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.

Under Sweeney the AFL-CIO has tried to tackle both fronts. It has exhorted unions to spend more on organizing (aiming for 30 percent of national budgets), trained more new organizers, encouraged strategically targeted organizing and assisted organizing campaigns with money or staff. Sweeney has also urged small unions to merge–there have been thirty-one mergers since he took office–and for unions to concentrate on increasing the density of union representation in their key industries. Increasingly, the federation has focused on a campaign for the right to organize, including legislation that would grant recognition to unions that sign up a majority of employees at any workplace. But critics contend that Sweeney and his staff have run the AFL-CIO with tightly scripted meetings that discourage the open discussion among leaders needed to strengthen the labor movement and resolve the issues that are flaring up.

Now roughly twenty-five of the fifty-eight AFL-CIO unions devote 10-50 percent of their budgets to organizing, up from an estimated average of 3 percent in the early 1990s. Many are slowly changing their internal cultures to support organizing and are learning how to use collective bargaining, political clout, pension power, member organizers and strategic planning to organize on a larger scale. But despite their claims to be recruiting around half a million new members each year (though closer to 350,000 during the 2004 election year), AFL-CIO unions have continued to lose ground at nearly the same rate as under Sweeney’s predecessor, according to Richard Hurd of Cornell University, and the density of union representation continues to fall even in industries where unions have done their best organizing (with the exception of hospitals and possibly industrial laundries).

Stern’s Determination

Stern’s ideas about reorganizing the labor movement grew in part out of SEIU’s success in organizing more than 730,000 workers in nine years, mainly by building strength systematically in a few strategic industries–building services, hospitals, long-term-care providers. He has even allowed some SEIU locals outside its core (like utility or laundry workers) to move to other unions. But he has been frustrated by other unions’ attempts to undercut SEIU’s strategic campaigns. (For example, as SEIU organized security guards in Los Angeles last year, it had to fend off organizing by Teamsters, Operating Engineer and independent union locals that offered employers deals to avoid SEIU.) Stern concluded that the labor movement should be reorganized from a collection of a few large general unions and many small, narrow ones into about fifteen to twenty big unions, each of which concentrates on a distinct economic sector, like healthcare or transportation. When unions represent a large share of workers in an industry, they acquire more power to organize and bargain. Since employers are increasingly multinational, he argued, unions need to reach across borders and become global as well.

Even before Stern made his formal proposals last November, many labor leaders had rejected his ideas on reorganization, from his first offhand remarks soon after he took office to a long SEIU discussion document widely circulated several years ago. They threatened the self-interest and practices of many union leaders, and strategists from both left and right criticized them as arrogant, self-interested, unworkable, analytically flawed or undemocratic. But some labor leaders shared his views. In the summer of 2003, four other unions–HERE (hotel workers), UNITE (historically garment and textile workers), the Laborers, and the Carpenters (which had already left the AFL-CIO)–formed the New Unity Partnership (NUP) to cooperate on organizing. Then, last summer, Stern told his convention that either the AFL-CIO had to change or SEIU would form something better, raising the specter of a split in organized labor like John L. Lewis’s departure from the AFL in 1935 to form the new CIO.

The threat infuriated many in the labor movement, even some who partly agreed with Stern. “Labor unity is the most precious thing we’ve got with Bush in the White House,” says Paul Booth, assistant to president Gerald McEntee of AFSCME (public employees). “We look askance at people who talk about pulling out.” At Sweeney’s urging, union leaders postponed internal debate to focus energy on defeating Bush, but the Machinists replied with their own threat to pull out of the AFL-CIO if Stern’s ideas prevailed. When Stern tried to raise his proposals again after the election, discussion at an AFL-CIO executive council meeting was cut short, and he figured the odds were rising that SEIU would leave the federation.

Stern’s ten-point plan included much that was at first glance relatively noncontroversial. It advocated doing more intensive political work, building global union alliances, expanding campaigns to strengthen worker rights to organize, better reflecting the diversity of workers, strengthening local labor federations and funding a $25-million-a-year crusade against Wal-Mart–a financially more ambitious version of a campaign already being planned. It called for a major national healthcare battle but skirted the crucial question of whether labor should pursue national health insurance or piecemeal reforms.

