Thursday, June 28, 2007

SEIU and Andy Stern : Savior or Sellout?

> Andy Stern: Savior or Sellout?
>> [from the July 16, 2007 issue]
>> When Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International
>> Union (SEIU), and Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, appeared onstage
>> together in early May, the pairing drew attention. The occasion
>> was a lunchtime meeting of Better Health Care Together, a
>> coalition of business, labor and political leaders, at a Hilton
>> hotel in New York City. Stern had initiated the coalition with a
>> letter to all the Fortune 500 CEOs inviting them to work with him
>> on a solution to the nation's healthcare crisis. He says he was
>> surprised that Wal-Mart--and so many other companies--responded.
>> "When I write letters to CEOs," he explains matter-of-factly, "I
>> usually don't get a response."
>> Outside the Hilton, several hundred men and women wearing United
>> Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) T-shirts, some of whom had come
>> all the way from Maine and Pennsylvania, picketed the event,
>> objecting to the "hypocrisy" of Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott's
>> appearance. Scott is accustomed to dodging protesters; his company
>> has been engaged in a bitter public relations battle with the UFCW
>> for years, with the union charging that Wal-Mart routinely
>> violates the right to organize and offers stingy health benefits.
>> But the Wal-Mart boss wasn't the only target of righteous ire t! hat
>> day. The union activists were also upset about the presence of
>> Andy Stern. "People feel he has sacrificed some of the basic
>> principles of the labor movement" by appearing onstage with the
>> Wal-Mart CEO, said Pat Purcell, an organizer of the Hilton picket.
>> One of those principles is solidarity. "Our union is losing
>> members every single day because of Wal-Mart," explains Purcell,
>> director of special projects for UFCW Local 1500. "When we ask for
>> help from other unions, we don't mean, You can have lunch with
>> them but not dinner!" Though Purcell says he has "great respect"
>> for Stern, he and other unionists feel that Stern enabled a public
>> relations stunt by Wal-Mart, aimed at making the company look
>> socially responsible.
>> Inside the Hilton, Stern was more popular. Over a dry repast of
>> chicken, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell hailed Andy Stern and
>> Lee Scott as "the odd couple of healthcare." Stern beamed when
>> Arnold Schwarzenegger, who spoke by satellite, thanked him for his
>> "great leadership."
>> To be fair, this moment aside, Stern's relationship with Wal-Mart
>> is hardly chummy. SEIU continues to fund Wal-Mart Watch, an
>> organization dedicated to relentless criticism of the retailer's
>> practices, and this year the union will allocate more funding than
>> ever to such efforts. In March Stern gave a speech at a Bank of
>> America gathering blasting Wal-Mart for undermining "fair
>> competition" and adopting practices that were "bad for business
>> overall."
>> But many in the labor movement view Stern's overtures to Scott as
>> typical manifestations of his business-friendly unionism, more
>> focused on partnering with employe! rs than on joining other
>> progressives in a struggle against corporate power. Stern's 2006
>> book, A Country That Works, is full of statements like "employees
>> and employers need organizations that solve problems, not create
>> them" and "all parties want a mutually beneficial relationship
>> based on teamwork." (Sometimes the business-speak in this book
>> reaches comic proportions; at one point Stern praises civil rights
>> icon Jackie Robinson as "a change agent who endured indignities as
>> a pathbreaker.") Stern has unsettled many of his staff by publicly
>> suggesting that he might not be against Social Security
>> privatization or school vouchers (one organizer in the Midwest
>> probably speaks for nearly everyone in SEIU in calling such
>> statements "a bunch of fact we are against those
>> things"). Paul Krehbiel, an organizer who until recently worked
>> for SEIU Local 660 in Southern California, points out that Stern
>> briefly attended the Wharton business school before becoming a
>> social worker: "Andy's just doing what he started out doing. He
>> loves the business community!" Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director
>> of the California Nurses Association (which competes with SEIU to
>> organize nurses), bluntly calls Stern "the neocon of the labor
>> movement."
>> Many progressives would be startled by DeMoro's characterization
>> of Andy Stern. His union is the employer of choice for many
>> idealistic college graduates. That's only in part because the
>> membership of SEIU--African-Americans and immigrants toiling in
>> underpaid jobs--inspires a natural solidarity from the left. It's
>> also because Stern's personal style is agreeable to middle-class
>> progress! ives. Th e 1960s-generation, University of Pennsylvania-
>> educated former social worker is reflective and contemporary, not
>> macho or swaggering like many old-school union leaders. He's also
>> willing to try new things, and like many of his generation harbors
>> a profound contempt for stagnant bureaucracy. These attitudes can
>> be refreshing in a labor leader. Even photo ops with Scott can be
>> attributed to this aspect of his temperament: When Stern is asked
>> about his perceived coziness with business, he is quick to insist
>> that he is pragmatic, often using phrases like "it's not academic"
>> or "these are real-life choices" to suggest that critics are
>> ideologues or pie-in-the-sky idealists.
