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Posted at 8:21 AM ET, 02/24/2011

Andy Stern: 'It may not end beautifully in Wisconsin.'

By Ezra Klein

Thumbnail image for andysternexit.JPG

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

By Ezra Klein  | February 24, 2011; 8:21 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews, Unions  
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Next: Scott Walker understands power

Comments

Wow, that's a depressing interview...

Posted by: MosBen | February 24, 2011 9:29 AM | Report abuse

Like with all good jokes, the punch line comes near the end: "But part of this story is that the Democratic Party hasn’t embraced unions in the last 20 years."

Ezra, you and Andy make a heck of a comedy team.

Posted by: bzod9999 | February 24, 2011 9:49 AM | Report abuse

How were bussed-in union mercenaries able to occupy the Wisconsin State House - With their thuggish signs and garbage - for so many days?

Imagine if the Tea Party protestors had done that??? WaPo Editors would be screaming like a 2 year old right now.

Posted by: pgr88 | February 24, 2011 9:51 AM | Report abuse

bzod9999 writes
"Like with all good jokes, the punch line comes near the end: "But part of this story is that the Democratic Party hasn’t embraced unions in the last 20 years." "


Dems have embraced unions when elections are on the line. But they've hardly pushed a pro-union legisaltive agenda. In that sense, they're not unlike the Repubs & the social conservatives: they're great pals during campaign season, but kindof get forgotten when it comes time to push their agenda.

Posted by: bsimon1 | February 24, 2011 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Most of them are Wisconsin residents, pgr88. Not really sure that's debatable. Your post, on the other hand, *does* sound thuggish.

Posted by: arm3 | February 24, 2011 10:05 AM | Report abuse

The SEIU can only blame themselves for the position they find themselves in. Union demands, coupled with weak-kneed state negotiators, are the reason namy states face fiscal disaster. (States cannot simply print more $$$ like the feds.) Greed is a bad thing; the unions have been pigs at the trough for too long and now they have to eat a little crow. AND, it is not about their members, it is about the unions need to collect dues $$$ to finance their political agenda. Go, Wisconsin, go!

www.eclecticramblings.wordpress.com

Posted by: my4653 | February 24, 2011 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Ezra,

you're talking about THIS Andy Stern right because stories like this never make it into your world?

http://www.latimes.com/health/la-me-seiu-lawsuit-20110223,0,121746.story


At the end of the day unions have the right IMO to negotiate but they actually have to well, negotiate. The perverse incentives of governmental unions to push states to bankruptcy need to stop. I guess we need to get to the point where a state goes bankrupt (not just a city) for some to get it. Talk to the citizens in the Georgia town that went bankrupt and see if they get it.

I hope that the Bush tax cuts do expire on the rich when they're up so that liberals will find a new "bogeyman" to blame for their ills and realize that you can only tax so much before its unsustainable just as you can only cut so much before its unsustainable.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 24, 2011 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Stern is right about the US being an outlier in just how antagonistic the relationship between unions and business is. But he suggests repeatedly that this is the fault of union attitudes and culture or non-updated labor laws that don't encourage collaboration. And this is in part true; but the reason we have conflictual laws is because both unions and business have desired them that way, and business especially has always opposed the collaborative model in all its forms.

The primary reason the US is an outlier among developed nations is that while every developed country has historically had a business class so willing and eager to violently repress unions, only the US had a state and militia apparatus that was willing and eager to do it for them. This has led to an aggressively conflictual model of action among labor, and they rightfully recognize that any actions towards encouraging collaboration will be rejected by business and conservatives as corporatism. So the only other option is to build solidarity through organizing and hoping that the struggle doesn't kill it.

Posted by: batemand | February 24, 2011 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Stern: "But we’ve not modernized our labor laws in this country to support a new approach. They don’t encourage collaboration."

That's because, you fraud, no matter how you define it, or spin it, or slather it in cheap rhetoric, unions operate by extorting that which doesn't belong to them from its rightful owners. There can never be anything collaborative about it. It's as though a thief breaks into your house, and the government has a law that says you have to negotiate *in good faith* with the criminal, instead of just blowing his head off.