But the proposals for restructuring the labor movement and expanding organizing were lightning rods for sharp dispute. There were too many small unions, including forty in the AFL-CIO with fewer than 100,000 members, that didn’t have the resources to organize, Stern argued. Even more important, most of the fifteen unions with more than 250,000 members were turning into general unions: Sixteen unions in a recent four-year period had tried organizing in at least five different sectors. And each sector was represented by many different unions: In thirteen of fifteen major economic sectors there are at least four significant unions, with as many as fifteen in transportation. But in some of the biggest, fastest-growing sectors there was very little organizing. As a result, Stern said, unions were unfocused and divided, while they increasingly faced national or global corporations.

Stern proposed to unite workers “in the same industry, sector or craft” under three leading national unions, with the idea that this would yield not just greater numbers but enhanced power and leverage for unions. This strategy, familiar to industrial or even craft union organizers of decades past, collides with the shape of many unions today, especially as they have tried to survive by merging or organizing simply to add members. The plan also triggered a backlash because it seemed to give the AFL-CIO great authority to merge unions and transfer responsibilities for organizing among unions, which critics regarded as an undemocratic violation of the traditional autonomy of individual unions. Equally important, Stern argued for three other reforms: rebating to unions half their AFL-CIO dues as an incentive to boost spending on organizing, prohibiting unions from undercutting established contract standards in an industry and mandating that the AFL-CIO either form new unions and innovative organizations or help old unions expand on labor’s unorganized frontier.

Ideas, Ideas Everywhere

The debate picked up as the Teamsters, then several other unions, offered their own proposals, and hundreds of union members weighed in on SEIU and AFL-CIO websites. The discussion–both in public and in AFL-CIO committees–has been unusually free-ranging, leading Stern, Sweeney and others to feel more optimistic about reaching an agreement. “My hope is that we’re going to have as dramatic a set of recommendations as we can possibly put together to grow the labor movement and to have a strong federation, but to be focused on where the affiliates want to be focused,” Sweeney says. “We’re not talking about cosmetic changes but meaningful changes.”

The proposals, reflecting individual union experience and self-interest, did not always directly respond to Stern’s plan. Often the participants seem to be talking past each other. And none of the plans, including Stern’s, lay out a comprehensive strategy for an organizing revival. But at least there is a debate, which is healthy. The Teamsters, for example, emphasized AFL-CIO dues rebates for unions that meet standards for spending on organizing, encouraging more mergers, streamlining the AFL-CIO, enforcing contract standards in industries and giving a small committee of the ten biggest unions more power–reinforcing many SEIU proposals in a more voluntaristic way. Without directly addressing many structural issues, AFSCME stressed expanding political operations into a full-time offensive, not just around elections.

The Machinists, in opposition to Stern, emphasized using existing union power more effectively, especially to reach allies and the public. Taking issue with SEIU in a different way, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) argued that unions should concentrate on their broad social goals as the “people’s lobby,” and rely on coalitions of any interested unions, not just the strongest few, to map strategy for each industry or occupation. As an alternative to radical restructuring, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) proposed strengthening unions (more union democracy, strike benefits and shop stewards) and focusing expanded political work on collective bargaining and organizing rights, healthcare and retirement security.

As part of labor reform, nearly everyone wants to strengthen the local arms of the AFL-CIO, which have become innovative and influential in many cities, like Cleveland, Milwaukee and San Jose. But in a restructuring debate that has taken on a life of its own, there was tension between proposals for more control from the center and the plan of some local leaders to create seventy-five strategic metropolitan federations that could be more powerful in local politics, not just a vehicle for national policies.

It became apparent early that there was no support, even among his immediate allies, for Stern’s suggestions to give the AFL-CIO power to dictate mergers or organizing jurisdictions. Indeed, insiders say other NUP leaders were furious when Stern launched his proposals independently. By early January they decided to disband as a group, even though they continued some projects together, since being treated as a caucus hurt their effectiveness. “Our goal now is to make the AFL-CIO and the unions in it as successful as possible,” Stern says. “The existence of NUP was a distraction. We can get back together again.”

