SEIU President Andrew Stern, the Bosses Choice for AFL-CIO Chief?
By Nat Weinstein
The group of International Union presidents, who founded the New Unity Partnership (NUP) a couple of years ago, are going ahead with their plan for drastic changes in the organization of the American labor movement. Changes are certainly necessary, but those proposed by the NUP boil down to an even greater concentration of power in the hands of the top labor officialdom. Such a centralization of power and privilege, of course, will be paid for by a concomitant reduction of union democracy which is already at a historic low.
The architect of this coalition, now, consisting entirely of Four International Union presidents,1 is Douglas McCarron, president of the Brotherhood of Carpenters. McCarron, who had withdrawn his union from the national labor federation in March 2001, has adopted the slogan, “Organize or Die” to dramatize his view of the depth of the crisis facing the American working class and its unions.
But the slogan is hardly new to an organized labor movement that has been steadily shrinking for the last half-century.
Neither was it new when AFL-CIO president, John J. Sweeney, campaigned and won his position as the labor federation’s bureaucrat-in-chief back in 1995 on essentially the same slogan and an almost identical list of organizational “reforms,” all of which, like McCarron’s NUP, are designed to further restrict rank-and-file union democracy.
But these changes have a larger purpose. They seek to cut a new deal with capitalist America and its bipartisan, wholly-owned and controlled, capitalist government. They have made known to the ruling class their intention to deepen the existing policy of Sweeney’s bureaucratic gang—the subordination of working-class interests to capitalist profits. And what do they hope for in return? Nothing more than slowing down the drastic decline in union membership, much less reversing it.
But key to their organizational proposals for “reform” is to win the support of corporate America—not only to reduce the latter’s resistance to unionization but to gain their active support! How that is to be done is most clearly stated by the largest member of McCarran’s NUP, the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union, headed by its president, Andrew Stern.
The most capable and most dangerous of McCarran’s Gang of Four
A story, based on an in-depth interview with SEIU President Andrew Stern, by reporter Matt Bai, was featured on the front page of the weekly magazine section of the Sunday, January 30, 2005 New York Times Under the title, “The New Boss,” the author presents an unusually friendly and candid account of Stern’s pro-capitalist program for “reversing” the decline of the organized labor movement.
Rather than being an opponent of Sweeney and company’s strategy of subordinating the class interests of the workers to capitalist profits, Stern advocates a more open, less disguised pro-business policy. His aim is to convince employers that union recognition would not lead to lower profits but, on the contrary, he says, it would lead to lower labor costs and therefore, higher profits!
A key ingredient of his approach to a joint campaign by bosses and bureaucrats to advance their allegedly common interests is his argument that it would serve to moderate intrinsic tendencies toward cut-throat capitalist competition in the largely unorganized industries. That is, the union officialdom would, in effect, work to regulate and keep down as low as possible the competition between capitalists. And most important, would be to make sure that the rate of profit in the industry would not be reduced by the action of the union.
In Stern’s own words
Let’s take a look at the following extract from the reporter’s interview with Stern. It sums up what he and his allied labor chiefs stand for in their alleged opposition to the “60-year-old ideas” defended by the AFL-CIO top officialdom:
Stern’s favorite example concerns the more than 10,000 janitors who clean the office buildings in the cities and suburbs of northern New Jersey. Five years ago, only a fraction of them were unionized, and they were making $10 less per hour than their counterparts across the river in Manhattan. Stern and his team say they were convinced by talking to employers in the fast-growing area that the employers didn’t like the low wages and poor benefits much more than the union did.
Cleaning companies complained that they had trouble retaining workers, and the workers they did keep were less productive. The problem was that for any one company to offer better wages would have been tantamount to an army unilaterally disarming in the middle of a war; cheaper competitors would immediately overrun its business.
The traditional way for a union to attack this problem would be to pick the most vulnerable employer in the market, pressure it to accept a union and then try to expand from there. Instead, Stern set out to organize the entire market at once, which he did by promising employers that the union contract wouldn’t kick in unless more than half of them signed it. (Getting the first companies to enter into the agreement took some old-fashioned organizing tactics, including picket lines.) [Emphasis added].
The S.E.I.U. ended up representing close to 70 percent of the janitors in the area, doubling their pay in many cases, from minimum wage to more than $11 an hour. Stern found that by bringing all of the main employers in an industry to the table at one time, rather than one after the other, he was able to effectively regulate an entire market.
