In the Fantasy Land of Labor Theorists: Andy Stern’s Latest Contribution

Jay Youngdahl January 19, 2017

Stern has been talking about the future of the labor movement for years, with a dazzling variety of solutions and approaches. (Photo by Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Pre­scrip­tions to address what’s ail­ing work­ers and their unions con­tin­ue to come fast and furi­ous — and they are get­ting weird. Fan­ta­sy advice is com­ing from tenured aca­d­e­mics, foun­da­tion-sup­port­ed labor activists and cor­po­rate shills lever­ag­ing their for­mer union positions.

The lat­est entry in this pecu­liar sweep­stakes comes from an old acquain­tance, the mer­cu­r­ial Andy Stern. Stern, the for­mer pres­i­dent of the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU), now works for gig econ­o­my plat­form” com­pa­nies and is lob­by­ing for a New York law to refuse employ­ee pro­tec­tions for work­ers at Handy and oth­er such com­pa­nies. He recent­ly penned an arti­cle in Nation­al Affairs, along with right-wing think tanker Eli Lehrer of the R Street Institute.

Stern has been talk­ing about the future of the labor move­ment for years, with a daz­zling vari­ety of solu­tions and approach­es. Remem­ber his claim, and $14 mil­lion of SEIU mon­ey, that call cen­ters were essen­tial to high-qual­i­ty mem­ber rep­re­sen­ta­tion?” Now Stern and Lehrer argue that unions can sur­vive finan­cial­ly by sell­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion to non-union work­ers. A thor­ough read­ing of their piece, how­ev­er, reminds us that Stern’s incon­sis­ten­cy remains consistent.

Stern and Lehrer pro­pose to mod­ern­ize” labor law, by essen­tial­ly trans­fer­ring it from the fed­er­al lev­el to a sys­tem spe­cif­ic to states, cities or even indi­vid­ual com­pa­nies. They argue for rules allow­ing legal waivers” from exist­ing labor and employ­ment laws. Their idea is to give states, local­i­ties and work­places the abil­i­ty to waive” the pro­tec­tion of fed­er­al laws, replac­ing the stric­tures of these laws with rules of their own choos­ing, such as impos­ing longer work hours and elim­i­nat­ing over­time pay.

Specif­i­cal­ly men­tioned as ripe for waivers are the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, the Fair Labor Stan­dards Act, the Labor-Man­age­ment Report­ing and Dis­clo­sure Act, the Employ­ee Retire­ment Income Secu­ri­ty Act (ERISA) and the Taft-Hart­ley Act. The exact mechan­ics of the waiv­er process is unclear, but Stern and Lehrer claim these waivers will equal­ly ben­e­fit work­ers, unions, employ­ers and entre­pre­neurs, lead­ing to new busi­ness and rev­enue mod­els for labor orga­ni­za­tions” and new oppor­tu­ni­ties for entre­pre­neurs,” bring­ing more jobs and greater prosperity.

How will waivers help unions? Stern and Lehrer write that the more-pow­er­ful unions of the 1950’s pro­vid­ed a bul­wark against com­mu­nism and were often skep­ti­cal of new gov­ern­ment-pro­vid­ed ben­e­fits.” With an embrace of waivers, New­ly empow­ered unions could serve a sim­i­lar pur­pose.” Huh?

Lessons learned

Out­landish on its face, the arti­cle still offers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk about a num­ber of impor­tant issues. First, waivers would exac­er­bate the blue state-red state split. Advo­cates in blue states might be able to use waivers to expand work­ers’ rights. But waivers in oth­er states would cer­tain­ly be regres­sive. Look at Texas. Left to its own devices, that state’s dra­con­ian move to vol­un­tary” work­ers com­pen­sa­tion destroyed work­place injury pro­tec­tion, result­ing in extra­or­di­nary pain and suffering.

Sec­ond, as seduc­tive and prof­itable as these big idea projects are for Stern and oth­ers, they seem ridicu­lous in the cur­rent cli­mate and take atten­tion away from active orga­niz­ing. Labor has repeat­ed­ly tried to enact pro­gres­sive union leg­is­la­tion and failed. So, why would it work now?

Third, Stern’s pro­pos­al high­lights a crit­i­cal ques­tion: Who are work­ers’ allies? His­tor­i­cal­ly, the faith com­mu­ni­ty, left activists and oppressed racial and eth­nic groups have worked with unions and work­ers in com­mon strug­gle. But for Stern the answer is tru­ly creepy. For him, allies are gig econ­o­my entre­pre­neurs and the R Street Insti­tute, a think tank inspired by neolib­er­als like Mil­ton Fried­man and Friedrich Hayek.

Final­ly, ignor­ing the grind­ing pater­nal­ism faced by work­ers today, espe­cial­ly in the on-demand indus­try, those in Stern’s make-believe world preach that all can be har­mo­nious between labor and cap­i­tal, ignor­ing Amer­i­can his­to­ry and the explo­sive growth of income inequal­i­ty. Col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and work­ers’ strug­gle are not only dis­count­ed; they are often ridiculed.

It is impor­tant to note that Stern’s ideas are sim­i­lar to those of anti-union think tanks like the Mack­inac Cen­ter for Pub­lic Pol­i­cy, which pro­duced F. Vin­cent Ver­nuc­cio, now a mem­ber of Trump’s tran­si­tion team at the Depart­ment of Labor. Ver­nuc­cio co-wrote a piece enti­tled Right-to-Work Strength­ens Unions.” In their arti­cle, Stern and Lehrer sim­i­lar­ly embrace right-to-work, as it is, in their words, unfair to force rep­re­sen­ta­tion on work­ers who don’t want it.”

Organ­ic resistance

No one dis­putes that unions are in deep, deep trou­ble. But the advice of those who prof­it off their expert” opin­ions — com­ing at a time when col­lec­tive work­er-led action, the major bul­wark against inequal­i­ty, is being attacked from all sides — suf­fers from a sep­a­ra­tion from the actu­al lives of workers.

New ideas arise out of strug­gle, not from foun­da­tions, cor­po­rate shills or right-wing think tanks. From the work­er occu­pa­tion of Repub­lic Win­dows and Doors in Chica­go, to the Occu­py move­ment, to Black Lives Mat­ter, expe­ri­ence shows that where there is oppres­sion there is resis­tance. Each erup­tion pro­vides rich lessons. The most recent exam­ple is the Stand­ing Rock” mod­el of resis­tance, a form of direct action that com­bines lead­er­ship from those most affect­ed sup­port­ed by a pow­er­ful group of allies.

As inequal­i­ty and its con­se­quences mount, even more strug­gles and pro­gres­sive for­ma­tions will emerge. They are like­ly to be imper­fect and messy, but from them use­ful ideas as to the future of col­lec­tive work­er action will become clear­er. One thing is sure, though: Such a vision will not come from Stern.

Jay Young­dahl is a south­ern union and civ­il rights lawyer who writes the Rais­ing the Bar” col­umn for the East Bay Express, a news­pa­per based in Oak­land, California.
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