The Enigma of Andy Stern (November 20, 2006)

Andy Stern Brashly Split the AFL-CIO
In a Reckless Gamble He'd Do Better

(The third of six articles.)

By Harry Kelber

Undaunted by the failure of his New Unity Partnership to attract support from any international union, Andy Stern, SEIU president, still persisted in his effort to transform the labor movement by taking his restructuring proposals directly to the AFL-CIO Executive Council.

He had been a member of the Council since 1997 and a strong booster of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, whom he praised as "having the courage to change the AFL-CIO and make it an engine of organizing." He never objected to the Council's undemocratic practices or unethical behavior by some of his colleagues. He was a team player, not a reformer. So what changed his mind?

After all, the SEIU, under his leadership, had organized hundreds of thousands of workers, while the AFL-CIO was continuing to decline in membership and strength. Could the strategies he had used in building the SEIU be applied to revitalizing the AFL-CIO? Andy was supremely confident it could.

His opening gambit was to issue SEIU's 31-page report, "United We Win," which offered a series of proposals for remodeling the AFL-CIO. It stated: "The labor movement needs a structure, rules and culture that help workers build industry and market share."

It bluntly criticized the AFL-CIO as unwieldy, with too many small, ineffective internationals, and with rules that "do not provide for mutual accountability to carry out united action."

Stern Exposed AFL-CIO's Serious Failings

Stern put his finger on some of the AFL-CIO's major shortcomings. He noted that many unions were engaged in "catch all" organizing instead of sticking to their particular industry. There were a dozen unions in the airline industry, another dozen trying to organize hotel workers, and as many as 30 unions competing for new members in the health care field. The AFL-CIO leadership could do nothing about forcing each international to stay focused on its core jurisdiction.

The AFL-CIO operated on the principle of consensus, with each international maintaining its autonomy. Thus, any Executive Council's actions could be watered down to an empty gesture by the objection of a handful of unions. Stern favored a centralized AFL-CIO, with broadened powers for the leadership and limitations on the autonomy of the internationals.

Stern contended that it would be very difficult to rebuild the labor movement unless the AFL-CIO and its affiliates spent a significantly greater portion of their income on organizing. Many unions were unwilling to budget more money for organizing campaigns that might not succeed, preferring to spend it on servicing their members.

Finally, Stern felt that the AFL-CIO was not treating the problems of globalization with the seriousness they deserved, confining their responses mainly to statements, devoid of any plan of action.

Were 'Mega-Unions' the Best Answer for Organizing?

Most of Stern's criticism of the AFL-CIO was valid and coincided with the views of many progressive unionists around the country, but they were not at all convinced that he offered the right solutions. However, Stern made no effort to involve, or even discuss, his plan with lower-echelon leaders in the labor movement.

The linchpin of Stern's restructuring plan called for consolidating the AFL-CIO's then 58 international unions into no more than 15 to 20 "mega-unions," with each responsible for organizing non-union corporations in a specific sector of the economy, such as health care, construction, telecommunications and others. They would have additional money and staffing and would be accountable to the national AFL-CIO.

There would also be forced mergers of local unions, central labor councils and state federations to reduce waste and increase efficiency. (It would also diminish member participation.) On paper, the plan made sense and seemed worth a pilot test. But closer examination raised some daunting problems: Who would select the favored 20 unions for "mega" status? What would happen to the other 38 unions that were not selected or refused to go along with Stern's restructuring process?

But there were other questions that defied explicit answers: How long would the restructuring process take and what would happen to unions in the meantime? And with the extraordinary effort it would take to put the Stern mega-union structure in place, was there any guarantee that future large-scale organizing campaigns would be successful, when so many other promising ones had failed?

Andy made no effort to reach out to the millions of union members and involve them in the struggle for change. The rank-and-file were kept in the dark about the high-stakes poker game that was going on among their leaders that ultimately would affect their economic future.

Stern never bothered to reply to the troublesome questions that were being asked about his reform proposals. Instead, he threatened the AFL-CIO leaders with an ultimatum, that if they did not comply with his reform plans, he "would leave and build a new and stronger labor organization." It was an audacious, grand-standing challenge. Did he mean it? Was it simply a bluff? Could Andy carry out his aim to build a rival labor organization, virtually single-handed, that would outclass the AFL-CIO?

One can wonder what went on in Stern's mind during his tug-of-war with the Council leadership. Some things were clear to him: the AFL-CIO would not accept his restructuring proposals. They might agree to some minor, face-saving concessions that would change nothing. He was now a central figure in the debate over reforming the labor movement, and under no conditions must he give the public the impression he was abandoning the fight.

Andy must have spent much of his waking hours thinking about how he was going to build his new union movement. How many international unions would be willing to join him? Probably very few. Would the funds and resources of SEIU be sufficient to jump-start a labor revival? Had he overreached himself? Whatever happened, he could not back down. He had to go ahead with it.

Stern Is Rebuffed at His Final AFL-CIO Meeting

There were a few cards Stern could still play at the March 2006 meeting of the Executive Council. He and his new ally, Teamster President Jim Hoffa, tried to get the Council to approve a 50% rebate of per capita payments to international unions for organizing, but they lost, 15 to 7. Another rebuff to the Stern group came when the Council, by14 to 8, approved a proposal by President Sweeney to increase funding for political and legislative activities to a total of $45 million a year.

Stern's faction considered the possibility of challenging Sweeney for the AFL-CIO presidency with their own candidate. John Wilhelm, then president of UNITE HERE, but a "nose count" indicated that Wilhelm could muster only about a third of the convention votes. Andy then decided the time had come to leave the AFL-CIO. He tried to get many leaders of international unions to join him in a new, rival labor federation, but finally could persuade only six of 58 to join him.

Thus, on July 27, 2005, the leaders of seven dissident unions created Change to Win, at its founding convention in St. Louis, on the very day that the AFL-CIO was opening its quadrennial convention in Chicago.

It was now up to Stern to prove he could build a bigger and stronger labor movement and achieve the American Dream for millions of working families. He had a free hand and all the money and staffing he needed to put his strategies into play. Would he succeed? The story continues.

ARTICLE 4 of the six-part series, "The Enigma of Andy Stern," will be posted here on Thursday, Nov. 23. Also, check our Web site: