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.