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.
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These good jobs – and launching universal health care and energy efficiency – will be key to Obama’s success. Stern understands that the Obama Administration will be judged by whether it tangibly improves people’s lives. He paraphrased economist Robert Kuttner: “For the first time we are looking at a transformational, not transactional, presidency.”
Stern doesn’t think Obama is beholden to Wall Street in the ways previous Presidents or even today’s Senators are. He said Obama has “his own accountability system,” and he believes that in this “transformational moment” progressives need to ask [when it comes to domestic priorities], “How do we make sure what the President wants to get done, gets done?”
Along those lines, Stern discussed the kind of strategic thinking which would mean seeing a “difference between independence and interdependence.” We can’t approach this moment only with our own issues – we need to see a range of issues and work together. “Progressives need to work together as a strategic, smart, focused coalition,” he said. We don’t need to agree on everything in order to work together in a smart, strategic way.
Stern laid out what he saw as the important “phases” of the Obama administration. We’re now in a pre-inauguration phase – in which every group is working to get its issues on the agenda, including SEIU. On Inaugural Day, a huge set of initiatives will be announced – including signing a stimulus bill. Stern sees a second phase running from the day after inuaguration to August, and “if we go in different directions, we’re in trouble” – coming back to this idea of a progressive coalition working together strategically while not necessarily agreeing on everything. He believes we have to make sure progressives are on the same page – “push not pull from inaugural day to August to get some big things done.” Stern’s dream would be to achieve a massive stimulus, universal healthcare, and begin the work to create green jobs —and he thinks it can be done if we build strong coalitions and stick together.
A key part of SEIU’s work will also be through electoral accountability. The union is putting massive numbers of people in the field – half of the international staff and 30 percent of the locals – pushing for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and health care, reminding people of what this election was about. Stern argues that progressives have learned how to do elections – and some of that learning curve involves the importance of staying in the field, holding people accountable, not de-mobilizing.
The Accountability Now coalition – which SEIU is a part of – will work to hold elected officials accountable at the polls by recruiting and supporting tough primary opponents to run against incumbents who have forgotten their constituents. Stern joked that it’s almost like what management does to employees – although they’re not going to harass or intimidate Senators and Representatives, they will let them know that progressives won’t just sit back and blindly support any incumbent Democrat.
In terms of EFCA – which would require employers to recognize a union after a majority of workers sign cards authorizing representation – SEIU is sending out videos showing all the times Obama voiced support for the legislation. They are not naïve, they are clear-eyed, they are tough about the fight ahead. They feel that they need to do a better job educating people about the history of EFCA and the need for it. For example, the card check system (which would be implemented by EFCA) existed in this country for 32 years – from 1936-67 – it built a middle-class. Nine states have some version of EFCA, and former Governor Pataki passed a form of it in New York. Burger said, “You don’t need to rewrite EFCA or compromise – get it through the House, into the Senate, stay in the field and get is passed.” There may be a few GOP members who will vote for it – like Susan Collins, who can be reminded of her moderate roots, and there will be pressure brought to bear in Maine.
If EFCA passes, Stern wants to build a movement around labor – and build it to inspire people, and bring hope to people, and not just engage in class conflicts, or anti-management. He knows we’re not there yet. He also talked about the need for labor to think globally, at a time of global financial crisis. We need global re-regulation but we also need global labor unions and coalitions to engage at this level and at scale.
Stern is also interested in the new social networking platforms, and thinks that if MyBarackObama.com has an independent voice – and he argues it will – progressives need to figure out how to interact with this enormously powerful force.
Stern believes “we’re going to pass universal healthcare – Max Baucus’ plan is close to what Kennedy has proposed.” Tom Daschle as point-man is “an incredibly good sign.”Stern said that the difference between now and the Clinton period is people understand today that you need to solve the healthcare problem in order to solve the fiscal problem, and so the business community is not as mobilized against it.
On the auto-bailout Stern asked, “Who’s telling the Citigroup and AIG workers to take cuts?” He thinks there needs to be a more visionary labor perspective on this bailout. One idea – the federal government should replace its aging fleet of vehicles, pre-purchasing from the Big Three. It’s almost like buying preferred stock through these vehicles rather than giving a loan. Stern said the UAW is in a difficult position in terms of carving out an independent stance, and that the problem is a structural one that goes back a number of years: UAW has company unions, as opposed to sectoral/industrial unions whereas, in contrast, SEIU 32BJ in New York has every janitor in New York City under the same contract.
On trade Stern thinks that all the important trade pacts have been done – perhaps Korea is important ahead. But there needs to be new thinking on trade. Burger said, “Don’t tinker, think bigger. In this next period we need to rethink the way do trade.”
“We’re living through uncharted waters,” Stern said. “The sad thing is we keep being right.” He referenced various reports SEIU has issued over the years about the state of over-leveraging and the private equity markets. “We’re all getting to understand our free market ideology isn’t going to work.”
Stern concluded by saying, “America needs a plan,” referencing the fact that we need some tough thinking about a long-term economic plan, a new social compact. “You can’t keep lurching from moment to moment – we need a plan.”
As for Stern himself, on the rumor that he’s the next Labor Secretary, he joked, “This is on the record. I would be the only labor leader nominated for Labor Secretary who labor would oppose.”