Interview With Andrew Stern
By Ron Insana
Ron Insana: Well, the Federation of the AFL-CIO suffered its largest split in more than 50 years last week when three unions left the labor federation’s umbrella. The Service Employees International Union was one of the three unions to split from the AFL-CIO last week. Joining me now is the president of the Service Employees International Union, Andrew Stern.
Mr. Stern, thanks for being with us. We appreciate you joining us today.
Insana: Now, what initiated the break up and what is the future of the labor movement?
Stern: Thanks, Ron.
Insana: Why did you break from the AFL-CIO?
Stern: Well, Ron, I don’t need to tell you that we are living through the most significant transformative economic revolution in world history, and American workers, although there’s growth as you just noted in the economy, it’s not distributing. They’re not finding their work valued and rewarded, and we need to build a new, dynamic, modern, flexible, innovative labor movement that can be good partners with our employer and we started down that road last week.
Insana: Let me ask you to define what that means and how it’s different from the movement that is, you know, essentially led by the AFL-CIO.
Stern: Well, our labor movement was built around an industrial economy back in the 1930s. It was sort of a class struggle kind of unionism, but workers in today’s economy are not looking for unions to cause problems; they’re looking for them to solve them, and this means just like Ireland where business and labor and government all began to work together, we need team America to really work together if we’re going to reward American workers’ work, and to make sure that they still can live the American dream.
Insana: All right. Let’s take a look at one industry, for instance, which has seen more than its share of trouble, the airline industry. We’ve seen workers give more than their share of concessions over time as the industry has faced some problems of its own and making some that were well out of its control. How would you, in fact, take that model that you described and apply it to an industry like airlines so that you did get that cooperative management, labor and government triumvirate if you will?
Stern: Well, first of all, you cannot build that kind of relationship when there are 12 different unions who don’t cooperate or coordinate; some in different crafts, some in different companies all pulling in different directions. So, first of all, we need to be able to speak with a single voice, not just for employers in a company, but in industry. Get some of this healthcare and pension costs off individual employers. Talk about how we can add value and compete in today’s economy where countries all over the world have national airlines.
So we need to change our focus, consolidate our strength, have unions that are big enough and strong enough to be good partners with the industry, not individual employers.
Insana: What don’t you like about the AFL-CIO today? I mean, I know, you mentioned the industrial roots that date back to the 1930s, but what is it about today’s organization that led you to walk away?
Stern: Well, what I don’t like is what’s happening to American workers, to janitors, to truck drivers, to people that go to work at Wal-Mart, and what they’re seeing is less and less ability to be able to live decently in this country, and the AFL-CIO, I think, is just spending too much time talking to politicians, too much time involved in giving money to Democrats and thinking that somehow going to change their life. We need to modernize. We need a strategy. We need resources. We need to be partners with our employers, and we need to do it now by talking to workers, not to elected officials all the time.
—CNBC-TV, August 1, 2005