The Enigma of Andy Stern (November 27, 2006)

Stern Hopes to Make A Partnership Deal
Between Labor and Corporate America

(The fifth of six articles.)

By Harry Kelber

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, has been spending a lot of quality time with the CEOs of the largest Fortune 500 corporations, trying to convince them that a “partnership” with labor is a good deal that can help them solve some of their persistent problems.

He made his partnership concept explicit in a speech he gave to a gathering of corporate lawyers in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, last February, where he said:

“SEIU’s goal for 2006 is to bring unions and employers together as partners, not enemies…Employers need to recognize that the world has changed and there are people who would like to help them provide solutions in ways that are new, modern and that add value to companies…A partnership between labor and corporations would be a step toward the intended goal.”

Stern’s strong selling point was his proposal to eliminate employer contributions to health insurance and retirement plans; if corporations were freed from these financial burdens, it would save them billions a year. As a further inducement, Stern promised that unions would assist employers “in overcoming unnecessary legislative and political obstacles to their success.”

Stern Has Become a Spokesman for Employers

In his new matchmaker role, Stern advises labor to do what it can to make U.S. companies more competitive abroad. Unions, he says, “need to be aligned with employers’ market and industry structures and flexible enough to be good partners.” He also says:

“We have to understand our employers live in an incredibly complicated world. Our job is to increase their ability to succeed, to take certain responsibilities off of them, to assist them in some ideas like (passing) legislation, trying to reduce workplace injuries and worker compensation costs.”

In Stern’s partnership model, there are obvious inducements for corporations, but no apparent ones for labor. Workers are asked to make whatever concessions are necessary to keep a company competitive, but it is not at all clear what, if anything, they get in return.

The logic of Stern’s partnership model is that there is no need for unions to engage in costly, time-consuming and often unsuccessful organizing campaigns. A partnership deal, Stern believes, will enable union and employer representatives to understand each others’ needs and work for the common good.

As smart and articulate as he is, Stern is not going to have an easy time persuading workers to embrace a partnership that will obviously be controlled by employers and serve their interests. Workers can’t be happy when they read of record-breaking corporate profits, while median income for households fell by over $2,500 from 2000 to 2004. Why, they might ask, is Stern more solicitous about solving the problems of the employers than those of working people, whom he is supposed to represent?

Becoming Involved in the Global Labor Movement

Globalization has broadened Andy’s vision, and he now seems interested in playing a still-undefined role on the world stage. He has taken five trips to China to try to get a first-hand grasp of what¹s going on in a country that is becoming America¹s chief competitor. He has become a strong advocate of global unions. He says:

“National unions by their very nature are not built to have the strength to successfully address their members’ issues where they operate in only one country of a global employer. Global unions would have the reach and strength to get the job done for workers everywhere.”

Stern has become involved with a global labor federation, Union Network International (UNI), with 15.5 million members from 900 unions and 140 countries. An SEIU vice president now serves as the elected chair of one of UNI’s sectors, property services, a sector consisting of cleaning and security workers.

However, UNI is dwarfed by a new global union, the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICTU), founded on Nov. 1-3, that represents 166 million workers through its 309 affiliated organizations in156 countries. It will be difficult for Stern to become an influential presence in world labor especially because he does not represent workers in manufacturing, telecommunications and emerging technologies.

Meanwhile, Stern’s partnership campaign has come home to mock him. Chevron, whose oil profits have shattered its 127-year record, forced 1,700 Houston janitors, who averaged less than $30 a day, to go on strike for a month before Chevron’s contractors would agree to give the workers, who clean its office buildings, a raise to $7.75 an hour — in the third year of the contract. Family health-care coverage will become available to the janitors on Jan. 1, 2009 — at a cost of $175 a month. (Wouldn’t it be great for a union to have a partnership with Chevron or Exxon Mobil?)

Employers Proposed Partnership Idea a Century Ago

In 1900, the National Civic Federation was created to prevent industrial conflict by bringing together the “reasonable” leaders of industry and labor so they could settle their disputes around the conference table. Two years later, the federation was put to a test, when the United Mine Workers went on strike with a demand for recognition, a wage increase and an eight-hour workday. During the first two weeks of the strike, the coal operators commissioned 1,600 coal and iron police, and shortly after, they began to advertise for strikebreakers.

In the end a presidential commission awarded the miners a 10 percent wage increase; and prohibited discrimination against union members. And the National Civic Federation quietly died, after existing for only two years.

Andy Stern is a very knowledgeable labor leader. He can quote the various ways that employers use to intimidate their workers from joining a union. He can cite statistics that describe the widening gap between rich and poor. He knows about how employers used every means, including armed security guards, to try to block passage of such vital legislation as workers’ compensation, Social Security, the 40-hour workweek, occupational safety and health protection. Knowing all this, how can Andy propose a partnership, in which the primary function of the employees is to make the employer more competitive (and more profitable)?

Stern’s partnership proposals are not likely to win him the success he yearns for. Unions that have been taking a beating from their powerful and resourceful employers are not likely to welcome a deal that fixes them into a servile position. And why should employers want to join in a partnership with labor unless it gives them even more power over their workers?

Stern’s basic shortcoming is that he does not believe that the rank-and-file has any purposeful role in rebuilding the labor movement. He believes that leaders like him are the self-propelling engines of progress, and he is supremely confident in his own talent for leadership. Of course, he wants workers to enjoy a middle-class life and the American Dream, and he has promised to get it for them, but without their participation.

Although Stern constantly employs populist rhetoric, he has made no noticeable effort to explain his ideas to workers in other unions. He might not have had to quit the AFL-CIO if he had chosen to create a groundswell of support for his proposals from union members across the country.

Andy has a strong admiration for the corporate style of leadership and marvels at its achievements. Like any CEO, he likes to be in complete control of decision-making, demands loyalty and efficiency from his subordinates, and is impatient and even actively intolerant of critical opinions.

To hold public attention to himself and his ideas, Stern has written(?) a new book with the quirky title, “A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track.” Is this what the labor movement has been waiting for?

ARTICLE 6 of the six-part series, "The Enigma of Andy Stern," will be posted here on Thursday, Nov. 30. Also, check our Web site: