, I said, “no contract, no work.” That’s what I thought you did. And now I wonder, what was that about? I was just copying an older culture. But we’ve not modernized our labor laws in this country to support a new approach. They don’t encourage collaboration. We’ve done nothing to incentivize a non-traditional collective bargaining relationship. All these multinational companies in Europe now have works councils.
EK: Let me interrupt you to plead ignorance. What’s a “works council”?
AS: In European situations, every workplace has to have a works council. It’s not necessarily a union, but a collaborative group that meets about production, quality, and many other things. They’re elected, and the union often runs for election. But they don’t always win. And this is just in the culture. Labor meets with management to talk about things. We’ve never, as a union movement, promoted partnerships with employers where we talk about how to share in success and in skills and training. You say those things in the labor movement and they go over well with workers and employers and badly with activists. To the activists, this is sell-out language. So I think the labor movement is doing a great job standing up and building something big in Wisconsin, but I think they seem like a legacy institution and not an institution of the future. And legacies get shed. The question is does anything replace them?
EK: When you left SEIU last year, my private suspicion was that you were leaving because you didn’t see a future for the labor movement. You’d broken SEIU and your allied unions off into Change to Win, and that didn’t reverse the decline. You’d helped to elect Barack Obama, and gotten health-care reform passed, and those were major accomplishments, but it seemed to me that if you’d seen a path forward for union density, you would have stuck around once they were finished. Was I right?
AS: What I would say is I felt that the next strategy of change would be different. I had tried everything I knew. I was too much of a victim of the model I created. I tried Change to Win and helping Obama, and then I just ran out of Andy Stern ideas. Before I left, I did two things: I put all the top leaders under 50 in the union together and asked what the future of the labor movement was. And then I created an innovation fund asking how to create organizations that would change workers lives, asking if we were just too limited by this legalistic process where we get recognized by the National Labor Relations Board. And that was kind of my last contribution. An acknowledgment that I had taken this as far as I could take it. That’s when you leave, When you don’t feel capable of being the innovator anymore. Not that it’s hopeless, but it wasn’t the sort of problem where I thought, “oh my god, I can’t believe I forgot about that idea!”
EK: Since you’ve left, have you heard any ideas, or seen any initiatives, that have made you optimistic about the future of organized labor, or some successor organization?
AS: When I left SEIU, we had started, two years earlier, this quality public service agenda, which was trying to say to our members what I think the United Autoworkers learned: that quality is our only job security in the long run. You can use lots of things like politics and the natural slowness of change, but in the end, if people are waiting on long lines at the DMV, something will happen eventually. Subcontracting, technology, or something else will begin to replace you. When I started work, the largest job classification in most units was secretary. Now that classification has been devastated by technology. So in the end, the question is whether the public-sector unions can get on the side of innovation and quality. That’s a process we were working on in the public sector, but the recession and the budget crisis changed everything. We went into survival mode.
EK: But that wasn’t an inevitable outcome. The Great Depression, of course, was a huge boost for the labor movement. The Great Recession has been a huge blow to it. I’ve been kicking around a theory that Obama and the Democrats were loathe -- for reasons that made pragmatic sense -- to really create a persuasive narrative around what had gone wrong in the country. Doing so would’ve meant vilifying Wall Street, and they needed the market to stabilize, and employers to start hiring again. Plus, they didn’t really believe it. But that left a vacuum that Republicans occupied with a different set of villains: Government, and by association, labor unions, particularly public-employee labor unions. Think there’s any truth to that?
AS: I would say that Republicans have been very successful. There are three things Americans don’t like: Big unions, big government, and big corporations. So Republicans go after big government and big unions, and only talk about small businesses. And it’s worked. Where does the union movement have enough penetration in an industry of this century to be disruptive? We’re down to 6.2 percent in the private sector. The forces that don’t like unions there have largely finished with us. And now they’re moving to the public sector. But part of this story is that the Democratic Party hasn’t embraced unions in the last 20 years. Republicans understood unions as an ally of the Democratic Party. But unions couldn’t get Democrats to embrace unions as a response. They made the argument that making more union members was how you make more Democrats, and that argument is true, but they couldn’t get the Democratic Party to really embrace that theory. Today, no one thinks about any type of labor or industrial policy at all.
Photo credit: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
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