By Dana Goldstein
November 28, 2006
Caption : Former union president Andrew Stern talked with Campus Progress about the future of the labor movement and how labor issues fit into the broader progressive agenda.     

Andrew Stern, a student activist in the 1960s, rose to prominence within the labor movement as a protégé of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, and became president of the Service Employees International Union in 1996. But in July 2005, Stern shook the labor movement and American left when he announced the SEIU and Teamsters would split from the AFL-CIO to start their own coalition, Change to Win. Now, Stern has written a new book, A Country That Works, and is focused on bringing a more diverse group of workers into the union fold, including white collar professionals, younger workers, and freelancers. Stern talked with Campus Progress about the future of the labor movement and how labor issues fit into the broader progressive agenda.

Campus Progress: American college students seem very disconnected from unions, perhaps because they won’t be tethered to one employer throughout their lives as many of their grandparents were. What does the labor movement offer young people, and what is your strategy for reaching them?

Andrew Stern: Well, I think clearly we’ve had a labor movement that’s been growing smaller, not stronger, so we’ve ended up talking to fewer and fewer people. Nowhere is that more obvious than amongst young people.  The question that we’re dealing with is: How do we create a labor movement that’s not one size fits all? How do we create new organizations? There’s an organization up in New York that we’ve been working with called the Freelancers Union. And it’s beginning to offer benefits to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to buy things like health care at a reasonable price. We’re thinking of creating a new organization called My Life that would be mainly focused on 18 to 34 year olds. It would be web-based, and what it would allow people to do is purchase on a national level health care that you can move from job to job. You’d also be able to do things like tweak your resume on file permanently in your personal account. You could access debit cards potentially and start doing some of the new financial transactions like putting money on your cell phone. It would have opportunities for people to network with other people who are doing similar jobs or somewhat of a Craigslist-type function. It would be in some ways what AARP is for seniors: a place that advocates on their behalf. But clearly it’s a different form of organization; whether you call that a union, or an internet community, or an association, I’m not sure. But it has that kind of potential.

Young progressives often debate the issue of Wal-Mart. Their labor practices include union busting, lock-ins, and discrimination against women. But at the same time, when Wal-Mart commits to change in something like using renewable energy, they can make a huge difference because of their immense size. How should progressives be engaging with Wal-Mart?

Well, what I think what we should do, whether it’s Wal-Mart or Newt Gingrich, we applaud good behavior and we hold people accountable for bad behavior. If Wal-Mart does what it’s saying it will do about renewable energy—I think it’s important to say they haven’t done it yet—I think it’s a huge step forward around global warming, around packaging, around alternative fuels. I think it’s great. And, you know, what they did last week was to say we’re going to put a cap on pay increases on our workers who have been there the longest, which means that a lot of them will just have to leave, which is what the point is, so that Wal-Mart can hire younger and cheaper workers. They said they were going to double the amount of part-time workers they have, which means less people who will have health care. And they’re now saying that they’re going to have people wear new uniforms and that they’re going to have the workers pay for them. I think we have to say, “That is not what we applaud.” That’s despicable behavior. When they want to come to our communities, we say, “You are the largest employer in the world.” I mean, they made $28 billion in profit. They can afford to treat people a little bit more decently, and I think we have to hold them accountable.

You just mentioned Newt Gingrich. How do you respond to people who would just be completely disgusted by a labor leader ever applauding such a conservative politician?

I think you have to call them as you see them. The truth is that I was and probably still am one of Newt Gingrich’s greatest critics on many issues. But on the other hand, when he says that the problem of America right now is the problem of the gap between the rich and the poor and that America needs what he would call a pro-business policy—I would say a partnership with business—I’m with him.

In Massachusetts, the governor, state legislature, labor, and the private sector worked together to drastically decrease the number of uninsured by requiring employees to provide health insurance for their workers. You’ve said the employer-based health care system is broken and that fundamental, not incremental, reform is called for. But wouldn’t it be progress if policies like the Massachusetts one were enacted in other states or on a national level? Is that a practical goal for you?

I think it’d be huge progress in any state where people come together and they find a solution that’s better than the status quo. And I applaud Governor Romney and the legislature and all those activist groups that have been pushing for this for years. I went to a health care summit that Arnold Schwarzenegger held, despite many people saying I shouldn’t, because I hope that California, as the largest state in the nation, finds some kind of solution that works. It’s good because it shows, just like welfare reform, that there are answers to the problem. I just think in the end that something as big as health care, it’s just hard to solve this problem state by state, particularly to move from an employer-based to a more universal quality affordable health care basis. But, boy, the steps forward are really important to a lot of people.

You’ve mentioned Howard Schulz of Starbucks as a CEO who recognizes that the employer-based health care system is broken. But Starbucks has repeatedly fought unionization attempts in its stores. How can the labor movement work with a CEO who leads such a company?

In New York City the IWW tried to organize a Starbucks store. First, I don’t think you can organize Starbucks one store at a time. I think this is a mistake the American labor movement makes over and over and over again. But that’s a different discussion. I think you applaud Howard Schultz for being willing to spend more for health care than for coffee beans, I think you applaud Howard Schultz for paying a better wage than most retailers like Wal-Mart pay. And, I think when his behavior is inappropriate in terms of how he responds to workers wanting to have a union, you have to raise those questions in the same way we have to hold unions accountable, including our own.

So if we can’t organize shop-by-shop like we used to, what can individual workers do?

Well first of all, I think we are going to create some new organizations in the next six months that individual workers can begin to join for both advocacy purposes as well as to provide them with some of the services and benefits they can’t otherwise get. Organizations like America Votes, where unions, environmental organizations, women’s organizations, and civil rights organizations are starting to work together on elections. And I think you can join organizations that allow you to participate and try to make change in this country. I think students and young workers particularly have a level of idealism and hope that is contagious. If people have the courage to speak up and speak out, then we can change this country.

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