Socialist Worker: A new direction after Stern

NewsApril 26, 2010

By Lee Sustar

WHETHER HE was pushed or jumped, Andy Stern’s resignation as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) highlights the failure of top-down, corporate-style unionism—and underscores the need for democratic, militant unions run by rank-and-file members.

What seemed like indisputable successes for the SEIU not so long ago have turned out to be hollow. The SEIU claims to be the second biggest union in the U.S., with 2.2 million members—but critics dispute that number, claiming that it includes free riders who pay agency fees for SEIU representation, but not union dues.

In any case, SEIU locals, especially those in the public sector, took their share of the hit in the loss of 800,000 workers from the union rolls during the recession year of 2009—losses that are likely to continue in 2010 given the weak recovery and continued mass layoffs in the public sector.

Stern is admired by many liberal commentators as a “new kind” of labor leader—but they tend to overlook the nitty-gritty of union operations and celebrate his political clout. SEIU’s outsized role in get-out-the-vote operations for Barack Obama allowed Stern to place former SEIU staffer Patrick Gaspard in the role of White House political director, a job last held by Karl Rove.

But where Rove orchestrated both politics and policy, Gaspard has been unable or unwilling to advance labor’s central political agenda: the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would remove many obstacles that employers routinely place in front of union organizing drives.

And despite being the most frequent outside visitor to the White House in the first few months of 2009, Stern proved to have little influence over the ultimate shape of health care legislation, which will eventually impose a steep tax on the good health care benefits negotiated by unions.

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IF STERN’S political influence turned out to be less than meets the eye, so, too, did the SEIU’s record of new organizing.

The SEIU did pour more resources into organizing than most unions and saw growth as a result. Yet the substantial membership gains in the 2000s came in part through sweetheart deals with employers who acquiesced to unionization in exchange for substandard pay and working conditions.

Stern took that policy to established workplaces as well, ceding the shop floor to the bosses by using union call centers to replace shop stewards in the workplaces. His pitch to employers: Partnership with labor could make U.S. companies competitive and profitable.

In California nursing homes, one former staffer for the union’s United Healthcare-West (UHW) described the union’s contract as one long management-rights clause. It was deals like those that sparked resistance in SEIU’s big California health care local, where leaders pushed for strong contracts and union democracy. Stern retaliated by ousting its democratically elected leadership and replacing the union with a trustee.

Those highhanded methods—installing loyal, handpicked officials to run unions—were central to Stern’s modus operandi. He argued that traditional union locals were outmoded and too small to be effective. What was needed, he contended, were behemoths of tens of thousands of workers that had the clout to stand up to employers. If that made local unions less democratic, so be it.

As Stern put in an interview with at the founding convention of the merged UNITE HERE in 2004:

The truth is, being losers is not what members want. They want to be united, and we artificially divide them by locals, by colors and by initials.

I think if you want to have democracy, let the workers vote about whether they want to be in the same unions with the workers who do the same kind of work. That would be the ultimate democracy, and the ultimate question that I’m willing to put to any member anywhere about this.

But when workers in the SEIU’s UHW in California did exactly that—vote to remain in the same local union that had been created by a Stern-approved merger—Stern moved to carve it up anyway in order to undermine his opponents.

Rather than crush the uprising, however, Stern’s strong-arm tactics sparked a rebellion that led to the formation of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). Under the leadership of Interim President Sal Rosselli, NUWH has not only survived an SEIU blitzkrieg—including a lawsuit seeking millions in damages—but has racked up several organizing victories, and has an excellent chance of making a big breakthrough in the coming months.

Stern’s unsuccessful counterinsurgency campaign against his critics in the NUHW was damaging enough to labor at a time when the unions needed to marshal their collective effort to resist the impact of the worst economic crisis in 70 years.

But Stern also took aim at his supposed allies in the Change to Win coalition, a labor federation that the SEIU helped found when it walked out of the AFL-CIO in 2005. When a power struggle emerged in the UNITE HERE textile and hotel workers’ union, Stern intervened, absorbing one faction into the SEIU and launching raids against the remainder of UNITE HERE.

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NO DOUBT, Stern’s many critics in the labor movement will feel vindicated—for example, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, who was perhaps Stern’s most vocal opponent in the AFL-CIO.

But Gerard and other union leaders followed Stern in their attempt to use mergers to shore up union strength when layoffs and restructuring undercut their membership base. While some mergers made sense by linking workers in the same or related industries, others were grab-bag efforts to obtain dues money and preserve union bureaucracies.

For its part, the United Auto Workers has taken Stern’s policy of partnership to new levels, agreeing to become a major shareholder in General Motors alongside the U.S. government—in exchange for agreeing to sweeping concessions that eliminated thousands of jobs and eliminated decades of work rules.

The UAW leadership, presiding over a union with its lowest number of members since the 1930s, is trying to preserve itself through control of multibillion-dollar health benefit funds created in an earlier union contract.

If there’s to be an alternative to Stern’s policies in the union, it will have to come from the initiative of rank-and-file union members. Labor’s big upsurges in the past—from the sit-down strikes in the auto and steel factories of the 1930s to the big public sector organizing campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s—have always been the result not of the strategic thinking of this or that union leader, but of workers’ self-activity and close links with wider social movements.

The obvious question is: What will spark such a fightback? Unfortunately, most history books about labor’s biggest victories don’t chronicle the small and unsuccessful struggles that set the stage for the later dramatic victories. The challenge for labor militants today is to pull together co-workers and revitalize the unions’ basic organization.

In recent months, there are some signs that such efforts are bearing fruit—from the creation of the NUWH as a fighting, democratic health care union, to the victory of reformers in some important local unions, to a couple important strike victories at a time when strike levels are among the lowest on record.

The strike wins—by graduate employees at the University of Illinois and transit workers in Philadelphia—might seem to have little in common. But they highlighted a willingness by workers to dig in and resist budget and job cuts in the public sector.

That same mood was seen at the University of California, where a contract fight by the University Professional and Technical Employees, in alliance with activism by students, helped initiate a struggle that led to labor’s widespread participation in the March 4 Day of Action to defend public education. At a time when most public-sector unions have bowed to demands for cuts in wages and benefits as well as layoffs, the March 4 protests have become an important reference point.

Meanwhile, members in some key union locals have sent a message that they want unions that will stand up for their rights.

Late last year, UAW members at Ford, fed up with an endless stream of concessions pushed by union leaders, voted down contract givebacks. Around the same time, a reform slate won election in Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents bus and subway workers, on a platform of rebuilding a union weakened by severe management attacks and an autocratic leadership.

Reformers also took back control of Teamsters Local 804, the union once led by Ron Carey, who led the big 1997 Teamsters strike against UPS. More recently, reformers in SEIU Local 1021 in the San Francisco Bay Area swept out a Stern-appointed leadership on a platform of defending jobs and instituting union democracy.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that union reformers can successfully resist the employers’ onslaught or overcome the inevitable sabotage by union officials who see struggle and democracy as a threat. Still, these votes, like the scattered strikes and protests, show the potential to organize the resistance that’s needed.

That’s why this year’s Labor Notes conference, held outside Detroit in Dearborn, Mich., on April 23-25, is so important. By bringing together labor activists from different unions—and from around the world—Labor Notes is an invaluable opportunity to trade experiences, debate strategy and make the organizational links necessary to revitalize the unions. Given the scale of the challenges facing workers, it couldn’t come at a better time.

Source: Socialist Worker