When Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, appeared onstage together in early May, the pairing drew attention. The occasion was a lunchtime meeting of Better Health Care Together, a coalition of business, labor and political leaders, at a Hilton hotel in New York City. Stern had initiated the coalition with a letter to all the Fortune 500 CEOs inviting them to work with him on a solution to the nation’s healthcare crisis. He says he was surprised that Wal-Mart–and so many other companies–responded. “When I write letters to CEOs,” he explains matter-of-factly, “I usually don’t get a response.”
Outside the Hilton, several hundred men and women wearing United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) T-shirts, some of whom had come all the way from Maine and Pennsylvania, picketed the event, objecting to the “hypocrisy” of Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott’s appearance. Scott is accustomed to dodging protesters; his company has been engaged in a bitter public relations battle with the UFCW for years, with the union charging that Wal-Mart routinely violates the right to organize and offers stingy health benefits.
But the Wal-Mart boss wasn’t the only target of righteous ire that day. The union activists were also upset about the presence of Andy Stern. “People feel he has sacrificed some of the basic principles of the labor movement” by appearing onstage with the Wal-Mart CEO, said Pat Purcell, an organizer of the Hilton picket. One of those principles is solidarity. “Our union is losing members every single day because of Wal-Mart,” explains Purcell, director of special projects for UFCW Local 1500. “When we ask for help from other unions, we don’t mean, You can have lunch with them but not dinner!” Though Purcell says he has “great respect” for Stern, he and other unionists feel that Stern enabled a public relations stunt by Wal-Mart, aimed at making the company look socially responsible.
Inside the Hilton, Stern was more popular. Over a dry repast of chicken, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell hailed Andy Stern and Lee Scott as “the odd couple of healthcare.” Stern beamed when Arnold Schwarzenegger, who spoke by satellite, thanked him for his “great leadership.”
To be fair, this moment aside, Stern’s relationship with Wal-Mart is hardly chummy. SEIU continues to fund Wal-Mart Watch, an organization dedicated to relentless criticism of the retailer’s practices, and this year the union will allocate more funding than ever to such efforts. In March Stern gave a speech at a Bank of America gathering blasting Wal-Mart for undermining “fair competition” and adopting practices that were “bad for business overall.”
But many in the labor movement view Stern’s overtures to Scott as typical manifestations of his business-friendly unionism, more focused on partnering with employers than on joining other progressives in a struggle against corporate power. Stern’s 2006 book, A Country That Works, is full of statements like “employees and employers need organizations that solve problems, not create them” and “all parties want a mutually beneficial relationship based on teamwork.” (Sometimes the business-speak in this book reaches comic proportions; at one point Stern praises civil rights icon Jackie Robinson as “a change agent who endured indignities as a pathbreaker.”) Stern has unsettled many of his staff by publicly suggesting that he might not be against Social Security privatization or school vouchers (one organizer in the Midwest probably speaks for nearly everyone in SEIU in calling such statements “a bunch of horseshit…in fact we are against those things”). Paul Krehbiel, an organizer who until recently worked for SEIU Local 660 in Southern California, points out that Stern briefly attended the Wharton business school before becoming a social worker: “Andy’s just doing what he started out doing. He loves the business community!” Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association (which competes with SEIU to organize nurses), bluntly calls Stern “the neocon of the labor movement.”