Thursday, May 20, 2010

SEIU leader Stern: Legacy not all bad!

This is a contrast to many of the accounts of Stern's Legacy. Many consider him a sellout and at the same time a leader who was autocratic and spent union money stifling dissent as much as organizing. This author thinks the health care bill was a great victory. Again many on the left consider it a big sellout and the right may very well be correct that it will be a big expense and involve cutting back of Medicare entitlements eventually. This is from newsweek.


Andy Stern's Legacy: Not All Bad
Jonathan Alter
Friday's Washington Post story about Andy Stern leaving the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) with debts offers a revealing look at the internecine strife that has long plagued the labor movement. And give the Post credit for covering a labor story, which most of the rest of the press simply ignores. But on the occasion of Stern stepping down after 13 years as head of the second largest (after the Teamsters) and fastest growing union in the country, the assessment of his legacy deserves a bit more perspective.

Stern, as the Post story says, is the most consequential labor leader of our era. I'm tempted to say that's like being the most consequential typewriter manufacturer of our era, but that sells Stern short. He had his shortcomings—the decision to break away from the AFL-CIO was a failure and, on a lesser note, a $1 million documentary that the union paid for (and in which I'm interviewed) was, as Stern admits, a waste of money.

Even so, Stern's leadership was virtually the only bright spot for labor in recent decades. He tried to drag the movement into the 21st century. The SEIU dissidents in California who Stern spent big money to defeat wanted return to the 19th century—to a lost world of hot rhetoric and effective strikes. Stern used both on occasion but he understands that militancy is impotency nowadays and the only way to advance is smart compromise.


As I explain in my new book on Barack Obama, without Andy Stern there would be no health-care reform. Starting in 2006 he arranged to break bread with the insurance industry and long-time enemies like Wal-Mart (see below) to move the bill forward. At the end of the process in March of this year, SEIU pressure on wavering House Democrats was critical to President Obama's victory. Stern spent little time with Obama personally in all those trips to the White House; mostly he was war-gaming health-care strategy.

Labor leaders who complained he wasn't paying enough attention to the Employee Free Choice Act ("card check" to critics) weren't being practical. There was no way Obama was going to tackle that first. As it turned out, health-care reform was a huge victory for millions of SEIU members and other lower-middle class Americans who will be added to Medicaid and will no longer have to worry that they're one illness or layoff away from bankruptcy.
Stern, a hard-headed former social-services worker and intellectual, was spectacularly successful in building SEIU into a powerhouse. The key was big deals with big employers and a refusal to be bound by the often mindless traditions of the movement. The fact that his hand-picked successor, Anna Burger, lost in the election to succeed him testifies to the fraying of Stern's bonds with restive locals as he concentrated on historic change. I hope he succeeds with more history-making as a member of the president's Budget Commission. If the teachers' unions are smart, they'll listen to Stern on how to make sensible concessions (on iron-clad seniority rules, for instance, that currently mean laying off even teachers-of-the-year if they're young). And Rich Trumka, new head of the AFL-CIO, should let bygones be bygones and seek Stern's counsel in the interests of the movement.

The philosophical breakthrough Stern made was understanding that even union-busting companies he spent his career fighting can have redeeming qualities. Take Wal-Mart again, which last week announced a $2 billion plan to ease—even end—hunger in the United States in the next five years. Developed with the help of a large collection of progressive groups, the program is a welcome sign of working across political lines. Naturally, the announcement got limited publicity, but that's a serious amount of money (mostly in-kind donations of food from Wal-Mart groceries) that will significantly dent the hunger problem. The Wal-Mart Foundation will also pay to deliver the food (including fresh meat, dairy, fruit, and vegetables) to local food pantries before their expiration dates, with the help of the latest irradiation technology. (By the way, for those of you about to go New Age/conspiracy theory on me, Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame endorsed irradiated food and genetic engineering on the Colbert Report recently.)

I mention the Wal-Mart hunger initiative both because it's significant on its own terms and as a message to budding progressives. SEIU should still try to organize Wal-Mart but demonizing the company and refusing to work with it is a recipe for continuing failure. Labor should stay tough and principled but, as Andy Stern likes to say, "change to win."

TAG(S): Jonathan Alter, Barack Obama, Healthcare

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