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Does Andy Stern represent the future of labor?

September 14, 2007 | Page 10

SEIU Local 790 member BRIAN CRUZ examines the record of his union's controversial president.

"ONCE DEVEREAUX and I were face to face, we acknowledged that our conflict had taken on a life of its own, and we had lost sight of the reasons why we were fighting so viciously. We admitted that it wasn't working for either of us."

This passage isn't from the latest romance novel by Danielle Steele. It's from a book called A Country That Works, by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

David Devereaux, on the other hand, is a rich business executive, from Beverly Enterprises Inc., a for-profit nursing home chain infamous for both patient neglect and union-busting.

It may seem strange for the president of the country's largest union to be speaking so mushily about a profit-driven business executive. But Stern is one of the most outspoken advocates of the idea that it's both possible and necessary for businesses and unions to shed their differences and build a relationship to benefit both.

This is how he plans to rebuild the labor movement. In fact, one purpose of Stern's book is to justify the idea of "business unionism" and SEIU's more recent alliances with employers.

What else to read

Andy Stern's A Country That Works is advertised as providing an account of labor in the first decade of the new century and proposing a way forward.

For a left-wing analysis of the issues facing labor today, including the split between the AFL-CIO and the Stern-led Change to Win coalition, read the coverage in the International Socialist Review, including "The labor movement: State of emergency, signs of renewal" by Lee Sustar.

Kim Moody's new book U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, The Promise of Revival from Below provides another account of labor's decline and the split in the union movement it led to.

 

While his actions and advocacy have landed him flattering, full-color spreads in publications such as Fortune 500 and press conferences with fat cats like the CEO of Wal-Mart, Stern has been criticized from the left. The criticism is correct--the path that Stern is "steering labor" (to use his expression) toward is the wrong one.

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STERN WRITES that relationships with employers that were once "antagonistic" should be replaced with "partnerships" and "alliances." He says that "the rumble-and-tumble class-struggle world" of the 1930s is a thing of the past, and that it's unproductive for unions and businesses to fight when they could work together in a "win-win" situation.

But if Stern thinks businesses will be willing to give workers a larger share of the pie in any type of "partnership"--without a fight--then he's fooling himself.

Writing of certain deals made with nursing home owners, Stern claims "on a state-by-state basis, we have worked to increase reimbursements and give workers more of a voice on the job."

One such deal, the 2003 "Agreement to Advance the Future of Nursing Home Care in California" allowed the SEIU to organize nursing home workers without resistance from the employers in exchange for the SEIU helping the companies get more subsidies from the state.

But the workers actually didn't receive "more of a voice on the job." In fact, under the new contracts, they can't report health care violations unless required to by law (surely making employees afraid to speak up in any situation). Nor can they negotiate for improvements in benefits. The employers, on the other hand, would have the exclusive right to manage minor details such as pay, hiring and firing.

The nursing homes under the agreement will end up receiving an additional $900 million from the state, thanks to the SEIU. Members, however, are seeing only a fraction of that ($21 million in the 2006-2007 year).

This story mirrors other agreements that top SEIU officials have struck with businesses: you let us "organize" your workers, and we'll find out how to make you more money. And the result is always the same: the members lose.

Plus, because the union isn't ready to "rumble and tumble," the bosses eventually try to roll over them. The SEIU does get new members, but when employers do attack wages and benefits and start laying off, the union is unprepared to fight.

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UNFORTUNATELY, WHEN members have tried to fight these pacts within the union, they have been met with resistance.

One example involves a deal brokered between the AFL-CIO (which included the SEIU at the time) and the health care giant Kaiser Permanente. The accord allowed several federation unions, including the SEIU, to organize Kaiser workers on the condition that they encourage their own members to get their benefits through Kaiser.

Out of this deal also came a labor-management body that involved the union in making decisions on changes such as closures and expansions. However, the union was forbidden to talk about these discussions, and any decisions made jointly were not binding anyway.

Yolanda Rios, a member of SEIU Local 399, criticized the agreement, saying it "takes things out of our hands." She explained, "Our problem here has been that while the union organizes [new workers], it doesn't represent us well. We want to fight the company more effectively and win better conditions at work."

You won't find the criticism in Stern's book, but he does give a flowery description of how the deal with Kaiser was "an amazing experience." He continued, "As hard as I tried, I could not distinguish the union representatives from the management representatives."

Rios and her progressive rank-and-file caucus went on to win all but one of the leadership positions in the next election. However, in true management fashion, when a power struggle broke out between old leaders and new ones after the election, the SEIU international office stepped in to put in one of their own, placing the local under "trusteeship."

SEIU is known for its use of tactics like this and others to impose decisions made at the top levels of the union. After all, if Andy Stern is going to be doing the wheeling and dealing for you, why do you need a voice?

We didn't have a voice two years ago when Stern's secret meetings with other select union presidents led to the formation of the Change to Win coalition, which broke away from the AFL-CIO in labor's largest split since the 1930s--all without a vote.

And we certainly don't have it now as massive mergers create monster locals so removed from the workplace that members often don't know they're in a union, or its name.

Stern's attitude about these changes is summed up by what he said about SEIU staff workers who lost their jobs in a consolidation at the international office: "There are winners and losers."

Meanwhile, some of the losers in one of Stern's new alliances will be immigrant workers.

The SEIU has been integral to a labor-business alliance that is trying to pass the largest guest-worker program our country has had since the bracero program of the last century. The history of past and current guest-worker programs shows that they are rife with abuse, difficult to organize and actually drive the wages of all workers down.

The SEIU says it is willing to hand businesses a reliable source of cheap labor for the legalization of some of the 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S. But none of the legalization plans offered are actually workable for most immigrants, and they all include stricter enforcement measures. Still, the SEIU supports the passage of these bills, while whispering some criticisms.

This is the logical conclusion of business unionism. The SEIU is working with Corporate America and hoping for something in return. Perhaps it expects a shot at organizing some of the immigrant workers whose rights they will have already bargained away if it passes.

The ideas presented by Stern in his book are ones we need to challenge.

There are already campaigns within the SEIU to challenge some of these specific alliances, and they deserve our support. But these are also steps toward building a broader movement for union democracy, which is important if we want the decisions of unions to represent the interests of workers instead of bosses.

The unions we need won't be built around a cult of personality, but by members organizing to win the kind of contracts they want through their own struggles, and learning from those experiences.

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