David Bacon Stories & Photographs


Interview with Andy Stern (A), president of the Service Employees International Union, by journalists David Bacon (D) and Philip Maldari (P).
KPFA-FM, January 19, 2005
Berkeley, California

D: Last August the Service Employees International Union kicked off a process of reevaluation of the direction of the US labor movement, with a speech you made at the union’s San Francisco convention and an interview in the Washington Post. You called for looking at the direction of the US labor movement, and at its relationship with the Democratic Party. Then, in the fall, SEIU made a series of proposals for specific reforms and reorganization for unions, called Unite to Win. That started a process in which a number of other unions have also made proposals for changes in direction.

Can you summarize the proposals that you made? Why did you think it was necessary to start this process?

A: It’s not really a discussion about the labor movement. It’s a discussion about work and workers in America. Anyone watching what’s happening to people who go work every day knows there healthcare is eroding, and their pensions are less secure. Even with two jobs it’s hard to raise a family. What’s going on is not good for workers. We’re not rewarding work. The labor movement has really been the only effective, long term anti-poverty program, but when we represent only one in twelve workers in the private sector, our strength and ability to change workers’ lives is diminished.

Our experience says that when you unite the strength of workers who do the same type of work – all the healthcare workers in one union, all the airline workers in one union – you have a much better chance at success and at matching up with what’s going on with our employers. What we call for is a massive refocusing of unions on growth, reorganizing unions so that workers who have strength can share it with other workers who do the same type of work. We need to launch a major campaign against the Walmarting of our economy – Walmart is the most obvious example of the search for low wages and low benefits – low costs on steroids. We should fight for an America where every single person has healthcare. We’re hoping to have a major campaign about the future of work, so we can change some of the backwards problems in this country.

D: Today grocery workers are attempting to get a contract with giant grocery chains which not only function in many states, but internationally as well. Last year in Los Angeles, workers virtually empties the stores in the course of their four-month strike, but the companies subsidized their losses with the profits earned in other areas. As a result, they had to return to work with an agreement that led to substantial reductions in health benefits and a two-tier wage system. Some people conclude from that that the era in which unions negotiate with giant national corporations on a region-by-region basis is virtually over, or should be. There’s simply not enough leverage in that form of bargaining to enable workers to protect what they have, much less make economic advances. Is that part of what’s motivated the proposals you’ve made?

S: Walmart’s arrival in California, and its penetration of markets around the country, has had a huge negative effect on workers. It used to be that working in a grocery store was a decent job that could support a family, with a good wage, healthcare and a pension. Competition from Walmart, and the adoption by other companies of that model, has changed that for many workers. We need to understand that we live in a competitive world, and when the competitors of companies with union jobs are paying less, and the union doesn’t organize those workers and bring their wages up, then the non-union wages are going to bring everyone down. In the grocery industry, that’s been a huge problem.

And you’re right. When you’re up against region, national and global employers, workers in a local area have much less ability to change the economic conditions in a single place. This doesn’t mean that wage rates don’t change from place to place, but if you have one huge company like Safeway or Albertsons, you need to unite the strength of all the workers it employs, and deal with it on a much larger level.

P: You’re really calling for the consolidation of many different unions into a much smaller number, but each of which is much more powerful. The advantage is that a much larger union has more clout. But isn’t there a disadvantage, in that you might pass up the kind of grassroots, worker-led local unions that are able to address the more specific concerns of people on the ground?

A: Workers are going to get a chance to vote no matter what we do. They appreciate that they need more strength. They deal with large corporations. I don’t think that being in a large organization, like SEIU, means that there aren’t strong, community-based mobilizations of our own union, that we don’t link our fights to the fights of other people in our communities. But the truth is that you have to have a certain amount of strength in this economy to deal with global or national employers. The question isn’t whether we’re going to take away rank-and-file democracy; it’s whether we’re going to have the strength for any democracy to be exercised. Under any structure we need community-based organizations.

D: When the International Longshore and Warehouse Union was organized in the wake of the 1934 General Strike, workers set up a structure that they hoped would accomplish both goals. The union negotiates a single contract with all the giant shipping companies, which covers every port on the west coast. But in terms of the method of negotiation, different locals elect delegates to a longshore caucus, which adopts the bargaining program, elects the negotiating committee, and monitors negotiations as they progress. Local unions, even quite small ones, get a fair degree of control, while at the same time, there’s only one set of negotiations in which the entire union sits down with the employers and bargains one contract. In the proposals that SEIU has made, where is that kind of balance?