Experienced trade union activists will recognize Stern’s policy as “business unionism”—more accurately defined as class collaboration than has ever been admitted by the official leaders of the labor federation. In fact, Stern argues that Sweeney and his allies are not as pro-business as are he and his faction. But, of course that squares with his basic outlook that what’s good for the bosses is good for the workers—especially the huge mass of low-paid unorganized workers whose interests he claims to champion.
The great majority of mass media reports on the Stern phenomenon take a similarly friendly approach to that of the New York Times, while stressing the pro-business side of his declared policy.
I highly recommend “The New Boss,” by Matt Bai (the New York Times).” It more fully exposes Stern’s real pro-capitalist policy than you are likely to hear anywhere other than in the magazine you are now reading.
Another recent report by Arianna Huffington, journalist and political gadfly—who has been all over the political map from right, to center, to left—focuses exclusively on his “radical” pro-worker demagogy.
‘I have seen the future…and its name is Andy Stern’
In Huffington’s online essay, “A Tale of Two Leadership Styles,” she is far less honest regarding what Stern stands for than most mass circulation publications. It is a shamelessly glowing account of the SEIU president’s alleged deep concern for the super-exploited workers in the service sector of the economy.
But her report is also important because she more closely reflects the ruling class’s general assessment of Stern. That is, they see him as not only more pliable and useful for the ruling capitalist class, but also as the only one of the current lot of labor fakers that take the labor movement deeper into its camp and arouse the least opposition from some of those that should know better.
Huffington lets her political infatuation with Stern all hang out in the following extract. It is designed to garner support for Stern’s faction of the labor bureaucracy among the so-called “progressive” middle-class and those workers on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder; and takes great care to say nothing whatsoever of his many anti-working class statements to the bourgeois mass media. She writes:
After spending some time last week with Andy Stern, the groundbreaking president of the Service Employees International Union, I’m ready to declare: I have seen the future of progressive leadership in America, and its name is Andy Stern.
You’ll forgive me if I temporarily trade my critic’s platform for a cheerleader’s megaphone, but I’ve spent the better part of my adult life obsessing over the dwarfish nature of modern political leadership….
Now, I suspected that Stern was the real deal even before I met him, having followed his fight to pull the American labor movement out of its decades-long death spiral. But what indisputably comes across in person are his fire and passion for the 1.8 million janitors, nurses, social workers, security guards and home health care aides he represents—and, by extension, for all working Americans.
When he talks about their lives and their struggle to provide for their families, he so clearly connects with their plight that he invests it with an urgency sorely lacking in our contemporary political discourse. What Stern wants to do is nothing less than create a vibrant 21st-century labor movement, which he considers “America’s best anti-poverty program”; turn the tide against the Wal-Martization of our economy; and, while he’s at it, help save the Democratic Party.
So how is he doing it? For starters, with a leadership style that is bold, innovative and fearless—and that has recently landed him on the covers of both Business Week and the New York Times magazine….
Stern is far more than just a fearless fighter; he is also a brilliant and innovative thinker and strategist…. [He says,] “and it is unacceptable in these extraordinary times to ignore the choices facing us. I want the SEIU to be the leading political force in our country that moves our leaders to face the difficult choices.”
Now, to get a feel for how the present sad state of the labor movement came to be, it will be helpful to look back.
Background to today’s deep crisis of leadership
Any serious review of the pattern of events that followed the purely verbal struggle against the Taft-Hartley “slave labor” law when it was first introduced for Congressional action strongly suggests that an unwritten “understanding” was reached between bosses and bureaucrats.
Taft-Hartley was not the first “slave-labor” law introduced into Congress. President Franklin D., Roosevelt tried to push a “Work or Fight” bill through Congress more than once during World War II. This was soon after the United Mine Workers union had carried out three successful national strikes at the war’s height in 1943.3
The first of these laws called for drafting strikers who violated Roosevelt’s initiative to ban wartime strikes. The others were variations on the same theme. And Truman who took over the White House after Roosevelt died in 1944, attempted to push through Congress a peacetime version of the “Work or Fight” bill in 1946.4
In this light, it can be seen why capitalism needed to get more help than was already being provided by the most reactionary wing of the labor bureaucracy to ram such potentially union-busting laws down workers’ throats. Also needed was the latter’s help in silencing or intimidating the wing of the labor bureaucracy who had tended to be most responsive to the pressure of the union rank and file.
But before we take up the matter of how, what can now be seen in the light of subsequent events, as an unwritten agreement reached between bosses and bureaucrats almost from the moment the newest version of a slave-labor law was first introduced into Congress. The key measure that had made such a deal possible, of course, was the so-called “loyalty oath.”
There can be little doubt that when the right wing of the labor bureaucracy embraced the slave-labor law’s requirement that each and every union officer, present and future, must swear that they are not now, nor have they ever been, members of a communist-controlled organization, it was a signal that they were ready to accept a compromise. That is, one that would allow both bosses and bureaucrats to live and let live—at the expense of their members and the future existence of independent trade unionism.
The law also made clear that any elected officials refusing to sign the infamous red-baiting oath would be barred from holding union office. And if it were discovered that any of them had lied, they would face criminal charges and possible imprisonment in addition to losing their job.
It turned out, however, that it was hardly directed against just members of the Communist Party and other organizations on Congress’s list of “subversive” organizations which included almost all socialist and anarchist groups including the revolutionary-Marxist, Socialist Workers Party.
(The only group excluded from the government’s subversive list was the old Socialist Party that had become a right-wing caricature of its former self. And this was primarily because more then a few prominent high-placed labor bureaucrats had once been members of the Socialist Party and a few who still were.)
It wasn’t long before included among the “subversives” victimized by the loyalty oath were those that had once signed a civil liberties or civil-rights petition or had attended such a meeting organized by those said to be communists. These actions were considered, by prosecutors and judges as proof of membership in a communist organization. At minimum, those charged were black-listed, fired from their jobs and denied the right to work in their profession or craft.
But one of the most important targets of the witch-hunt set in motion by the Cold War and the simultaneous assault on the unions were the rank-and-file union militants. These had served as the heavy battalions of the great mass industrial strikes that had brought the world’s most powerful corporate giants to their knees in the 1930s and again toward the end of the Second World war in the widest and deepest year-long strike wave in American history that began after the allied victory in Europe in 1945 and continued until mid-1946.
The great majority of labor bureaucrats fully embraced the red-baiting “loyalty oath” making a joke out of their so-called opposition to the slave-labor law.
This key provision of the Taft-Hartley Act was decisive because it not only divided the labor movement but intimidated and silenced many of the militant union officials and many more rank-and-file trade unionists who might otherwise have actively worked to defeat it.
Taft-Hartley also effectively barred sustained mass picketing. However, the law did not bar either injunctions or mass picketing. Rather, the law was designed to technically conform with the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing the right to free speech and assembly, which lies at the heart of the Bill of Rights. That is, unions could exercise their right, under the Constitution, to free speech and assembly—i.e., their right to strike—but struck employers were routinely granted injunctions by the courts against so-called “conspiracies in restraint of trade.” This included the abolition of mass picketing whenever capitalists needed to herd strike-breakers through picket-lines backed up by hired thugs and cops, the capitalist state’s official strikebreakers.
But soon after the first big strikes were won—in spite of and in defiance of such court-ordered injunctions against mass picketing—it became increasingly difficult to enforce such injunctions. In most cases workers successfully defied injunction law. Its revival, of course, was one of the many anti-working class provisions of Taft-Hartley
Almost immediately after its passage, the labor bureaucracy began abiding by the bosses’ one-sided rules of class war. The first of the two most outstanding exceptions to the rule was the national miners’ strike that was carried out in defiance of a Taft-Hartley anti-strike injunction ordered by “pro-labor” President Jimmy Carter in 1977-78. But despite a strident media campaign denouncing striking miners and near-unanimous support to strikebreaking by the bipartisan Congress, the ruling class, together with all the forces of “law and order,” were unable to make the injunction stick.
The nearly year-long and very costly strike ended in a major victory for coal miners and their union despite the treacherous role of the AFL-CIO leadership, which had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the United Mine Workers strike.
The second successful defiance of injunction law was the 1997 strike by over 400,000 Teamsters against the United Parcel Service. Despite an injunction signed by President Bill Clinton, “friend of labor” and liberal Democrat, Teamster leaders and rank and file ignored the injunction, and won the second clear strike victory. This forced UPS to grant the most exploited part-time Teamsters modest, but real improvements in wages and benefits, and a small but significant increase in full-time jobs. And of course a modest wage increase was won for all Teamsters, significantly better than the UPS bosses’ “last best and final offer.”
Both mass strikes in defiance of the slave labor law made a huge impact on American workers. It proved that the working class was still the powerful force it had been in the 1930s and early ’40s. The only requirement for unleashing the full power inherent in the working class is a leadership that understands that strikes cannot be won unless they can hit the bosses where it hurts most—in their pocketbooks. And for that, the union must be prepared to mobilize enough force to shut production down tight!
Half-way measures of struggle are sometimes worse than no resistance at all. In recent years we have seen many instances where union members have rejected one, two or more giveback contracts, but the officials succeeded in pushing it through in the end. A time comes, however, when their highly dissatisfied rank and file gives them no choice but to authorize a strike.
But then, in line with the agreement the labor bureaucracy signed onto nearly 60 years ago, the current lot carries out strike policy based on the bosses’ rules of class war. And as one setback has followed the next over a period of decades, the American working class has become demoralized and demobilized by their misleaders.
In other words, because of decades of union setbacks and falling living standards suffered by American workers, organized and unorganized alike, they have lost confidence in their ability to act effectively to defend and advance their class interests.
How the labor bureaucracy was bought off
Among the many concessions granted the labor bureaucracy in return for their “cooperation,” and key to their remaining reliable agents of the capitalist class, such things as the bosses’ reversal of what had long been their opposition to granting unions the dues check-off. They eventually discovered, even before Taft-Hartley, that agreeing to deduct union dues from workers’ paychecks before they got them served their interests by making the bureaucracy less dependent on collecting dues from their members.
Experience teaches that, when workers become disenchanted with ineffective and unreliable union leaders, many stop paying their dues. And, of course, when major strike defeats occur, and wages and benefits are steeply reduced, many workers simply decide that they don’t need such a union, so why pay dues? And when that happens, history proves that employers have always been willing and able to finish the job of destroying the defeated union.
Workers leaders are obligated to do the best that can be done to prepare for the showdown that will, sooner or later, come down the pike. That’s when leaders worth their salt know they have no choice but to put up a fight, even when the odds are still stacked against them. As experienced class-struggle fighters, and those who learn by studying the lessons of labor history like to point out: Even when faced by almost certain defeat—it’s far better to go down with the best fight that can be mustered than to go down without a fight!
What is to be done?
Currently, the working class and its organized sector appears to be mired in a deepening crisis that is only partly registered in the statistics noted in the news media. That is, from some 16 million members and 33 percent of the U.S. labor force organized in trade unions in 1955, union membership has fallen to some 13 million members, representing 12 percent of today’s much larger labor force. But that is far less significant than is the loss of confidence by workers in their intrinsic power to take on the world’s mighty corporations in open combat and bring them to their knees.
What has changed is not the objective power of the working class inherent in its strategic location at the centers of production, transportation, communication and distribution. What needs changing is solving the long-standing crisis of working class leadership.
What cannot be changed by the small layer of class conscious trade-union and political activists scattered throughout the working class and its natural allies among capitalism’s victims is the unfavorable objective relation of class forces in America today.
But it would be wrong for the vanguard of the active workers’ movement to wait until the next great labor upsurge unfolds before beginning the indispensable task of solving the subjective problem of revolutionary working-class leadership.
The objective problem derives from the prolonged state of economic equilibrium that has prevailed in the advanced industrial countries of the capitalist world for more than a half-century. This cannot be changed by the action of the very small vanguard alone. The objective problem will take care of itself: world capitalism is rapidly approaching an insurmountable crisis.
Meanwhile the solution to the subjective problem of leadership remains the most important task facing the vanguard scattered throughout the economic and political arenas of class struggle today.
This most pressing problem of the 20th and 21st centuries has been discussed at length in these pages and will be discussed in more detail in the period ahead.
1 There were five separate International Unions at the time the New Unity Partnership was founded in 2003 but by July 2003 two of the unions merged, now there are only four.
2 Labor critics of the NUP had referred to the five union presidents as the “Gang of Five”; thus, after the merger it is the “Gang of Four.”
3 See Art Preis’ Labor’s Giant Step (Pioneer Press, New York City, 1964) pries was a labor historian an active participant in one of the first three strikes of 1934 that started the great labor upsurge that followed.