The Enigma of Andy Stern (November 30, 2006)

Stern’s Book Places Him in New Role
For ‘Getting America Back on Track’

(Final of six articles.)

By Harry Kelber

In October, just a month before the crucial 2006 elections, when Americans were heatedly debating what to do about Iraq, Andy Stern, SEIU’s president, was spending the month in a nationwide tour of major cities to promote and sell his new book, “A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track.”

Indeed, his detached attitude about Iraq is contained in a single paragraph in the 183-page book. Here is the paragraph (p. 101):

“Some wonder whether the army is to blame for the quagmire Iraq has become. Time has revealed that our political leaders rushed to war in Iraq without a plan and enough troops to secure peace‹over the objections of many in the military, as some former generals have revealed. If the Iraq fiasco was the outcome of ineffective planning, then my guess is that the army will evaluate their planning process and make any necessary changes.”

On the book’s front cover, in large type, is the statement: “Something’s Wrong With a Country That Helps the Rich Get Richer While Most Americans Get the Squeeze.” It’s a catchy, populist comment, but nowhere in the book does Stern offer any clues as to how the gap between rich and poor can be narrowed.

Stern cites numerous statistics to dramatize economic inequality. An example:

“Median pay for the CEOs of the top one hundred largest companies rose fully 25 percent to $17.9 million from 2004 to 2005. The typical worker s’ pay increased only 3 percent.”

Stern’s shocking data in the opening chapter are not new; they are the meat and bones of populist politicians and social reformers. But unlike them, Stern does not hold Corporate America responsible for the widening economic and social inequality, nor does he consider it a target for reform.

Labor leaders do not write books about themselves or their ideas. So why did Stern? One obvious reason: to keep himself in the public eye; to maintain his newfound celebrity status. Stern says: “My purpose in writing this book is to help galvanize the forces of change.” More to the point, the book presents Stern’s plan for “Getting America Back on Track.”

It also serves as a memoir, providing insights into Stern’s personality and private life as a devoted father to his two children, Matt and Cassie. It contains an interesting account of how Stern rose from a social case-worker who joined the Pennsylvania Social Service Union at age 23 to become president of the Service Employees International Union in a career that spanned more than 30 years in the same union.

Although he was unsuccessful and appeared naïve in trying to persuade AFL-CIO leaders to adopt his restructuring reforms, Andy dismisses critics who say he acted rashly and unwisely in seceding and setting up a rival federation. In defending his actions, Stern says:

“When it became clear that reform within the AFL-CIO was stalled, SEIU’s leaders realized that it was irresponsible to just stand by and watch the living standards of American workers decline. It was time to walk down a different road.” (Stern’s creation, Change to Win, has accomplished very little thus far.)

Stern insists that organized labor has to make radical changes in the new era of globalization, where “American manufacturers have access to a worldwide hiring hall, with unprecedented numbers of available workers virtually lined up at their doors, ready to work for low wages and paltry benefits.”

He wants workers and their unions to understand that even the biggest employers have problems, and that labor should join them in “partnerships” to make them more competitive in the global marketplace. Specifically, Stern favors eliminating employer contributions on health care and pensions to enable them to compete more effectively. (The financial burden would shift to the employees, until, hopefully, there would be remedial legislation.

So what should labor be doing about it? Stern says it should do what it can to make U.S. companies more competitive. Unions, he says, “need to be aligned with employers’ market and industry structures and flexible enough to respond to ever-changing employer dynamics and competent enough to be good partners.” Stern adds, approvingly, that unions should assist employers “in overcoming unnecessary legislative and political obstacles to their success.”

This kind of partnership is not going to be an easy sell in any democratic union, especially since it is not at all clear what workers get for their subservience to employers. How can workers embrace a company that cuts health care and pensions and is tight-fisted at the negotiating table?

There is a schizoid quality that permeates the book and creeps into Stern’s value system. On the one hand, he sympathetically describes the hardships and woes of most working class families. He notes that productivity from 2001 to 2003 increased 11.7 percent, while median income grew only 1.6 percent. But later on, he wants workers to become more productive to increase their employers’ competitiveness.

Stern presents a series of shocking statistics of how employers intimidate workers from joining a union. He cites a Cornell research report that states:

“Every 23 minutes a worker is fired or discriminated against for his or her support of a union.” And also. “Eight of ten employers (82 percent) hire high-priced union-busting consultants to fight union organizing drives. But he still wants workers to join partnerships, specifically designed to help their employers.” (Does that make sense?)

