Ezra Klein interviews ex-union president Andy Stern about the fight in Wisconsin

Andy Stern
Andy Stern
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011

Last year, Andy Stern retired as the president of the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, which he'd built into a 2.2 million-member heavyweight. He was known - and sometimes reviled - for his efforts to reform organized labor: He struck deals with the likes of Wal-Mart, led a breakaway from the AFL-CIO and argued that unions had to adapt to a more competitive economy. Now a fellow at Georgetown University, Stern recently served on the president's deficit commission. He spoke last week with The Washington Post's Ezra Klein about labor after Wisconsin. Excerpts below:

A week ago, everyone I spoke to in the labor movement was convinced that [Wisconsin Gov. Scott] Walker's initiative was the worst thing to happen to them in a generation. Now they say it may be the best thing. Where do you come down?

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 union 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. It was interesting to see [Indiana Gov.] Mitch Daniels and [Florida Gov.] Rick Scott back away from this stuff. But it may not end beautifully in Wisconsin. You have to think about how to not make it a loss, without making ridiculous claims that you've won.

Is the animosity between unions and workplaces - and, to some degree, conservatives - in America unique? In other countries, it's not so bitter.

We grew up in that culture. In the '30s, people didn't want us to exist. We had to do sit-down strikes . . . we had socialist and communist tendencies. We grew up, to speak in Marxist terms, in a world with a lot more class struggle. It's not viewed through that light anymore. There's a difference between saying corporations can be greedy and [the Supreme Court's ruling in] 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. That 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.

When you left the SEIU last year, you'd helped to elect Barack Obama and pass health-care reform. But if you'd seen a path forward for union density, would you have stuck around?

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.

Have you heard any recent ideas that make you optimistic about the future or organized labor?

When I left SEIU, we had started this quality public service agenda to say to our members what I think the United Auto Workers 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. . . . 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.

But that wasn't inevitable. I've been kicking around a theory that Obama and the Democrats were loath to 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. But that left a vacuum that Republicans occupied with a different set of villains: government and labor unions.

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.

Ezra Klein writes about economic and domestic policy for The Washington Post. For the full interview, go to washingtonpost.com/ezraklein.

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