Andy Stern is not shy about speaking his mind. For several years the energetic 54-year-old president of the 1.8 million-strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the nation’s second-largest and fastest-growing union, has argued in a bold–one of his favorite words–and often provocative way that the labor movement must organize new members faster or die. And he claims that unions can do so despite a hostile political climate; but only if they revamp their structure and strategy, consolidating forces to create bigger, more muscular unions in each sector of the economy.
Stern’s arguments and his threat last summer to leave the AFL-CIO if serious changes aren’t made have deeply rankled many other labor leaders. They have triggered a fiery internal debate that may reach some resolution at either the labor federation’s March executive council meeting or this summer’s quadrennial convention. There’s also the possibility that the arguments will set the stage for a dramatic contest for the presidency of the AFL-CIO and an organizational split on the fiftieth anniversary of the merger of its two forerunner federations. But so far, the discussion has been too much about the AFL-CIO and union structure, and not enough about how to revitalize labor and a broader movement for economic democracy and social justice.
This debate, with no clear “left” or “right” side, takes place against a grim backdrop. Losing the 2004 election despite an all-out effort to elect John Kerry was a punishing blow for organized labor. And American workers are clearly suffering: Real wages are declining, the ranks of the uninsured are rising, job growth is slow, Social Security and private pensions are under attack. Offshoring threatens jobs from manufacturing to high-tech. The Bush Administration is rolling back rights of both private and federal workers, and two Republican governors eliminated bargaining rights for 50,000 public workers with the flick of a pen. Adding to the pain, last year union membership shrank once again, to 12.5 percent of the workforce and only 7.9 percent of private-sector workers, about half the level of two decades ago.
Reversing these trends is crucial, not just for unions and the conditions under which most people work but for the future of progressive politics in America. Does Stern–or anyone–have the answer? Will any changes be too little, too late?
The AFL-CIO: In Weakness and in Strength
Ten years ago John Sweeney, then president of SEIU and Stern’s mentor, challenged the incumbent leadership of the AFL-CIO on similar grounds: Unions had to work more aggressively to organize new members and increase their political power. Since then the AFL-CIO has souped up its political operation, greatly increasing unity, energy, sophistication and mobilization of staff and members.
But unions have not recognized the equal importance of working together and mobilizing members to organize new workers. “To the extent there’s a glue that holds the AFL-CIO together, it’s politics,” says John Wilhelm, the hospitality industry president of the merged UNITE HERE, “but there has not been a consensus over the proper role for the AFL-CIO in organizing.”
Compared with other citizen organizations, Machinist president Tom Buffenbarger correctly argues, unions are still strong. At the same time, though, they are becoming skinny weaklings facing corporate Charles Atlases. Most of their woes are inflicted from outside: corporate attacks on the right to organize, laws that hamstring unions, a global economy without meaningful labor rights, a shift to a service economy with unstable employment relations and the ascendant pro-corporate political right. These forces have also weakened labor movements in many other industrial countries. But in the United States unions have had less political support, and many have become internally sclerotic, have retreated from organizing or are organized indiscriminately and ineffectively. The different positions in the current debate partly reflect how much emphasis each union puts on changing the external environment (like Buffenbarger) or the internal workings of labor (like Stern) as a key to labor revival.