The Enigma of Andy Stern (November 23, 2006)

Stern’s ‘Change to Win’ Has Serious Flaws;
Why He Can’t Achieve His Big-Time Goals

(The fourth of six articles.)

By Harry Kelber

When Andy Stern, the dynamic, high profile president of the Service Employees International Union, seceded from the AFL-CIO and announced he would form a “new and stronger labor organization,” his bold, historic act generated considerable excitement. Did it signal a resurgence of the labor movement? A rebirth of the CIO? Would tens of thousands of unorganized workers rush to join unions as they did in the 1930s?

Nothing of the sort happened after Stern’s model labor organization, Change to Win, was unveiled at its founding convention July 27, 2005 in St. Louis. Its weaknesses soon became apparent. While CTW called itself a labor federation, it consisted of only seven international unions that mainly represented workers in low-wage industries: janitors, hotel employees, truck drivers, laborers, apparel workers, carpenters and farm workers.

Unlike the AFL-CIO, Change to Win did not have a single union in any of the major industries that play an important role in the economy‹nor was it likely to organize one. It’s hard to imagine an effective labor federation without at least one union in telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment and government employment. CTW had no unions for auto workers, machinists, steelworkers, teachers, firefighters, transit workers and many others who make up the nation’s work force. CTW had neither the ability nor the intention of unionizing this enormous pool of unorganized workers.

Stern himself is largely to blame for the restricted role of Change to Win, because when he bolted the AFL-CIO to form a “bigger and stronger” labor organization, he convinced only a handful of its then 58 international unions to go along with him.

A Close-up of Stern’s Model Labor Organization

Stern brags that Change to Win has six million members, but he fails to mention that they are virtually voiceless and powerless. The CTW Constitution gives the top seven union leaders, who form a Leadership Council, complete control over every aspect of the organization’s operations. There is no provision for elections, so that the seven-man Council hold their power permanently, with no obligation to be accountable to members.

The Council’s all-encompassing authority is spelled out in Article V, Section 6, which states:

“The Leadership Council is authorized to take all action and render all decisions necessary and appropriate to carry out the objectives of the alliance, including the direction and management of the affairs of the alliance, and to enforce the provisions of this constitution: This shall include the authority to:

“(a) interpret this constitution and any decisions, rules or policies issued pursuant to this constitution..

“(b) Approve an annual budget for the operation of the alliance, including the budget for the Strategic Organizing Center,”

There is nothing in the constitution about the rights of members. So this was Andy’s model of how to conduct a labor union!

What Happened to Stern’s Idea of “Core” Organizing?

Stern’s grand organizing strategy, based on 15 “mega-unions,” obviously couldn’t be put into play, because CTW had only seven unions. Moreover, how could those seven unions coordinate their activities in multi-union campaigns, when they represented such diverse industries?

Stern’s strong insistence that each union be confined to its “core” industry, a principle that he had fought for in his debates with AFL-CIO leaders, ran into a roadblock under the CTW. The Teamsters, it appeared, had traditionally been organizing in 19 different industries, including airlines, bakeries, food-processing plants, movie houses, graphic communications companies and theatrical productions. Could Andy tell IBT president Jimmy Hoffa, his biggest ally, to cut back to “core” organizing?

The same was also true of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which had several hundred thousand members working in retail, meatpacking. food processing, health care and public services. Stern quietly abandoned his “core” organizing principle.

A Year Later, CTW Doesn’t Have Much to Brag About

While the Service Employees continue to make significant progress under Stern’s, innovative leadership, the same couldn’t be said of the other six unions in Change to Win.

UNITE-HERE had been trying to organize Cintas, one of the largest uniform rental companies in North America, with 17,000 production workers, since March 2003, but there was no evidence that its chance of success had improved in the year since it joined CTW.

The United Food and Commercial Workers lost a five-month strike against three Southern California supermarket chains. The UFCW could not organize a single one of Wal-Mart’s more than 2,500 stores, after trying for years and spending millions. Now, it is heading the CTW’s new Wal-Mart campaign, attacking the company’s health care and wage policies, but not conducting an organizing drive.

The Teamsters lost a three-year battle, including an ill-conceived strike, to organize the 13,000 employees of Overnite Transportation, recently merged into United Parcel Service (UPS). About a couple of years ago, the Teamsters vowed to help organize the 50,000 West Coast port workers. They’re still trying. Neither the Carpenters nor the Laborers have done any better than when they were in the AFL-CIO. And the Farm Workers, a small union of about 16,000 members, is having problems of its own.

CTW’s ‘Make Work Pay’ Drive in 44 Cities is a Complete Flop

With much fanfare, Change to Win launched a massive organizing campaign in 44 major cities in 24 states on April 24-28, 2006, as part of its stated effort to unionize 50 million workers in industries where jobs cannot be outsourced abroad easily. The campaign slogan was “Make Work Pay!”

Anna Burger, Chair of Change to Win, said: “This campaign will empower the millions of workers to help them affect real change to make work pay.” A press release said that the CTW would “let every employer know that when they oppose any group of workers trying to unite for a decent life, they will not be confronted by one union, but by seven unions representing six million members.” (Did CTW officers really believe the hype and hokum in their press releases?)

The “organizing” campaigns in the 44 cities were mostly small rallies attended by union members and a few allies. The highest attendance figure that CTW cited was the 200 who participated in a San Diego, Cal. rally at a local children’s hospital. Thus, total attendance for the 44 cities was no more than 10,000, not a very impressive figure, considering the high-powered publicity that preceded the event.

But the amazing part of the organizing campaign was that there was no focused effort to contact non-union workers at their homes or job sites. CTW staffers could not provide any evidence of what had been accomplished. Soon after, CTW stopped bragging about the campaign on its Web site.

Stern ReInvents His Career: Top Salesman for Partnerships

Meanwhile, Andy Stern had come to realize that whatever progress Change-to-Win might achieve; it could not possibly match the expectations its inflated rhetoric had aroused. In time, it could greatly diminish his celebrity status as American Labor’s No. 1 leader. He needed a new, attention-getting career change that would continue to win him plaudits from the mainstream media. His nimble mind soon conjured up a suitable answer.

On Aug. 30, SEIU issued a press release, whose headline read: “Cooperative Strategy Offers American Workers and Their Employers New Hope on Labor Day.”

SEIU’s president. Andy Stern, was quoted: “The global economy has changed the rules and the old ways simply won’t work.” Stern added: “It’s going to take bold partnerships and responsible competitiveness to end the race to the bottom, so that workers can help create and share in their companies’ success.”

Stern has reinvented himself from a labor leader concerned about the plight of exploited workers into his upgraded role as the Apostle of Global Partnerships, preaching an essential harmony and common interest between workers and bosses.

How does Andy explain his contradictory allegiances? What does labor get from a partnership with global corporations? Does Stern really believe in what he is promoting?

ARTICLE 5 of the six-part series, "The Enigma of Andy Stern," will be posted here on Monday, Nov. 27. Also, check our Web site: