A More Perfect Union?
Why Andy Stern isn't helping the American labor movement.
The New York Times heralded the electoral layup as the greatest union feat since the 1937 Flint sit-down strikes that forced General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers. Organizing the home-care industry may never allow Stern to control the commanding heights of the U.S. economy the way UAW's Walter Reuther did in the '50s. But with baby-boom retirements, the home-care field may soon employ more workers than auto ever did. Meanwhile, the election produced for SEIU what is now very likely the largest local in America, with 115,000 members and nearly $30 million in yearly cash flow. Stern's Los Angeles Local 434B is now bigger than the entire United Mine Workers—once America's largest union. The problem is they have very little to show for their dues.
Stern has become an inviting target for other unions. His great rival is Gerald McEntee, the president of AFSCME, who's staying with Sweeney. McEntee claims his union should represent Stern's home-care and day-care workers, too. The two have clashed repeatedly in bitter turf battles in Illinois, Iowa, and California. (At the March AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Las Vegas, they charged each other with raiding. According to Jonathan Tasini, the former president of the National Writers Union, McEntee called Stern a "hypocrite," and Stern dubbed McEntee a "motherfucker.")
Stern's departure from the AFL-CIO probably mortally wounded it. But it was dying, with or without SEIU. In essence, the American labor movement has now split into two failing models. Old-line, high-wage unions don't have room to grow, while Stern's new low-skill service unions have plenty of room to grow but little power to help their members.
Correction, July 28, 2005: An earlier version of this article called Bread and Roses a "Hollywood" movie. In fact it was produced and funded almost entirely by non-American film companies. Return to the corrected sentence.
Robert Fitch is a former union organizer whose book, Solidarity for Sale, will be published in January 2006.
Photograph by Brian Kersey/UPI Newspictures.