“Andy Stern is not shy about speaking his mind,” veteran labor reporter David Moberg wrote in our recent cover story, Can’t Workers of the Word Unite? In these last months, Stern has been anything but shy about triggering the most far-reaching strategic debate in labor in more than a generation.
But while Stern’s call for dramatic structural change, his openness to remake labor’s traditional ties to the Democratic Party and create new institutions and alliances for working people, and his sense of urgency, even desperation, about the future of labor is admirable and welcome, much of SEIU’s argument about what is to be done is less persuasive. (For more on Stern and the recently dissolved New Unity Partnership’s (NUP) reform proposals–and my take on the arguments–see below.)
The insistence on the need for change at almost any cost was at the heart of Stern’s talk to a packed early Monday session at the Harvard Club–organized by the Drum Major Institute and its indefatigable Executive Director Andrea Batista Schlesinger. The charismatic 54-year old leader of SEIU, the AFL’s fastest growing affiliate, acknowledged that if his (and NUP’s) candidate–John Wilhelm of UNITE HERE–isn’t elected (and John Sweeney ousted) at the AFL’s quadrennial convention this July, it’s the endgame.
Or, as Stern said, “We made a decision, rightly or wrongly that we will either be part of or partners with the AFL-CIO, but we don’t want to be part of a labor movement that isn’t willing to make changes that give workers a chance.” Meaning that either the AFL-CIO implements a slate of specific reforms that Stern and his partners are demanding, or some 40 percent of the AFL will depart the federation and form something new–raising the specter of a split in the House of Labor akin to John Lewis’s departure in 1935 to form the CIO.
When I pressed Stern about the danger of a split, at a time when labor is under ferocious assault, it was startling to hear SEIU’s fiery leader invoke a business model. “Competition is not necessarily the most unhealthy aspect of moments in history…in a business analogy, there is US Airways, which has a model of doing work which has not been as successful as they ever wanted it to be…If you were Herbert Kelleher [chairman of the board of Southwest] right now and you wanted to start a new airline, you could either start Southwest with a whole new model and see if it worked or you could take over US Airways and see if you could change it. To me, one of the questions in the labor movement is, do you want to take over US Airways or do you want to build Southwest?” (Click here to read an excerpted transcript of the conversation.)