How union leader Andy Stern has harmed the labor movement.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
July 27 2005 2:59 PM

A More Perfect Union?

Why Andy Stern isn't helping the American labor movement.

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A leader can be too Stern ...

This week Andy Stern, president of America's largest union, finally made good on the threat he's been brandishing for over two years. He pulled 1.8 million Service Employees International Union members out of the AFL-CIO just before a convention that was supposed to celebrate the Federation's golden anniversary. Stern, a 54-year-old former social worker, persuaded Jimmy Hoffa Jr. of the Teamsters to leave with him. Two other big unions are likely to follow. The AFL-CIO will lose 5 million of its 13 million members.

This defection is being presented as a triumph for Stern, who has been widely portrayed as the most energetic and effective union leader in an increasingly decrepit labor movement. But the coverage has missed the dark ways that Stern himself has been weakening American unions.

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The issue that's supposed to have caused the divide was a disagreement over priorities: Stern and his allies—usually described as "insurgents"—wanted their dues to the AFL-CIO rebated so they could focus on organizing new members. The other faction, led by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Stern's former mentor, wanted to keep the money to invest in political campaigns. ("Throwing money at Democrats," charged Jimmy Hoffa Jr.)

The real reason for the split—and the source of Stern's mostly unexamined eminence in organized labor—lies somewhat deeper. The unions that remain in the AFL-CIO—those representing the skilled construction trades, steelworkers, autoworkers, and machinists—can't recruit millions of new members. Their wage scales are too high—$30 to $50 an hour with benefits—and there are few new American jobs in their industries. The union leaders following Stern, by contrast, represent the less-skilled trades, the warehouse workers, dishwashers, garment workers, chicken-pluckers, asbestos removers, and farm workers who are lucky to make $10 an hour.

These low-wage unions have more upside potential. While most haven't grown, they are hoping to learn from Stern's methods. Because of his reputation as a legendary organizer, Stern has become the messiah for thousands of union staffers and sympathizers around the country.

But there are problems with Stern's approach and his image. First, while he has added to SEIU's rolls, he hasn't added as much as he claims. He's been regularly putting out the figure of 900,000 new members since he came to power in 1996. But by claiming 1.8 million members, he would have to have started out with 900,000 members in 1996. That's the figure his press people give out. But government figures—based on numbers supplied by SEIU—show that the actual number was 1.1 million. So, he has added only 700,000 members.

That is better than rival unions, but it certainly hasn't remade the industries SEIU represents. Despite the impression left by Bread and Roses *—the 2000 film starring Adrien Brody as the SEIU organizer who gets the beautiful Latina janitress—SEIU's organizing performance in its core private sector field has been less than spectacular. The union claims it has more janitors than ever. But according to the Department of Labor there are 4.4 million building service workers in the United States. Only 225,000 belong to SEIU.

More disturbingly, Stern's union has not brought its members the benefits that unions are supposed to bring. The economic forces arrayed against the SEIU are far more powerful than the union itself. In real terms, janitors in Los Angeles are paid half what they were in the '80s. Even in the union's flagship janitorial local in New York, starting pay has fallen 20 percent since Stern took over in 1996.

Stern has also boosted his rolls with workers who aren't really workers at all. In California, for example, Stern cannily used political contributions and organizing to reroute welfare dollars into his union and create a whole new class of members. After a decade's worth of organizing politicians in Sacramento—ex-Gov. Gray Davis got $625,000 from SEIU—and also the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Stern persuaded them to create an agency that would serve as the employer for home-care workers. Then in 1999, the agency held an election so that SEIU could become the exclusive bargaining agent. When SEIU—which faced no opposition—won the low-turnout affair, 74,000 members were added to its rolls.

But most of those home-care workers are parents and children who got government money for taking care of family members or close friends. They didn't provide nursing services but simply bathed and fed their disabled children or elderly parents. Most home-care workers are part-time, working for one client. Their average pay is less than $700 a month (now minus dues to SEIU).

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.

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