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SEIU president offers a look ahead before stepping down

By Ezra Klein
Sunday, April 18, 2010; G01

Andy Stern is the president of SEIU, a service employees union with 2.2 million members. He led the breakaway unions that split from the AFL-CIO and formed Change to Win, and he's been a key political player during the Obama era, visiting the White House more than any other individual. Last week, he announced his retirement.

In a wide-ranging interview conducted at his office, Stern talked about his reasons for retiring, the need for unions to partner with employers rather than fight against them, and why the working class has every right to be angry at Wall Street and politicians. This excerpt was edited for length:

Ezra Klein: Why are you leaving SEIU?

Andy Stern: In 1972, I signed a union card for SEIU. And for the last 38 years, 14 as president, it's been my life. I've seen the most miraculous, spectacular things. But there's a time to learn, a time to lead and a time to leave. And my leaving really has two basic parts to it. One is the union's never been stronger. We've elected a president. We have passed health-care reform. We have the strongest and most diverse group of local union leaders in our history. We finished the restructuring of the union; our political program is spectacular in terms of the 100,000 members that participated in the last election; we have the largest PAC.

But every institution needs to renew itself, and I've seen way too many labor leaders stay way too long -- and politicians -- and I have no intention of doing that. The union is ready for renewal, and the first renewal is electing new leadership and then another generation of leadership to take the union to the future.

On a personal side, I'm turning 60. My father died at 68, got cancer at 65. I lost a daughter eight years ago, which I've been running from, so to speak, ever since. I need to get hold of my own life and my own future and my own responsibilities, and at the same time, the union needs to get hold of its future and its future leadership, and we've met at the same moment.

EK: And where do you leave the labor movement, beyond just SEIU? Density remains low. There's infighting among different unions. Where is labor now?

AS: It is the greatest middle-class, job-creating mechanism that we have ever had in America that doesn't cost taxpayers a dime. . . .

I think it's really a question of how, in the 21st century, do unions have the focus, spend the resources, have the plans, have the partnerships with employers, have innovation and deal with the fact that workers are going to have seven or 12 jobs by the time they're 35? It's not our fathers' and grandfathers' economy.

The labor movement needs to make a leap here, and we've done a lot of that work. But even in SEIU, you see the focus now on quality public services, you see the focus on whether defined benefit pensions can really exist in the long run in a globalized economy.

Over time, there's a question of whether health care can be employer-based. So I think we're at a moment where the labor movement both has to grow stronger and has to be responsive to the changes of a new century.

EK: It seems like you're saying that the labor movement itself needs to be less employer-based.

AS: I think the labor movement needs to be more industry-based, more sectoral-based, and more focused on the needs of workers. I don't think it can be simply as based on work site by work site, work rule by work rule, as opposed to industry by industry.

. . . I do feel like trying to figure out how to partner with employers, appreciating that it takes two to tango, is important. Our work has always been best when we try to make our employers successful and we share in that success.

EK: Obviously one of the big changes in labor in the past couple years was this split between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. If you could go back, would you still do that the same way?

AS: If I could go back, we'd have the same debate, and I think the result would have been the same. I'm not sure we wouldn't have formed Change to Win differently, have a little more integration and less of a federation; more of a sharing common service and sharing of common politics.

It's too late now to go do that, but I think that a union movement needs to be focused on growth and needs to share responsibility for things like politics and health care and immigration reform.

EK: The Obama White House has not reacted to the financial crisis the way the Roosevelt administration reacted to the Great Depression, where the revitalization of labor was a core element of their strategy. Can labor revitalize without a Democratic Party that sees its interest, or a government that sees the rights of workers to organize as core to a balanced economy?

AS: I don't think that there's any way for the country to succeed without wage growth and job growth, long term. Unions are simply a way that people get to share in the success, so that it all doesn't end up among shareholders and executives. . . .

Without a viable private-sector mechanism that's nongovernmental to deal with this, I think we will see what we saw unfortunately before the financial collapse, which is that the Census Bureau said for the last five years before that American workers hadn't gotten a wage increase. Goldman Sachs had said profits were at record high, wages were at record low.

So we had a huge problem before the financial crisis of not recognizing we needed wage growth. We got credit growth instead of wage growth, and you can't run a country on debt.

EK: What did you learn from health-care reform? SEIU was obviously very involved, and you personally were very involved. You worked with think tanks and corporations and built coalitions and were a frequent guest at the White House. What was your takeaway from that?

AS: Focus and tenacity matter. It would have been easy for us to say, "God, this has gone on in our case for six years. Why are we still doing this?" But when something's important and there's passion and dedication on the part of our members, a big institution can actually make a difference.

And the partnerships we've built with Wal-Mart and Better Health Care Together repositioned, somehow, the health-care debate. The fact that we could do things with the Business Roundtable and talk about what's good for America competitively, not just what's good for American workers, taught me that you can actually create an environment that makes change easier.

EK: There's a sense right now that the white working class is really angry. They've only abandoned Democrats in recent elections, and they've embraced Republicans, which is obviously not what you say they should do. What would you say is going on there?

AS: I would say that workers in general, and white workers particularly, are correct that their economic well-being is deteriorating.

Some of it has to do with the fact that manufacturing and other unskilled professions that were union jobs, that allowed people to live a middle-class life, are disappearing both because unions are disappearing and because of the global nature of the economy. So I think people are angry because they're right, their life is not economically as satisfying and certainly is not as hopeful.

Then I think they're looking for people who understand their anger and are going to do something about it.

So I don't think it's about Democrats or Republicans, I think it's about who's going to stand up for me, which I think is why all the earmarks and special deals and people using process to stop progress just infuriates people.

EK: How should workers think about the global economy?

AS: I think Americans know something is very different about work than it was 20 years ago. I think workers all know this is not our fathers' and grandfathers' one-job-in-a-lifetime economy.

I think it's impossible to miss the role of China particularly and India also in sort of its presence in the world at almost every economic level. Who would ever have thought that America would be focused on the value on the renminbi?

Twenty years ago, you couldn't get into China, there was no global economy and no significant trade, and now one of the biggest policy issues in America is, are we going to let the renminbi float?

. . . America needs a plan. And its plan has to deal with, how do employers in this country, through trade, through how we structure benefits, how we do taxes, how do employers succeed?

And for unions it means that we need to realize that capital went global, trade went global, finance went global. So how are we going to be local or even national?

EK: How has organizing changed since you left college? When I speak to people in the labor movement and ask them what they're doing, it's corporate campaigns, they're looking at balance statements, they're exerting influence on pension funds. It seems like in many ways a very different game than it once was.

AS: The fundamental issue about whether workers organize or not are employers, so look at what's happened in the public and the private sector since I started. In the private sector, one out of three workers were in unions. In the public sector, it was maybe 10 percent of the workforce.

And over the last 38 years, you've seen almost a complete reversal, and people who go to the same high school, the same college, go to the same job, if they go to the public sector they tend to be in unions. If they go to the private sector, they tend to be in non-unions, which says to me we've conducted the great empirical study and found that the employer behavior makes the difference, not the workers' behavior.

EK: Somebody made the point to me the other day that part of it has to do with the dispersal of the players. If you want to organize Motel 6, you actually have to have people get in a car and go to every Motel 6 with cards and try to get workers. Does the old model work with that?

AS: Unions have to understand the economic reality of our employers, so organizing one Motel 6 and trying to get those workers' wages three times higher than the other motels in the area is an economic model that will fail ultimately and force the employer to try to reduce wages and benefits, because they can't compete on room rates. So I think the labor movement has learned a lot more about how the nature of competition works.

It took us a little while to understand there's global competition as well as national competition, because we used to compete between the North and the South in the United States. When I started, that was the big thing, that jobs were moving from the North to the South, then they moved south of the border, then they moved to the South China Sea, and that fundamentally changed what a clothing or textiles workers union could or couldn't do.

So understanding economic reality, responding to employers' competitiveness, and then union playing a role of creating the floor, and the competition is then about other factors than low wages. That's what I think makes us successful in so many industries we're in.

EK: How do you deal with the idea that work has become a relative of income in many people's minds, and that unions are seen not as workhorses but work-stoppers?

AS: I think unions can be an institution whose contracts promote change, promote partnership, promote training, or they can be, "Here's Page 32 of the rulebook, and I can't move this chair to the other side of the room, because that's not my job."

And I think the world has changed so fundamentally, whether you have a union or not, that trying to figure out how to build a successful company, and for us, how do people share in the success, because we certainly share in the pain. The question really is when the companies we're employed by do well, how do we do well, and doing well isn't necessarily writing more rules or more regulations.

EK: You graduated from where, again?

AS: University of Pennsylvania.

EK: How do you, if you were talking to a college graduate now who has opportunities to go to Wall Street and make a lot of money, law school and make a lot of money, the Hill and make some change, why should they go work in labor?

AS: I would just say, it is an incredible institution that allows ordinary individual people to do extraordinary things, and that for someone like me who was a public worker in Pennsylvania, to be a voice for 2.2 million people, to help people change their lives and then help me change my life, is just something that money can never buy. And there's a sense of dignity and empowerment and decency that you get doing this work.

EK: Would you take a full-time executive branch appointment?

AS: No.

EK: Are you planning to run for anything?

AS: No. I plan to run to the beach.

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