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Talking with Andy Stern | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Talking with Andy Stern

Excerpt from DMI "Marketplace of Ideas" Series with SEIU President Andy Stern. March 14, 2005. New York City, New York.

Hon. Carl McCall: President Stern I have a practical question. One of the things you've done is that you've challenged the leadership of the AFL-CIO and you've suggested to them that they adopt some of the very interesting ideas that you've presented today. I was just wondering if you could comment on what is the end aim. Is (it) to extract from John Sweeney certain commitments to move in the direction you've suggested, or do you plan to run a candidate to oppose him?

Andy Stern: I think in any situation there are always two ingredients to change, one is what we're trying to talk about, "What do you believe in?" and then "who are the leaders that actually believe in what you believe in?" Because we have lots of people who say we're all for the same thing and then they get there and we're not sure what the same thing we all were for is. So I'd say the key, the first discussion is what do we all believe in. I'm not sure we're ever going to reach an agreement, so we may never get to the second question, which is "who is a leader that embraces what we agree in?" 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. We believe, as I said earlier, that we have fake unity not real unity, maybe what Democrats have. We're all Democrats but you can vote for the bankruptcy bill, you can vote against minimum wage and we're all Democrats. So, to us it's either time to change the AFL or build something stronger. A lot of building something stronger isn't building another labor movement, it is answering some of these questions of how do we relate to community organization, how do we build a progressive infrastructure, how do we build relationships with other membership organizations? Whether they be all the groups that work together in America Votes. How do we build the Working Families Party or other institutions that represent a different…so for us building something stronger isn't necessarily building a parallel labor movement. It's about joining with people that share a common set of values and trying to figure out what we should do regardless of what happens. How we work together to win for working people, to see work rewarded, to have a country that has a little more tolerance, a little more belief in science and progress and democracy, in the good sense of the word, more than we have today. So for us we want to make the change, if we make the change it needs a leader that embraces the change but at the same time we all have to build something stronger because we're losing. None of us, no progressive institution, no party, no labor movement, at this moment in history is strong enough on their own.

Katrina vanden Heuvel:But are you suggesting that a split might become necessary and can a house of labor divided survive in this climate?

Andy Stern: I might just say, that the house of labor is divided, so…

Katrina vanden Heuvel: But even more divided?

Andy Stern: Yes well no…Well, I hate to sound like a business person, because that's what people accuse me of all the time. You know competition is not necessarily the most unhealthy aspect of moments in history. You can say the Working Families Party is bad or you could say it sort of holds people accountable because there's alternatives. So to me we're not going to fight with people in the AFL-CIO as far as we're concerned we can work with them politically and as much as we do now. But at some point, the rules of the AFL-CIO really hold people back from growing. It's kind of restraintive (sic) trade. The merger of the AFL-CIO was the end of competition, and we never solved the problem of "do you believe in craft unionism or industrial unionism?" We just agreed that we were both successful enough that we should stop fighting and institutionalize what we each had. To me, yeah it's …if I thought this was a tragic moment for labor I would think differently, as I say it's a moment of opportunity potentially. I think this is also a question, this may be unfair, there are…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, it doesn't really have a business model. You can sort figure out what's the future of US Airways. You know they kind of look like everybody else but do it less. If you were Herb 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?

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