>> Stern is also an internationalist. He's assigned SEIU staff to
>> Australia, Poland,England, India, France, Switzerland, Germany,
>> the Netherlands and South America, with an eye to running global
>> campaigns pressuring multinational employers. As Stern explains in
>> his book, "Imagine simultaneous protests on service contractors'
>> global clients, or outsourcing strikes to countries where strikes
>> are legal and will not provoke government retaliation." When SEIU
>> was having trouble organizing American security guards employed by
>> the Swedish firm Securitas, it sought help from the Swedish
>> Transport Workers Union, which had a good relationship with the
>> company. Securitas agreed to drop its opposition to the union drive.
>> More controversially, Stern has formed relationships with the
>> Chinese state union, which has been been criticized for helping
>> the government suppress workers' rights. Stern, who played a key
>> role in forcing Wal-Mart to allow the union into its Chinese
>> stor! es, beli eves that a cold-war approach to China is obsolete.
>> When I interviewed him, he had just returned from his sixth trip
>> to China. "Our members and their members work for the same
>> employers," he explained. "I just think workers' solidarity has a
>> lot more possibilities when you're not dealing with ideology."
>> Another reason to cheer for Stern is that in a time of dismally
>> declining union density, SEIU under his leadership has added
>> members and seen some victories, improving the lives of home
>> health aides, janitors and security guards, some of the country's
>> most exploited workers. In May, for example, 4,000 Los
>> Angelessecurity guards joined SEIU as part of a nationwide
>> campaign to raise standards in that industry. Ruth Milkman,
>> director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and
>> Employment, has called SEIU a "model of dynamic unionism,"
>> pointing out that "no other union has been more effective in
>> organizing the unorganized in recent years."
>> But many observers wonder what Stern's new federation, Change to
>> Win (CTW)--founded with great fanfare when he led six other unions
>> in a split from the AFL-CIO in September 2005--has thus far
>> accomplished. ("Press releases," grumbles one internal skeptic.
>> "Where is it headed? is something a lot of people here are
>> asking.") Milkman, who championed the formation of CTW in
>> articles, op-eds and scholarly work, calls it "a bit early to
>> assess this" but agrees that "it is fair to say that, to date,
>> there is not much to point to in the way of concrete organizing
>> victories that were the work of Change to Win itself."
>> Within SEIU most people agree that Stern has been quite successful
>! ;> in implementing what is often referred to by his union's foot
>> soldiers as "the program": building density in the union's three
>> industries, building services--the public sector and (most of all)
>> healthcare. During his tenure, the union has grown by 980,000
>> workers (some of that growth has come about through mergers, but
>> the "vast majority," according to SEIU communications director
>> Steve Trossman, are newly organized members).
>> Stern believes that unions are losing political power--and
>> bargaining power--because they represent a declining share of the
>> population (at present, 12 percent of the workforce and 7 percent
>> of private-sector workers). More controversially, he believes the
>> only way to reverse this sorry state of affairs is to sign up more
>> members by just about any means necessary. Many within SEIU worry
>> that this near-exclusive focus on growth is hampering the union's
>> ability to serve its existing members; they observe that with more
>> resources directed to organizing, and more emphasis on
>> consolidating small locals into larger organizations, it's
>> becoming harder for workers to find their union rep or file a
>> simple grievance. If union members don't feel the union is serving
>> them, organizers say, they begin to ask why they are paying dues.
>> Former SEIU organizer Krehbiel points out that in Stern's "200
>> page book, if there was half a page about current dues-paying
>> members, that was quite a bit." Stern acknowledges the problem,
>> but says, "You can't be islands of strength in a nonunion sea....
>> The history of the labor movement is that we polish the pearls we
>> have rather than trying to extend what we have to other people."
>> Stern is ! also com ing under fire within the labor movement for, as
>> CNA's De Moro puts it, "organizing corporations, not workers."
>> Perhaps because Stern's views on these issues are so public, he's
>> come to personify an increasingly common phenomenon in unions: a
>> "partnership" approach to employers. Often, this means that
>> companies agree to recognize the union if a majority of workers
>> sign cards ("card check") in return for concessions from the union
>> that will help boost company profits. Many organizers--inside and
>> outside SEIU--say that workers signed up for union membership in
>> this manner aren't as committed to the union as those who have won
>> membership themselves, through a fight in which they were
>> personally engaged. This matters especially when the "partnership"
>> sours and the union faces a decertification campaign. Krehbiel
>> acknowledges that workers signed up for SEIU in this way are
>> "better off" than they would be without the union. But, using a
>> metaphor evoked by several other people interviewed for this
>> article, he said of Stern's emphasis on density, "He's building
>> this huge shell, hoping the size will somehow carry us."