A: That’s exactly what we’re talking about. The essence of that method is that there’s only one national union dealing with one set of employers, bargaining one contract. Contrast that with what happened at Kaiser for a long time, where sixteen separate unions went their own way, and the strength of workers was divided. Or take the airline industry, where unions are divided by craft, by companies, by union and non-union. The longshore is a perfect example of a union focused on an industry, that has a lot of vibrancy and a lot of life and a lot of democracy, as opposed to other industries, where the workers strength, as limited as it may be, is diminished. The airline industry is the most unionized industry in America, and look at what’s happening in front of our eyes because we don’t have a united industry strategy. We have company strategies and craft strategies, while new non-union companies like Jet Blue are entering the market. Workers are losing the things we’ve spent decades and decades building up. We could change that problem if we went more towards the longshore model.

When you have an industry strategy, as we do for the healthcare industry in New York. We don’t have a hospital strategy in New York. We represent the industry. If you lose a job in one hospital, you get put into a retraining center, you get paid supplemental unemployment, your healthcare continues, your pension continues, and you find another job.

D: Isn’t the problem of the airline industry not only the division of workers among unions and crafts, but the Bush administration policy of virtually pulling apart the industry and making workers pay the cost? What’s been the response of the labor movement to these kinds of concerted attacks?

A: I think the Bush administration spent a lot more energy attacking the longshore union than the airlines. It upheld some of the bankruptcies, and withheld some of the subsidies, but these are jobs that aren’t going offshore, and the industry has increased capacity, not decreased capacity. And at the same time, there’s a race to the bottom. When you have an industry strategy, as we do for the healthcare workers in New York, it’s different. We don’t have a hospital strategy in New York. We represent the industry. When you lose your job in one hospital, you get put into a retraining center, you get paid supplemental unemployment, your healthcare and pension continue, and you find another job.

In the airline industry, we can certainly look to external forces and find some. But we also have to look in the mirror and be honest. When we divide the strength of workers, and we don’t have a united strategy, workers will pay the price.

P: You represent a lot of hospital workers in California, but you don’t represent the nurses. On occasion, you’ve gone head to head with the California Nurses Association on issues of staffing, or the kinds of jobs done by registered nurses as opposed to licensed vocations nurses. It’s hard to ignore the differences between these two groups of workers and two unions. How can you paper those over?

A: Even within our own union there’s lots of disagreement among workers in different occupations. And what we’re trying to do with the CNA more recently is form a partnership to talk about how we can together take on companies like Sutter Healthcare, who don’t want to live up to the standards of the industry. How do we fight together for standards for healthcare workers, even if we can’t always agree on exactly which occupations are going to do specific tasks? And we do much better when we work and bargain together with CNA. Life’s not perfect, and there are times when you have differences and you have to figure out how to deal with them. But the problems we had two years ago were really destructive to workers. I’m really proud of (SEIU Local 250 President) Sal Rosselli and (CNA President) Roseann DeMoro for trying to get past that and think about what’s good for the workers.

D: Last summer you called for a reassessment of the relationship between the labor movement and the Democratic Party after the election. One of the ten points of your proposal talks about building new strength in politics, supporting public policies and legislative goals that help workers. One union at least, the Firefighters, has responded to your proposals by saying that the labor movement shouldn’t have just a single relationship with the Democratic Party, but presumably with both Republicans and Democrats. What kind of reevaluation process do you see now that the election is past?

A: Workers don’t have a party right now that speaks clearly and precisely to their economic interests. We don’t have a party that says we need to reward work in America. We don’t have a party that fights every day so that every man, woman and child has healthcare. Workers are looking for leadership on the economic issues that confront them every day, and don’t see in either the Democrats or the Republicans the kind of leadership they want.

It is up to our union and other unions to raise the question, Where are the organizations that speak for us? Can we change the organizations that are there to be more responsive to workers? If not, what do we need to do? We’re not going to win elections for workers when you don’t have parties that run on platforms that mean much change in their lives. If you as the average worker to write down the Democratic Party’s view on the economy, the best you might get would be the balanced budget, which is not really something that will motivate people or give them passion to get people elected.

People are facing real life problems – they’re losing their jobs. They’re losing their healthcare. They can’t raise their families the way they want to. They’re worried about college costs. And we don’t have a clear and precise message coming from any party that speaks to those questions. And I think it’s time that we talk about those questions out loud.

D: You were one of the unions that took a position before the election opposing the war in Iraq, calling for the withdrawal of US troops. We wound up supporting a candidate whose position was very different, who was a long time supporter of free trade, and hardly backed off of that, even under pressure during the primaries. How are we going to avoid getting into that position again, concretely?

