The following is an edited excerpt from the Drum Major Institute’s “Marketplace of Ideas” roundtable featuring Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern. The event took place on March 14, 2005 at the Harvard Club in New York City. A full transcript is available at www.drummajorinstitute.org.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
: When I think about labor’s role in the progressive movement, I think progressives are in deep trouble in this country. But your top aide recently joined the board of the Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy donors seeking to build a progressive infrastructure. Shouldn’t labor leaders be asking how we build a movement rather than how we restructure union bureaucracy?
I would argue that massive political education of existing union membership is needed, a more sophisticated program that builds to last and keeps strength in the field after presidential elections. Do you see the SEIU bankrolling initiatives around the country on issues like public financing and electoral reform?
Also, you have in essence badmouthed the Democratic Party’s tendency to go back to FDR. Read Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights, the anniversary of which is April 12th. Why badmouth that? Why say we need brand new ideas? Why not build on what we have as core values and move them forward?
Finally, you say you’re going to convene a kind of eclectic board of Democrats sometime this spring. Is that going to grapple with things like the privatization of Social Security? Or how to fix Wal-Mart?
: The problem is that we don’t know what we believe in once we build a grassroots infrastructure. In the work that I do, what’s the measure of success? It’s not winning elections, it’s about changing people’s lives. Whatever forum I’m in, the question is: how does this affect people who go to work every day, the majority of Americans?
I would hope that the Democratic Party would be the party that spoke out for the survival of workers in the twenty-first century. Clearly Social Security is a pillar of that, but it’s not all there is. George Bush has an interesting idea in his Social Security plan if you don’t think about it as a substitute for Social Security. He has figured out a way for individuals to contribute to their own personal account over their lifetimes. Some might call it a 401K in today’s modern world. And it can pay you an annuity when you retire instead of cashing it out
My concern is that we are clutching on to the “New Deal” ideas of 1935 and simply maintaining them without advancing. The biggest problem most people have is not just having Social Security. Defined benefit pension plans are disappearing too, so there’s no guarantees when you retire.
I think Wal-Mart is good in the sense that they have low prices. But there are real costs to the low prices, which are my problems. I’m not going to attack people who go to shop every day because they’re looking for low prices. The problem is, there are real costs in countries overseas, there’s real costs for the workers of this country, there’s real costs for small businesses. That’s my issue. We shouldn’t destroy Wal-Mart just because it’s a big company and it’s successful. It probably deserve the earnings it gets from technological and other innovations, but not the wealth it gains by screwing workers and outsourcing work all over the world.
Dr. Peter Kwong
: In the past, American unions tended to think in terms of American workers only. They didn’t talk about trying to boycott foreign imports. But when you talk about Wal-Mart you have to talk about other workers, third world workers, who are being exploited as well. It’s not just about American workers. Can you explain your position on this very complicated issue?
: We should appreciate that Wal-Mart retail worker’s jobs in this country are not inherently low wage jobs. They’re no more low wage than autoworkers’ jobs once were, and no less skilled than mine workers’ jobs once were. They’re just not union jobs right now.
We need to develop some standards about community benefits. Should we allow Wal-Mart to come into New York City and drive small businesses out, a company with an avowed public policy of closing down places that want to be union? We usually don’t invite viruses into our body to infect what’s been a social contract that’s worked well.
The world labor movement, in the First World countries, are just in shock, because all the things we used to do that might have worked–collective bargaining, one country politics–aren’t working anymore. Multinational corporations and other institutions are making the rules, not countries as much. Even the president can’t stop globalization of the economy. People in other countries are sort of beginning to feel that the rules of the game they played by were supposed to bring them wealth and it hasn’t worked. I’m not sure they’ve figured out what the substitute is for it yet.
But they’ve bought the American model. They’ve bought the World Bank, they’ve bought cutting the services, and they ended up still poor. What’s happened in America is people are getting poorer and poorer. I wonder when we’re going to realize that it doesn’t all work.
With transportation and capitol moving so quickly, there are no more borders. Even the people who promoted the free trade agreements are in shock that they didn’t work.
I think people are at a loss. I admit I’m at a loss. I just think there are huge amounts of things we could do in our own country if we had a way to distribute wealth better, which is what unions used to do. It’s just a good economic model, and it actually distributed wealth and shared in productivity better than the trickle down theory.