>> To many others, the idea of post-class-conflict partnership
>> obviates a union's most basic purpose: to defend workers'
>> interests. To DeMoro, Stern's view of a union's role amounts
>> simply to supplying capital with workers--and managing those
>> workers. "To him, the union is just a human resources department,"
>> she says. "Or a temp agency." (DeMoro is an outspoken Stern
>> critic. But committed SEIU staff members interviewed for this
>> article--mostly on the condition of anonymity--shared most of her
>> concerns. As if they were working for ! Wackenhu t or Wal-Mart, some
>> were even afraid to communicate using SEIU e-mail addresses or
>> phones.)
>> But there's an even more controversial aspect to Stern's
>> commitment to "partnerships." In his book, Stern writes that
>> unions should "add value" to companies and assist "employers in
>> overcoming unnecessary legislative and political obstacles to
>> their success." These ideas have played out in recent contracts.
>> Internal memos--obtained by SF Weekly--show that two large SEIU
>> locals had made a deal with a group of California nursing homes,
>> in which SEIU agreed that workers would not speak out publicly
>> against abuse of patients, or health code violations, and would
>> lobby for limiting patients' right to sue. (SEIU later backed out
>> of its commitment to tort reform.) In exchange, the union could
>> organize a certain number of nursing homes without interference.
>> The SF Weekly story was based in part on an internal report from
>> one of the largest locals involved in the deal, United Healthcare
>> Workers West (UHW-West).
>> Such deals raise questions about how far unions should go in this
>> vaunted pursuit of density. Many wonder if it is wise in the long
>> run to act against progressive ideals in order to win new members.
>> Working against patients' rights could, after all, alienate
>> natural allies. Backroom moves like this also undermine the
>> union's efforts to emphasize common interests among healthcare
>> workers and patients. In June SEIU launched SEIU Healthcare, which
>> will push for reforms like improved nursing staff-patient ratios
>> and more training for nurses, changes that would be in the
>> interest of members and would also, as SEIU's Steve Tro! ssman is
>> quick to point out, "improve the quality of care."
>> When I asked Andy Stern about the deal discussed in the UHW-West
>> memo and the SF Weekly article, his response was strange and
>> contradictory. He at once questioned whether SEIU had in fact made
>> such a deal, claimed he wasn't familiar with the details and
>> blamed the local. (Much of the criticism of the nursing home
>> deals--inside and outside SEIU--has been directed personally
>> toward Stern, and it is clear from some UHW internal documents
>> that the local holds the international at least partly
>> responsible.) Stern admitted that sacrificing principles for
>> growth is a danger in partnership deals but pointed to the
>> complexity of organizing in today's workplace: "Here's the
>> question we face. Ninety percent of nursing home workers in this
>> country live pretty much in poverty. Don't have unions. Don't have
>> healthcare. All of our activities to date to solve that part of
>> the problem have not worked. So every day, nursing home workers go
>> to work and they're poor." To some organizing in the SEIU
>> trenches, their boss's realism resonates--to a point. "We've
>> negotiated some really shitty contracts," says one staff member.
>> "Sometimes you have no choice--you just keep trying to build
>> density and hope you build enough power to get a better deal next
>> time." But even this veteran of labor realpolitik said he was
>> surprised by the California contract: "The tort reform is bad!"
>> What's more, Stern's business-friendly orientation appears to
>> influence his approach to national policy questions. More
>> problematic than the photo-ops with Lee Scott, Stern's crusade for
>> "healthcare reform" is v! ague ("n ot even an inch deep," according
>> to one SEIU researcher). His support for any sort of change has
>> been promiscuous: He's praised Mitt Romney's Massachusetts plan
>> and Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal in California, which have
>> been criticized as giveaways to the insurance industry and don't
>> adequately address affordability or cost issues. Asked if the
>> Better Health Care Together Coalition has agreed on anything more
>> than the fact that there is a problem, Stern says, "That's
>> probably all we will agree on." Of a single-payer system, Stern
>> said in a speech given at the Brookings Institution, "I think we
>> need to find a new system that is not built on the back of the
>> government. I am here to also say I don't think we need to import
>> Canada or any other system." One SEIU staff member says sadly of
>> such comments, Stern "doesn't hold social democracy in high regard."
>> Stern is not oblivious to the suffering caused by health insurance
>> companies denying care--a problem that none of the incremental
>> plans he supports can address. But to him, the problem of insuring
>> the uninsured is the paramount moral question: "It's a question
>> of, How are we going to get everybody covered?" Then, Stern
>> thinks, something more like a single-payer system will be more
>> politically palatable: "Once we have everybody covered we're going
>> to realize there are more efficient ways and less efficient ways.
