Change Labor, Change America

Andrew L. Stern

We can’t change America unless we change the American labor movement.

Unions aren’t just the best hope for working people to win a living wage, affordable healthcare, and the tools and resources to do a job they can be proud of. Revitalized unions also are crucial to a revitalized progressive movement.

At our best, unions are one of the few institutions with progressive values that have millions of members, multimillion dollar budgets and the ability to do grassroots organizing on a large enough scale to counter the power of today’s corporations.

The 2000 presidential election clearly showed the difference unions can make.
  • Bush won in nonunion households by 8 points, but lost in union households by 37 points.
  • He won nonunion white men by 41 points, but lost union white men by 24 points.
  • He won nonunion gun owners by 39 points, but lost union gun owners by 21 points.
  • He did 16 points better among nonunion people of color than among union people of color.
So if more workers in Florida, Missouri, Ohio and other states that went narrowly for Bush had been union members, the past three years in this country would have been very different.

But here’s the problem: The percentage of workers with union protection is steadily declining—from 32 percent in 1956 to just 13 percent today. And the problem is even worse in the South and Rocky Mountain states. A map of the states with the lowest percentage of union members is almost identical to the map of states Bush won in 2000.

The decline in union membership continues even though people would prefer to be in unions. Independent public opinion polls show that the percentage of workers who say they would like to have a union has climbed from 30 percent in 1984 to 47 percent today—or about 47 million workers.

Why don’t they have one? The biggest reason is employer interference. According to studies, 91 percent of employers use managers to threaten and intimidate workers attempting to form a union. What should we do?

First, to strengthen the labor movement and thereby the progressive movement, we need to make employer interference with the freedom to form a union as unacceptable in America as sexual harassment, race discrimination or any other violation of basic human rights.

Second, we must work together on family issues that cut across racial and ethnic lines. One good example is healthcare. For the past year, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and community allies have organized in towns and neighborhoods to firmly root the 2004 election in the issues that matter to working people, not in the personalities of the candidates. In early primary states, for example, SEIU has been working with grassroots communities to deliver a clear message: No presidential candidate gets support without a plan for universal access to healthcare.

As a result of such activity, all the major Democratic candidates proposed specific healthcare policies that included how they would fund expanded access. It will take that level of organizing to win in November and then hold the new president and Congress accountable for real reform.

Third, we in the American unions must make a historic transformation. We have shown that we can win when we pool our resources and unite behind a common strategy to build strength in a particular industry, to focus on helping more workers to join us, to dramatically increase worker participation and to coordinate our efforts with community allies. That kind of focus and unity in SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaigns has helped hundreds of thousands of mostly immigrant workers in dozens of cities win healthcare coverage. And it enabled hospital workers in Southern California to go from 8 percent union membership a few years ago to more than 50 percent today—and win long overdue improvements in pay and staffing.

Yet victories like these remain the exception, not the rule. Too often, the labor movement functions as a loose trade association of 65 disparate unions, not a united workers’ movement. That structure and culture, whose roots go back at least 70 years, is not adequate to meet the challenges of today—such as helping workers form unions at huge companies like Wal-Mart, which are dragging down everyone’s pay and benefit standards.

Other parts of the progressive movement are adapting and changing, using new technology to spur activism and reach new people. The labor movement, too, must change and unite millions more people—with everyone’s help and for everyone’s benefit.

Andrew L. Stern is president of the 1.6 million-member SEIU — the largest and fastest growing union in the AFL-CIO, the largest union of healthcare workers and the largest union of immigrant workers.
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