Andy Stern, the president of the 2.2 million member Service Employees International Union and one of the most prominent labor leaders in the country, visited the School of Industrial and Labor Relations yesterday and Tuesday for a series of lectures and discussions. He sat down with The Sun yesterday afternoon.
Andy Stern: Americans are really frustrated that almost all the institutions they are part of have not been able to solve the real problems they are facing in their life in terms of their job, their home, their healthcare, their retirement. So sadly, we are part of a strong feeling that America is going in the wrong direction. [Also,] I’d say that in a world where even before the economic collapse, the Census Bureau said American workers hadn’t gotten a raise in five straight years — which was the longest period of economic stagnation in American history — that union workers have had opportunities because they join their voices together to actually share better and successful companies.
Sun: A recent poll showed only 42 percent of Americans have a positive view of unions, a number that went down dramatically over the past couple years. Why has that happened?
A.S.: People are frustrated with institutions. As bad as our numbers went down, if you look at the ratings of Congress, if you look at the ratings of big business, if you look at the ratings for religious institutions, people are rightfully in a bad mood about their future. And the most dreadful number is now that 79 percent of Americans, for the first time, think their children will not do better than they do, which is the end of what has been a historic American dream that has endured through 43 different presidents and three centuries that is now potentially coming to the end, if you ask most people. So I think there is a lot of concern about our future.
Sun: Despite the concern, why has America’s unionization rate been falling for the past several decades?
A.S.: It’s a combination of three factors. One factor is that the jobs that have been exported have been significantly more union. The jobs more in retail that have been created have been significantly less union. Two, we have laws that were written in 1935 that have been weakened substantially by the courts and by administrative law rulings and we have employers who are viciously fighting to stop giving workers a right. And when you look at the difference, with 37 percent of the workers in the public sector in union, 7 percent in the private, you can ask that maybe the difference is the unions, or maybe the difference is the workers, but I would say the difference is the employers’ behavior. … The private sector has decided that they want to give people a communist choice, which is no union. That’s all they really want on their ballot, and anyone who really tries to buck the domination and tyranny of the employer will pay a price.
Sun: What do you mean by a communist choice?
A.S.: I’m just saying that in the communist countries when they have elections, there’s really only one choice. What employers want is to make it very clear there’s only one choice as far as they’re concerned, which is no union.
Sun: Now, as the president of SEIU, what are you trying to achieve for the union?
A.S.: We decided in 2008 that our goal is really to make sure we have an organization that helps our country win justice for everyone, and for us that means we need to fight for jobs so that people can raise a family, we need people to have health care that they can afford and has high quality, we need to make sure people can retire with dignity and we need to make sure people’s kids can go to college. And the union can’t be just about us — we have to take care of the members that we have, but also create a country where everyone’s hard work pays and where everyone’s kids get a chance to get ahead.
Sun: Have you seen many successes so far?
A.S.: I think we’re on the verge of success in healthcare. I hope the president today will announce that he’s on the goal line and he’s organizing a huddle to try to make the plan to get across, which would — for the first time in the history of our country — allow people some sense of security and opportunity to not be victims of the insurance industry and increasingly higher and higher premiums. I think we’ve seen, because of the economic collapse, no real progress yet on how American workers get a raise. I think we’ve stabilized the patient, meaning the economy, but we’ve not begun to revive it significantly. I think that’s the next challenge.
Sun: Since President Barack Obama was elected, you’ve visited the White House 28 times. Have you been involved in any of the planning for the health care reform bill?
A.S.: We have a million members of ours that went to work today at the bedside in healthcare. They’re nurses, they’re doctors, nursing home homecare workers. They’ve been very engaged with people in the administration about healthcare. And our union has been very active, less in the policy development and more in trying to build coalitions with business leaders, coalitions with the cancer society and Wal-mart and AT&T about why America needs to make this change and how it’s a key ingredient to our competitiveness in a global competition. And also, making healthcare change is a way to save money in the long run. So a lot of our time has been going to the White House or meeting with the administration with other business or industry or union leaders to really talk about how can we get this done.
Sun: So how have you decided to pass the reform?
A.S.: The president, after a long process, has stepped in with his final set of ideas that will come out today or tomorrow. The Speaker of the House [Nancy Pelosi] is preparing the education process to get members of her party understanding the bill. And we hope, in congressional districts all over the country, to have our members go speak with their representatives — call, write, fax — to make it clear this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and we can’t let it slip away.
Sun: And what about another big piece of legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act? You were a vocal proponent of the act. What will it do for workers?
A.S.: If the facts are correct, that American workers haven’t gotten a raise in five years, and if we believe — which I do — that the economy will recover, the question is are we going to go back to another period where people continue to work hard and don’t see any increases in their standard of living. Workers always get to share in the pain of an economic crisis, and I think as we saw with the bonuses recently, they may not share in the gains of the recovery. And what unions allow people to do is to sit down with their employer and bargain about how are we going to share in success. When that happens, those workers tend to get better wages and benefits, and when it doesn’t happen, the executives and shareholders tend to get better wages and benefits. And so the Employee Free Choice Act was just a method to allow people who chose to do that, to sit down with their employer and talk about how, when we begin to recover, are we going to make sure that everyone recovers, not just the people at the top … I think that America’s going to learn that unless people have more money in their pocket, there is no way to solve the problems of the deficit, there is no way to rebuild the middle class [and] that workers need a raise.
Sun: About a year ago, you said that Obama would “shepherd” EFCA to passage in 2009. It still hasn’t been passed, so what went wrong?
A.S.: We all got to watch, from a ring-side seat, the dysfunctional character of our Congress, and particularly the United States Senate, who over a number of election cycles were given a rare moment, which was the ability to debate any single issue they wanted to without a filibuster of the other party. They squandered it and used it instead to hold bills hostage, hold their colleagues hostage, cut special deals for their state or for certain employers. We missed an opportunity to have what Americans sent them there to do, which is to have a debate and vote. Instead we got an arrogance of power, of individuals stopping change because they could.
Original Author: Michael Linhorst