Does Andy Stern Talk His Walk?

High-profile victories by SEIU often run counter to its president’s rhetoric about the ‘power of persuasion’

David Moberg

Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

Janitors in Houston’s office buildings, mainly recent Latino immigrants, had special reasons for thanks this past Thanksgiving. They had just won their first contract, which will nearly double their income over two years – now as little as $20 a day. But it took a month-long strike – backed by global protests, picket lines in other cities, civil disobedience in the face of police violence, and support from religious, civil rights and political leaders – to win their contract. Now the Service Employees International Union’s victory will boost other organizing efforts in a region long hostile to worker rights, including the current campaign to organize Houston city employees.

SEIU, the nation’s fastest-growing and second-largest union, often wins by using the power of its members around the country. For example, the well-established Chicago building services local led the Houston organizing effort. The union not only mobilizes workers but also employs other tactics to pressure employers, such as winning support from Houston’s mayor and focusing negative publicity on specific building owners, such as Chevron, whose janitorial contractors pay low wages. 

Such victories have helped make 55-year-old Andy Stern – the union’s president for the past decade – one of the most influential union leaders in the country. But Stern has also roiled the larger labor movement, leading the 2005 departure of seven unions from the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win federation. Contrarian and provocative, Stern seeks strategies that are at once visionary and pragmatic. He has also come under fire for being insufficiently democratic (even though he was once a pro-democracy insurgent), too eager to cooperate with employers and unwilling to defend traditional progressive ideas, such as single-payer national health insurance.

Stern’s recent book–A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track–is part memoir and part prescription for the labor movement and progressive politics. Stern grew up in a middle-class, professional family, which he ruefully acknowledges does not provide him the traditional blue-collar credentials of union leaders. He was headed towards a career as a lawyer, but a temporary job as a social service worker led to his involvement in the Service Employees, rising in its ranks through both appointments by former President John Sweeney and election campaigns, such as his fight against Sweeney’s chosen successor.

Now as president of the union, he thinks the labor movement must change dramatically. Globalization, he writes, has transformed the United States and the world in much the same way as the agricultural and industrial revolutions but with lightning speed, and consequently both American unionism and politics must change. The New Deal era – including its labor law, the industrial economy and class struggle unionism – is ancient history. Anyone who might long wistfully for a return to the New Deal policies of 1935 should consider that America today is as far from the time of FDR as the New Deal was from Abe Lincoln and the Civil War,” Stern writes. 

Today, he argues, unions must seek partnerships with employers that improve both workers’ lives and employers’ profits. And unions must be willing to take on new roles: Rather than simply fight outsourcing of work, he argues, unions should be suppliers of a workforce for that outsourced labor, in the way that the building trades provide workers for construction projects through hiring halls.

His insights are intriguing, but Stern’s analysis and prescriptions aren’t always consistent or persuasive. He argues plausibly that the country needs a new plan to deal with globalization, a plan that he dubs Team America,” which would involve business, government and labor. But he contends that companies, not countries, now make the rules for the new global economy, raising the question of why any company would surrender that power willingly. 

Stern ardently advocates – and dramatically practices – global unionism. But while he recognizes that current rules promote a global race to the bottom, he fails to offer a labor strategy for changing the rules of the global economy. He argues that labor should concentrate on organizing the service workers whose jobs can’t be shipped overseas, but new rules – such as enforceable protections of worker rights – might affect which jobs stay by reducing the unfair competition offered by companies that abuse their workers. 

Stern extols partnerships with business as a new strategy. Yet one of SEIU’s most productive innovations – organizing an entire regional labor market of an industry, like building services, in order to prevent non-union firms from undercutting unionized companies – is an update of the classic union strategy of establishing the same wages for an industry, region or economic sector. Also, many unions – including big industrial unions like the UAW – have pursued partnerships with employers over the years with decidedly mixed results. And SEIU has established its most successful partnerships, such as with the Kaiser Foundation hospitals, first by demonstrating its power and resorting to confrontation.

As much as SEIU relies on the traditional union principle of worker solidarity to win, Stern writes that the labor movement must adapt to American individualism in its strategies – potentially at the expense of solidarity. And after decades of corporations engaging in what former UAW president Doug Fraser called a one-sided class war,” which has resulted in growing inequalities of wealth and income, Stern’s dismissal of class as an antiquated concept alien to Americans seems off the mark.

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In a recent interview with In These Times, Stern seemed torn between a vision of cooperation or conflict with employers – as he terms them, the power of persuasion” and the persuasion of power.” 

He acknowledges that it’s time to discuss whether a very outdated labor law that’s now 70 years old is relevant in the 21st century and whether the labor movement would be better off without it.” The National Labor Relations Act, originally intended to reduce conflict, excludes large parts of the growing service workforce as a result of its definition of employees. For workers who are covered, he says the law has become a way to reduce the rights of workers to have an organization,” a reference to the ways employers use labor law provisions to delay and foil organizing campaigns. Maybe we should have more conflict.”

But isn’t his call for partnerships between unions and companies at odds with this call for conflict – and also out of touch with the reality of what corporations are doing? I think it’s in touch with what workers want from a union,” he says. When we’re polling them or talking to them, what workers constantly say is what they want the union to do is solve problems, not create them, at the workplace. Our workers, particularly in child care, home care and health care, are very focused on trying to make a contribution in terms of their patients’ lives and quality of care. You have to start with where are workers?’ not where are employers?’ ” 

Having initially argued for conflict, he continues to reject that strategy. I don’t think our model of unionism, when we start with the presumption that the employer is the problem, resonates very well with workers,” he says. Most people don’t hate their employer. They don’t feel they have a voice sometimes. They don’t feel they’re compensated appropriately. But it doesn’t mean they want to have class conflict with their employer.”

Ultimately, Stern sees workers and employers as having different but not necessarily conflicting interests. In any situation you need to lead with the best of intentions, because then you give people choices,” he says. Partnership may be too strong a word. The question is: How do you have a relationship among people who do have different interests? Unions represent an interest. Employers represent a different interest. But it doesn’t mean you can’t find common ground and common interests. So I don’t think we should approach employers as if they are the enemy.” 

In any case, Stern insists, historically Americans have never thought in terms of class, but rather individual opportunity. We need to appreciate from a progressive perspective that Americans don’t relate to class conflict,” he says. Class was an importation from other countries. It’s not an indigenous American ideal.” Such ideals are about opportunity, about freedom, about hard work, about kids doing better than their parents, about the American dream.” 

The United States is rich, Stern says, but the wealth needs to be redistributed. Yet redistribution involves overcoming both conflicting interests and an imbalance of power – not just reconciling different interests. Stern offers theories about cooperation, but in practice pursues redistribution through unionization and politics. 

While he dismisses the New Deal as old hat, he’s argued for strengthening Social Security by taxing wages and capital income that are currently exempt. And despite his controversial calls for a non-single payer universal health care plan to replace employer-based health insurance, he would reluctantly support expanding Medicare to cover everyone, or several other alternatives. But he thinks most Americans are individualistic and hostile to government, noting that progressives have failed for decades to win such a plan. Yet now, in a newly favorable climate, united labor leadership might make a Medicare-for-all law feasible.

Despite his call for visionary union strategy, Stern frequently seems to underestimate the potential for labor’s role and for progressive politics. He slips into calculations about short-term prospects even as he dismisses incrementalism. It appears that cautious pragmatism, not long-term vision, is driving his overtures to Republicans and his support for guest worker programs most other unions reject. 

Yet SEIU’s demonstrated success organizing in Houston and elsewhere raises hopes that more ambitious political goals – expanding on the New Deal for a global era – may be realistic as well.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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