A: The first thing is not to sit there silently, and believe that we have no ability to change that. There has to be a discussion about where is there anyone speaking about the concerns of workers. It’s hardest to start at the top, at the level of the Presidential election. We have to get clear among people who believe that work in America is an important consideration, that the 90% of the people who do it every day should be rewarded, and build a party off of that premise, either an alternative to the existing parties, or by running candidates in existing parties, or taking out people in existing parties who are against those interests. We’ve been too nice too long.

P: John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, came out of SEIU, and yet you seem to be his harshest critic. Are you really calling for a change in the leadership of the federation?

A: Who would want to be leader of an organization that really had no effective way to change workers’ lives? The structure, the constitution, the history over the last 50 years has led to a very loose confederation. The first question isn’t who’s captain of the ship, it’s whether the ship’s constructed to be able to represent workers in the 21st century economy. I don’t think it is. We’re disorganized. We’re divided. We may all be in the same organization, but within that organization, in situation after situation, we just do not unite the strength we have. We don’t focus on growing stronger. That’s the first question, before you can even imagine who would want to be president of the AFL-CIO and preside over the decline in the percentage of workers in unions and the lowering of standards of workers because of global, national and non-union competition.

D: There’s been a lot of speculation, not just over who might want to be president of the AFL-CIO, but whether unions will stay in it. Is SEIU seriously considering leaving the AFL-CIO?

A: We need to either change the AFL-CIO, or build something stronger. Workers in this country need a fighting chance to change their lives. We could change the AFL-CIO and also build something stronger. It’s not necessarily an either/or. But unless we have organizations that are focused exclusively on trying to change workers’ lives and unite their strength, and do everything in their power to change what’s happening every day to workers in America, we’re in desperate trouble. Even if it means that our union or other unions go out and try it alone, I think that’s better than continuing to go in the same direction, which is to not make the progress that workers need.

P: Do you think that if the AFL-CIO had taken a strong stand on the war, there would have been a significant increase in the number of union households voting for Kerry?

A: I think people vote for the candidates, not because of the position of the AFL-CIO.

D: Looking at labor history, at the periods during which union membership took great leaps forward, as it did in the 1930s and 40s, a lot of the growth took place because workers organized themselves. And this self-directed, self-motivated organizing took place as part of a larger social movement that also fought on other issues. That’s not happening in the United States right now – workers aren’t thinking in those terms. What has to change in the way people think for that to happen, and what role do unions have in helping to create that change?

A: I think people make a legitimate and honest judgment about the benefit of having an organization where they work and the cost. And employers have raised the cost so high, and the risk has become so great, that unless workers can see other workers succeeding at it, I think it’s hard to expect they’ll take that risk. They have to see other unions with winning strategies that can make a difference. That’s what you’ve seen somewhat with our janitors and homecare workers. They’re ready to take the risk because they see it has paid off for other workers and changed their lives.

And we have to change the laws. The laws are ridiculous. When you think about what faces workers out in the workplace, you’d think you were in a country that was incredibly repressive. Talking about unions means a chance of getting fired. We have a renegade system of employers who think it’s important to put down workers. So we need a combination of workers having hope and unions with the scale and size and strategy and will and passion to work with them and fight with them and be their voice. And at the same time we need to make sure we live in a democracy where workers do get to make those choices.

P: So how do you address outsourcing? You say airlines haven’t been outsourced, but you can send the planes to Mexico to be overhauled and have work done on them. People in India answer the toll-free numbers to provide service in the United States.

A: We’re not going to stop globalization. Integration is well on its way. The question is how do we regulate it? How do we maximize the number of jobs that stay in our country? How do we form global unions to make sure that we deal with the same kind of differential that caused the grocery strike? A high wage Safeway worker and a low wage Walmart worker are like a high wage American call center worker and a low wage Indian call center worker.

We have to decide what are the rules of the global economy. That’s what the fight about NAFTA and the WTO are about. We have to have global unions so that we can begin to raise the standard of living of other workers. And we need to have powerful American unions that can make sure that the jobs that stay in our country are good jobs, and not just low wage jobs.

When we think about auto, steel and rubber workers’ jobs, before the 1930s and 40s they were not high skilled, high wage jobs. What happened was they got a union, and all of a sudden, a union job turned out to be a good job, where you could raise a family and enter the middle class and send your kid to college. Walmart jobs are not inherently bad jobs. Walmart workers are not inherently unskilled people. They just happen to work for a company that thinks it’s more important to give the five Walton family members, who are each worth 20 billion dollars, another billion dollars a year, rather than to give every single employee of that company healthcare. There are going to be jobs that stay in this country, and there are going to be jobs that go overseas. We need to make sure there’s a regulating behavior. We need to fight to keep the ones we can. And we need to make the jobs that stay in America good jobs. Union jobs. High wage jobs. Benefited jobs.


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