There is wide support for encouraging more voluntary mergers, which can increase efficiency or help shrinking unions survive. Yet many mergers, such as the incorporation of some small garment unions into the United Food and Commercial Workers rather than UNITE, make little strategic sense. The question is, what qualifies as a “good” merger and who decides? For example, although the UNITE merger with HERE may ultimately work, it doesn’t follow Stern’s guidelines.

Stern wanted mergers to align unions with well-defined sectors–although he later included both industries and occupations, blurring his categories. “I don’t think you can decide to continue the AFL vs. CIO vs. Wobbly debate over the best way to organize unions,” Stern says, referring to the debate over craft and industrial unionism. “The AFL and CIO never reconciled their differences. They just decided to stop competing. We never philosophically reached agreement. And it’s only gotten worse.”

That’s certainly true, but logical as it seems, it’s not always easy to define one best approach. For example, CWA executive vice president Larry Cohen argues that workers can have many communities of interest that unite them and give them power, including a common industry, employer, occupation or region. The balance among different potential organizational identities and strengths isn’t always obvious. While some strategists think the construction craft unions should move toward a construction industry union, others argue that the craft model is not only still workable in construction but may also be appealing to many technical and professional workers, who already are nearly half of all union members and a promising constituency for organizing.

One alternative to mergers or strategic leadership of a few unions along industry lines would be greater cooperation among all unions in an industry, as promoted by the AFT (which organizes nurses, an area SEIU sees as part of its healthcare domain). But Stern is skeptical. “We’ve talked to [the AFT] many times about doing things jointly,” he said with some pique. “It’s never happened in healthcare, our industry, or in their industry, school systems. Voluntarism doesn’t work. The [multi-union] Houston Organizing Project didn’t work. The building trades project in Las Vegas didn’t work. We’ve got to stop trying things that don’t work. We are in a voluntary association that has tried voluntary efforts, and we’re now down to 8 percent of the private sector.”

If the objective is increased union growth, it’s not clear that mergers are the answer. Whatever merits they offer, union mergers in the United States and around the world rarely lead to union growth, according to several studies, certainly not without serious internal transformation. Indeed, competition among unions actually stimulated organizing when both the AFL and CIO were fighting for members before their merger in 1955. But with Bush rather than FDR in the White House and no sign of a spontaneous working-class upsurge, competition now seems more likely to be counterproductive. The big question is whether unions can learn to work more closely together, perhaps turning the AFL-CIO into a real alliance, as NUP was trying to do among a few unions, not a feudal court. Under such conditions, with each union more accountable to every other as well as to its members, productive realignments might develop more naturally.

“There’s no panacea, whether spending more money or mergers,” Stern says, “but there are things that work better or worse. Resources matter, strategy matters, staff and leadership matter, collective bargaining matters. None is sufficient alone. When you’re missing too many, there’s no possibility for growth. When we have ten or twenty unions, does the world change overnight? No. But I guarantee that there will be no change if we don’t.”

It’s unclear whether a workable compromise can be forged. UNITE HERE’s Wilhelm, who declines comment on perpetual rumors that he will challenge Sweeney for the AFL-CIO presidency, favors a few unions’ taking the lead in core industries but recognizes that many will keep organizing outside their usual jurisdictions. “It’s clear we’re not going to be able to make a set of rules preventing people from organizing outside their industry,” he says, “but if we look at the 90 percent [of workers] who are unorganized and divvy up responsibility, we can do a lot. If we fight over a tiny portion of the workforce while 90 percent are unorganized, it’s stupid.” If each union can be persuaded to lay out a strategic plan, showing how much it will devote to organizing in both its historic core and in wide-open areas, they might find they have more than enough to do without stepping on each other.

There is substantial support for giving unions dues rebates to encourage organizing in their core areas, but there are several problems. Not only is it tricky to define each union’s core, it’s hard to determine who would qualify, though giving rebates only for successful organizing might work best. Massive rebates would also eat deeply into the AFL-CIO budget. Although there’s widespread support for streamlining the AFL-CIO, there are virtually no proposals on what to cut. Indeed, nearly every plan proposes costly new programs for the fed, such as helping to start new unions in unorganized industries as both the AFL and CIO did years ago. “You can’t have a rebate discussion before you have a discussion of the roles and responsibilities of the federation and affiliates,” argues Laborers president Terry O’Sullivan, “and then based on that discussion, what kind of budget you need.”