Posted by: msoja | February 24, 2011 10:33 AM | Report abuse

"I hope that the Bush tax cuts do expire on the rich when they're up so that liberals will find a new "bogeyman" to blame for their ills and realize that you can only tax so much before its unsustainable just as you can only cut so much before its unsustainable."

Both sides have their bogeymen, but I think you are right. I would posit though that it's been a while since we've taxed to the point that it's unsustainable - at least since the reforms in the mid-80s.

Posted by: arm3 | February 24, 2011 10:41 AM | Report abuse

"That's because, you fraud, no matter how you define it, or spin it, or slather it in cheap rhetoric, unions operate by extorting that which doesn't belong to them from its rightful owners. There can never be anything collaborative about it. It's as though a thief breaks into your house, and the government has a law that says you have to negotiate *in good faith* with the criminal, instead of just blowing his head off."

Right, because you know, workers don't contribute meaningfully as productive members of a corporate effort, right? They exist to be exploited only.

Unions wouldn't exist if everything had always been peachy-keen. How are conditions for the median wage earner in China? India? Anywhere else bereft of workers' rights or other regulatory institutions? Do you want that for the US? I don't.

Posted by: arm3 | February 24, 2011 10:46 AM | Report abuse

He is right the average Democratic Party members haven’t embraced the unions in the last 20 years. The leaders and elected ones in the party have totally sold their souls to the union bosses for their money.

Posted by: tateofpa | February 24, 2011 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Great interview Ezra. You are really at your best when doing these interviews.

Posted by: jnc4p | February 24, 2011 10:50 AM | Report abuse

--*Unions wouldn't exist if everything had always been peachy-keen.*--

No, unions wouldn't exist as the thuggish enterprises they are, if government hadn't granted them unwarranted privileges and then extended its police power to enforcing same. That is the whole basis of the un-collaborative regime in place today.

Unions certainly would still exist, especially when workers have legitimate grievances, but the issues facing Wisconsin teachers, et al., aren't really the sort of thing that Woody Guthrie would write a ballad over. In fact, one could argue that teacher's unions have become the exploiters, and that some major relief is needed in the other direction.

Posted by: msoja | February 24, 2011 10:59 AM | Report abuse

"... quality is your only source of job security."

Inside or outside a labor union, this is the take away from this interview. It should be obvious, but it is not always recognized. Quaility, customer service, and competence lead to winning organizations and winning employees. Not to mention leverage.

Posted by: nfb987 | February 24, 2011 11:07 AM | Report abuse

"Unions certainly would still exist, especially when workers have legitimate grievances, but the issues facing Wisconsin teachers, et al., aren't really the sort of thing that Woody Guthrie would write a ballad over."

What are legitimate grievances, in your opinion?

Posted by: arm3 | February 24, 2011 11:12 AM | Report abuse

The unions have become the corrupt elite. Their "noble working man" narrative is rubbish. They make 20-50% more than private workers. They have a monopoly. They use tax-payer money to corruptly lobby the Gov't in which they work.

Posted by: pgr88 | February 24, 2011 11:32 AM | Report abuse

--*What are legitimate grievances, in your opinion?*--

Not being able to change a lightbulb because the electricians union will go berserk.

Posted by: msoja | February 24, 2011 11:40 AM | Report abuse

"The unions have become the corrupt elite. Their "noble working man" narrative is rubbish. They make 20-50% more than private workers. They have a monopoly. They use tax-payer money to corruptly lobby the Gov't in which they work."

Pretty sure every article about this whole thing has stated that the average salary for a Wisconsin public employee (assuming that's who you are talking about - your comment lacks context) is 5% lower than private positions *requiring comparable skill sets and levels of education*. The pension benefits, obviously, are substantively better - who in the private sector, after all, has a pension anymore? - but that has been addressed, as the union members in Wisconsin have already agreed they should contribute more. As much as comparing apples and oranges is fun though, it still isn't relevant.

As to your assertion that "they have a monopoly," how much of the US workforce remains unionized? I think it's less than 7%. I would also posit that CEOs earning 184 times as much money as their line workers might qualify a bit more for the title of "elite."