>> More costly and less costly ways to do it."
>> Stern's views on this are significant because several other major
>> labor unions and other progressive groups--buoyed by Michael
>> Moore's new movie--have been campaigning to pass single-payer
>> healthcare in California. SB 840! , writte n by State Senator Sheila
>> Kuehl, passed the State Senate, 23 to 15, in early June and is
>> headed to the Assembly. Given the tremendous public interest in
>> and the widespread frustration with the current system, many
>> activists think we have the best opportunity in years for
>> comprehensive reform. Stern's lack of enthusiasm for single-payer
>> healthcare is one of the main reasons the California Nurses
>> Association, a longtime independent union, joined the AFL-CIO this
>> year when that federation agreed to support single-payer.
>> Explaining why it is so important that unions work toward this
>> goal, CNA's DeMoro, whose union is leading theCalifornia fight,
>> explains, "There has never [in any country] been a single-payer
>> healthcare system without the labor movement."
>> To the CNA, Stern's refusal to put his political weight behind
>> single-payer is unconscionable. "The single biggest obstacle to
>> single-payer healthcare in this country," says Michael Lighty,
>> CNA's policy director, "is Andy Stern." I laugh at this, thinking
>> of a few others (the insurance industry and American
>> individualist, anti-government ideology, to name a couple). But
>> DeMoro clarifies her colleague's point with an analysis of the
>> current fight in California: Stern "is the biggest obstacle to
>> moving the Dems, because he gives them cover to do nothing."
>> However, when asked about single-payer, Stern insists he's not
>> against it: "We supported Howard Dean, and he was for single-
>> payer." (In fact, when Dean ran for President, he said he would
>> not propose such a system, because it wouldn't pass Congress. He
>> also said, "I do not believe in free healthcare or free
>> anything...! . If you want to totally reform the healthcare system,
>> I'm not your guy.") More significant, Stern claims that in
>> California SEIU has been lobbying for Sheila Kuehl's bill and
>> expects to support some version of the governor's as well. Indeed,
>> besides the CNA, he boasts, SEIU is "probably the leading
>> supporter" of the single-payer bill. Those involved in pushing for
>> that bill in Sacramento were, to put it mildly, surprised by this
>> contention (reactions ranged from "outrageous" to "bullshit--
>> absolutely not!"). SEIU has turned out members to some hearings in
>> support of the bill but has not otherwise been active in the
>> fight. Yet Stern's statement is, in a Clintonian way, true: SEIU
>> has formally endorsed SB 840 and is one of the largest
>> organizations to do so.
>> Nationally, Stern says, SEIU is supporting a single-payer
>> "Expanded and Improved Medicare for All" bill introduced by
>> Representative John Conyers, in addition to several other
>> healthcare proposals moving through Congress. Defending his
>> strategy of lobbying for multiple, often conflicting, reforms,
>> Stern is (almost) self-deprecating: "People at the Brookings
>> Institution joke, Next month we're going to have four different
>> proposals about universal healthcare and Andy Stern's going to be
>> supporting all four." To justify his support of tepid reforms,
>> Stern tells me several heartbreaking stories about people he has
>> met who have no healthcare, including a man in Minnesota who sat
>> with his wife at the kitchen table and decided which of their kids
>> was least likely to get sick, since they couldn't afford to insure
>> all of them. Of the Massachusetts plan, Stern argues, "People are
>> working n! ow, thro ugh a political process, particularly now that we
>> have a new governor there, to make it better. Most states have
>> nothing to make better. Is it better to be in Massachusetts with
>> someone trying to make it better, or waiting forCalifornia to pass
>> single-payer? I don't know." He adds defensively, "We are not
>> going to let the perfect become the enemy of the good on this issue."
>> Within SEIU, the rumor mill hums with speculation that Andy Stern
>> has ambitions beyond the union. Certainly, some of his rhetoric
>> and triangulation make him sound like a politician, but Stern
>> denies any plans to step down from SEIU or seek public office.
>> Labor dissidents can denounce him as a sellout, and of course some
>> will. But they could also read Andy Stern as a sign of the times.
>> When Stern makes compromises that cause fellow progressives and
>> unionists to cringe, it's because he doesn't think there are other
>> ways for the labor movement to grow. He speaks of unions "adding
>> value" to corporate enterprises and crusades for dubious, middle-
>> of-the-road reforms because he doesn't think there is any other
>> language, or any other ideas, that will resonate with Washington
>> policy-makers. An effective grassroots movement for social
>> democracy could change that. The rumblings of discontent within
>> SEIU--and the growing movement for real healthcare reform
>> inCalifornia--may be hopeful signs. Stern is a close reader of the
>> zeitgeist. As Rose Ann DeMoro says, "If he sees the tide is
>> turning, he'll change."

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