If union leaders seem not to have resolved desires to both streamline and expand the AFL-CIO, they do want more of a voice about whatever it does. But the plan to give more power to the ten to fifteen biggest unions, pushed by the Teamsters, has led women and minorities who had long fought to gain a place on the expanded executive committee to complain that they would be shut out with a small group of white men in power.

Many agree at least in principle on expanding and making permanent labor’s successful political work. AFSCME particularly emphasizes reaching workers in suburbs and exurbs where labor was weak in the 2004 elections, developing a stronger labor presence in the red states and strengthening the new Working America organization for nonunion workers. But there’s emerging disagreement on strategy. While many unions want to concentrate on expanding labor’s influence within the Democratic Party, Wilhelm, with support from others, argues for greater independence from the Democrats. Unions, he says, should be “not only much more open to sensible Republicans but we need to find opportunities to withhold support from Democrats who don’t support working people and, where appropriate, run in primaries with people who do support working people.”

It’s Not Just the Structure

Broad as the debate has been, it hasn’t focused much on the vision and purpose of the movement, or on developing a strategy that new structures should serve. Some think it’s been “vacuous and empty,” in the words of one organizer, for failing to emphasize grassroots mobilization. “I think we need more focus on members’ role in winning back the right to organize and bargain collectively than we’ve had in this discussion,” says AFL-CIO organizing director Stewart Acuff. “And, of course, mobilizing members requires members to have real investment and ownership in their unions.” Indeed, research by Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University shows that unions win most often when they mount multifaceted campaigns built around workers’ acting as if they were already in a union. Although on opposite sides regarding structural issues, both Cohen of the CWA and O’Sullivan of the Laborers agree, as O’Sullivan says, that “this is about worker empowerment. We need to actively engage our rank-and-file workers more than ever before.”

But there are differing views of what worker empowerment means. “I don’t think people join unions for democracy in this country,” claims Stern, who has faced internal rebellions and criticism for shortchanging democracy within SEIU. “I think they join unions to gain strength to change their lives. So it’s not like democracy isn’t a value, but democracy isn’t an end”–rights and power at work are. Member mobilization is important for power, but democracy does not always lead to mobilization, Stern argues, and without the strength that comes from good organizing, there’s no possibility for real industrial democracy. Although members can be educated to support organizing, they are often inclined to favor more services for themselves or lower dues, not organizing.

With a swipe at SEIU, the AFT argues that a strategy for union renewal must focus on labor’s broad social values, not just union power, structures and procedures. “If we believe in self-determination in the society at large, our movement needs to promote democracy in crafting the means for getting there,” the AFT proposal states. “We cannot [adopt] corporate culture, vocabulary and values as our own and thereby run the risk of simply redistributing power within a diminishing labor movement instead of increasing power for, and for the good of, all working people everywhere.”

“The fundamental question,” Cohen argues, “is a voice at work–not only a voice, but effective participation in the way decisions are made at work.” If that’s the goal, then internal union democracy is necessary but not sufficient. It’s necessary because workers do want a union in which they ultimately make decisions and can check abuses of power, not simply a force working on their behalf. And a union in which members do not have a voice is not likely to provide the voice at work that an increasingly well-educated workforce wants. But democracy alone is not an organizing strategy. Unions need effective structures, organizers who can mobilize members, adequate resources, solidarity, strategy and leadership. Those are neither identical to democracy nor guaranteed by democracy. Ultimately, workers are not well served by either weak democratic or strong autocratic institutions.

The need for strategic, focused growth for power is undeniable. Stern rightly urges unions to build institutions that can match the power of global corporations and raise the standards for workers across an industry. But it is equally important to create a broad working-class movement for economic democracy driven by existing union members and newly recruited workers. Whatever compromise structural reforms they finally adopt, labor leaders must overcome their institutional rivalries to recognize that they have at least as much shared interest in the success of organizing as they do in political victory. The cheery side of labor’s plight is that even though there are many obstacles to organizing, there’s no shortage of opportunities. The next few months will test how labor plans to rise to that challenge.