Like any reformer, SEIU President Andy Stern has his admirers and his critics. I understand the critics’ arguments. But I also think Stern is a visionary labor figure. When in history were heretics well liked? Yet their ideas are worth hearing.
Yesterday, Stern came to The Nation offices along with Change to Win Chair and SEIU International Secretary-Treasure, Anna Burger, to discuss this new moment in the country’s history and what kind of strategic thinking will be needed moving forward. Their mood was optimistic–as well it should be, since labor spent some $450 million in the 2008 races, contributed mightily to massive voter outreach and mobilization and saw their candidates win.
“It’s a different world – the free market ideology has been discredited,” Stern said. This was “a clear election not on small things.” And he argues, “We’ve redefined the center. Universal health care is now centrist.”
Stern and Burger were less focused on the people just appointed to President-elect Obama’s cabinet than on the policies and proposals – especially the massive stimulus program – now being discussed. Stern said, “We’re not used to thinking in these ways, we need to think differently, and look at the outputs, not just the inputs,” meaning who the advisors are. (I have to admit that I’m more worried than Stern about the number of Robert Rubin proteges in the cabinet. It’s as if the guys who brought us this mess, via deregulation of Wall Street, are falling upwards.)
Both Stern and Burger were very pleased with the “real progressive appointments” of Melody Barnes and Patrick Gaspard. Barnes, the former chief counsel to Senator Edward Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee, will serve as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Gaspard – who will be the White House political director – was the lead political operative for SEIU 1199, representing health care workers in New York prior to serving as the Obama campaign’s national political director.
Like everyone else, Burger’s and Stern’s top priority is rebuilding the economy. “The American economy hasn’t been working for working people for a long time. We need to make the economy work for people,” Burger said.
Stern views the economic stimulus as a needed reinvestment in our country, creating necessary jobs and rebuilding our infrastructure. Both Burger and Stern talked about the importance of creating not just any jobs, but “good jobs” – meaning secure jobs, middle-class jobs – which means workers have a voice (which means Employee Free Choice Act – read on). He joked about how during the Clinton era there was talk of 20 million jobs created and that many SEIU members had three of them – working three jobs to pay the bills.