In the final chapter, titled “A Plan for a Country That Works,” Stern offers his “opinions” about his plan for change. He says:

“Most of the ideas are not really new and, in fact, are not mine at all. But they share two characteristics: First, they can work, and some are working already; second, they are not pipe dreams, but are both practical and principled.”

Stern’s plan is not a blueprint, but consists of his recommendations on six uncoordinated topics: taxes, health care, retirement, the Internet “highway,” education and skills training. There is no mention of foreign affairs, trade, immigration, the military, poverty, worker rights and other issues of national concern. Moreover, many of Stern’s proposals boil down to a “wish list,” because they haven’t been tested in the real world of special interests, lobbyist payoffs, political deals and negative advertising.

On taxes, Stern sides with those who want the cap on the payroll tax lifted, so that people who earn more than the current limit of $94,200 would have to pay more taxes on their income. Stern would like the FICA tax applied not only to wages, but to dividends, capital gains, stock options and interest.

Stern encourages employers to eliminate the health-care benefit that millions of workers are now enjoying as a result of negotiations by their unions. He says: “It is in the economic self-interest of American business, now competing globally, to end employer-based care.” He favors universal health care, but not the single-payer system advocated by many unions. He notes several government models that might be acceptable, including an expanded Medicare.

Stern also recommends that employers stop providing their workers with a guaranteed level of retirement income. He says: “Only about 34 million workers today are covered by defined benefit pensions‹just under a quarter of the U.S. workforce.” Andy comes up with a patchwork of retirement proposals, including giving all children $1,000 at birth, “which is invested in an account earning 8% for 70 years” and would create a nest egg of $218, 606.41.

Every child should become knowledgeable about the computer and be able to utilize the advantages of the “Internet highway,” Stern says, explaining: “In a global economy, the basis of commerce is no longer just the transfer of goods; it’s the transfer of information.”

Stern wants the U.S. to have a world-class education system. He says: “An adequate education system for the twenty-first century must include universal pre-kindergarten, beginning at the age of four. Or better yet, why not at the age of two?”

There’s a strong suspicion that Stern is using his book as a vehicle to build a reputation as an outstanding national planner for the future of America. He says: “I invite feedback and heated debate with all comers — workers, students, business executives, union members and leaders, association directors and politicians Go to and tell me what you think."

And listen to this:

“I do not have detailed calculations of the costs of what I’ve proposed, but I invite policy makers to let me know what they think. Let’s get the figures on the table and then the American public will be able to decide if these programs are worth the costs.”

Notice how slick Stern is in self-promotion as a national authority on legislative reform. He can keep himself in the limelight through his Web site and a variety of activities. He can sponsor conferences with well-known economists as speakers; set up a blue-ribbon commission with an elite board of directors. He could publish studies and surveys, issue press releases, appear on radio and TV and do whatever else was needed to keep him close to center stage and on good terms with the power brokers. No worries about money. The SEIU would supply a good part of the funding.

In the book’s three-page conclusion, there is not the slightest reference to workers or their unions or any comment about labor’s future. Stern sounds like an invited celebrity delivering a college commencement address. Here are a couple of samplers of his high-flown rhetoric:

“Americans should pause and take the time to appreciate the glory and grandness of our future…No single generation has ever been offered such possibilities; we should seize them with passion and zest.”

“My hope is that future history books will write about this time and say, At the dawning of a new century, America’s leaders came forward, Americans lifted their voices and became the wind that sailed America to a new future.”

And Stern’s final exhortation: “It is time for people from all walks of life to ask themselves what we can do for our country, because in our hearts, we know our country needs our help. I am ready to help America. Are you?”

* * * * *

Andy is caught up in a tangle of problems and possibilities. Does he have any future in the labor movement except as SEIU president? Has he compromised his standing with working people by being too friendly with corporations? What if very few unions buy into his Partnership proposal? Can he figure out a proper role for himself in the global labor movement? If he tries to develop a new career as a national reformer, what opposition will he face? How long does he expect to remain SEIU president? What does he really want? What about his personal life? And what is his American Dream?

How Stern answers this mix of questions in his own mind may determine how he reinvents himself into a new type of leader. No one, not even Stern, is sure of the answer.

End of Series of Six Articles