Posted by: arm3 | February 24, 2011 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Let me clarify (though I am sad that I have to do so): what are legitimate grievances *justifying unionization*, in your opinion?

Posted by: arm3 | February 24, 2011 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Want to know why grocery prices have gone through the roof?

Ask Stern and the SEIU bosses!

Bankrupting the USA for sake of creating rich elitists and keeping liberals in polictial power is not a legitimate grievance.

Posted by: Patriot12 | February 24, 2011 12:07 PM | Report abuse

pgr88:
It's clear you haven't been in the Capitol Building. Families from across the state have come to rally. No bused-in mercenaries. You continue the Tea Party lies.

Posted by: madisonfoto | February 24, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

So Ezra now that we've heard from the union side of the ledger I guess your next interview will be with someone from the business side. President of U.S. Chamber of Commerce? CEO of GE? I mean to be fair shouldn't we hear from both sides? The fact is that long decline of non-public worker unions can be attributed to unreasonable wage and benefit demands by unions. Remember Eastern Airlines? Look at the the U.S. auto industry. Fifty years ago huge increases in wages and benefits were sustainable when the U.S. was at the top of the heap in the manufacturing sector with almost no competion from other countries. But now a typical U.S. company has to deal with foreign competion who's workers are paid a fraction of what a typical U.S. worker makes. On top of that a lot of times a company who happens to be located in a heavily unionized state like Michigan has to compete against companies located in right to work states who's salary and benefit structure are much lower and they don't have to deal with all the inflexible/inefficient union work rules. In a right to work state a company can actually fire someone who's incompetent or not necessarily have to lay off the younger worker during a downturn. I garuntee that you'll never see a Japanese car company set up shop in Detroit.

As for that harmonious union management relationship in Europe you so love: look at the long term unemployment and underemployment rate in Europe. In most European countries they're prettry thrilled if unemployment gets down to 10%. But at least they get a lot of time off.

Posted by: RobT1 | February 24, 2011 12:25 PM | Report abuse

"The unions have become the corrupt elite."

Stop looking for scapegoats for your own impotence. You chose servility and sucking up in the workplace, and now you're butthurt that you have to deal with it.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | February 24, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

A labor party, union and non-union, all levels of work, would make a lot of sense to me given the current erosion of representation.

Posted by: zorro2 | February 24, 2011 12:51 PM | Report abuse

The guy left the SIEU because he was the subject of a pending criminal investigation. Also note that unions like UAW hate the SIEU. The unions like the UAW that represent higher wage workers see the SIEU and other low wage unions as a bad thing.

Second I think all unions got a wake up call when America didn't suddenly jump to their aid. Unions have been unnecessary and especially unions that represent government workers and teachers. They not only are unnecessary but actually are a detriment to doing the job as effectively and economically as possible. Taxpayers in the end will benefit. I also think Gov Walker will be proved correct. Once the school boards can start firing "lemons" (bad teachers) and test scores go up the public will realize how good this move was for WI children.

Posted by: Desertdiva1 | February 24, 2011 12:53 PM | Report abuse

--*Let me clarify (though I am sad that I have to do so): what are legitimate grievances *justifying unionization*, in your opinion?*--

Getting paid for sitting in a jobs bank (ie., doing nothing) waiting for the evil corporations to stop being so evil.

Posted by: msoja | February 24, 2011 1:00 PM | Report abuse

"How were bussed-in union mercenaries able to occupy the Wisconsin State House - With their thuggish signs and garbage - for so many days?"

You betcha! Them thuggish mercenaries was bussed-in, complete with signs and equipped with garbage to occupy the State House -- uh, no, honey. So sorry, but you're wrong! They live there. Teachers. Secretaries. Civil servants. Wisconsin residents. Local folks.

And, "They make 20-50% more than private workers" -- uh, sorry! Wrong again! I wish you silly guys would check on this stuff before you post it: The reason the benefits are good is because the pay is bad. The good benefits balance out the low pay.

Maybe you're thinking, "They prob'ly make more'n me!" Well, maybe they do. Maybe they're more educated. Maybe you should go back to college.

Or maybe you should organize some collective bargaining, in order to spread some of the profits down from the top of the company to the actual workers who do the actual work. Used to be that CEOs only made about 30 times the average salary of their workers. Nowadays it's 500 times as much.

THAT is where the money is, folks -- in the corner offices and on the top floors. THAT is what you need to work on: Getting it back down and spread around some. Yelling at unions (which do that very thing) is short-sighted and self-defeating.

Posted by: CalypsoSummer | February 24, 2011 1:09 PM | Report abuse

A corporate chief officer may spend his day in meetings, read his email, make a decision about how many jobs to cut, how many to offshore, have a long lunch, take phone calls, and for his day makes hundreds times more than his factory line worker. Even during downsizing, he gets the fruits of the improved profit margin with bonuses and increased pay.

Meanwhile, the real wages of his factory workers stay flat or decline, his pension reduced or eliminated, his eligible sick days turned into "personal leave" combined with holidays, and limits put on how many leave hours he can carry.

The fact that many will say of the first, "he earned it" and of the second, if he attempts to join other workers for collective interest, "he's a corrupt thug extorting from business" sickens me.

A country that despises its own labor will be reduced to serfdom.

Posted by: hitpoints | February 24, 2011 2:29 PM | Report abuse

"--*Let me clarify (though I am sad that I have to do so): what are legitimate grievances *justifying unionization*, in your opinion?*--

Getting paid for sitting in a jobs bank (ie., doing nothing) waiting for the evil corporations to stop being so evil."

Okay then; for a moment there I thought you were interested in having a conversation, but I see now that this is not the case. My bad.

Posted by: arm3 | February 24, 2011 2:38 PM | Report abuse

I can't believe Klien and the WaPo would give this creep any credibility by printing this interview. On second thought I guess I can believe it. Klien and the WaPo love this kind of journalism.

The least you could do is let your readers know who this thug really is and what he really believes and promotes. Oh, and how about telling your readers about Stern'connections to our President.

Ever take journalism 101????

Posted by: thehamptons1 | February 24, 2011 2:44 PM | Report abuse

That's an interesting interview Ezra, thanks for posting that. I was wondering what Stern was up to, hadn't seen him since his budget proposal (which was superior to anything else that came out of the deficit reduction commission). He struck a chord with his comment about "asking if we were just too limited by this legalistic process where we get recognized by the National Labor Relations Board". Labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan has made an interesting suggestion that labor organizing be added to the Civil Rights Act, but on the flip side... moving to European rule of voluntary unions (i.e. no closed shops).
http://www.thenation.com/article/154607/ten-things-dems-could-do-win?page=0,3

Posted by: beowulf_ | February 24, 2011 3:10 PM | Report abuse

While watching the inevitable but still surprising end of the Soviet Union..

.....and watching the fall of Liberalism.....

...I conclude that the latter is far more satisfying.

Liberals: Democrat Unionist Enviro/Luddite parasites on all things American

The next two years, as the inevitable end of Obama's failed administration approaches, the Democrats and their Para-Military Union Thugs will whine, distort and threaten.....

....and it will not do anything but increase the margin of defeat the Democrats experience in 2012

Obama will not get a budget or a Bill the House GOP does not endorse....it is over...

Obama will not carry a single state in 2012

The internet has allowed people -voters- to get more information, faster and in a less controlled manner than is survivable by a failed ideology like Liberalism.

Dare to be normal.

Posted by: georgedixon1 | February 24, 2011 3:21 PM | Report abuse

--*A corporate chief officer may spend his day in meetings, read his email, make a decision about how many jobs to cut, how many to offshore, have a long lunch, take phone calls, and for his day makes hundreds times more than his factory line worker.*--

Yeah, it's practically like being on vacation all year. Anyone could do that crap, right?

Posted by: msoja | February 24, 2011 3:28 PM | Report abuse

If the Democratic Party no long wants to associate with organized labor then why does organized labor want to associate with the Democratic Party?

Obama is a "Republicrat" who cannot win in 2012.

If Progressives don't organize & field a candidate to challange Obama for 2012,
Republicans will win the White House, take control of the Senate & America's workers will become "wage slaves", living in "tar paper shacks" & working for a bowl of rice a day!

Posted by: mikeconville | February 24, 2011 3:33 PM | Report abuse

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