December 29, 2005
Searching for Labor's Role
WASHINGTON -- In
one of the biggest successes in the history of organized labor
in the South, the 4,700 janitors working for Houston's four largest
cleaning companies recently joined the Service Employees International
Union. The janitors, mostly immigrants, currently earn an average
of $5.30 an hour -- 15 cents over the minimum wage -- without
health care benefits. The mobilization of the janitors is one
sign of why Andy Stern, head of SEIU, is today's most important
-- perhaps the only really important -- labor leader.
Stern was an Ivy
League graduate when he went to his first union meeting. He went,
he says, because pizza was being served. The class struggle, like
God, moves in mysterious ways.
He -- Stern, not
God -- has come a long way. Last year he was the principal architect
of the secession of the SEIU and six other unions from the AFL-CIO.
The seven, now called the Change to Win Federation, were primarily
motivated by the AFL-CIO's sluggish recruitment of new members.
The seven have more than 5.4 million members, making the group
a credible rival to the more than 9-million-member AFL-CIO.
But to what end?
In the 1930s, organized labor's function was, Stern says, ``rounding
off the rough edges of industrialism.'' In 1939, the year war
erupted in Europe and America's rearmament started to end the
Depression, there were 1,350,000 American college students, but
there were more people than that in just two blue-collar industries,
railroading (988,000) and mining soft coal (388,300). By 1968,
railway workers and coal miners combined totaled only 715,900,
but college students numbered 6,900,000.
Today only 12.5 percent
of the work force is unionized, down from the peak of 35.5 in
1945. With 36.4 percent of the public sector unionized, and only
7.9 percent of the private sector, soon -- perhaps next year --
a majority of union members will be government employees. Given
Americans' skepticism about government, Stern understands the
perils of labor becoming perceived as government organized as
an interest group that lobbies itself. ``The public sector,''
he says, sounding almost like a crypto-conservative, ``is not
the wealth-generating part of our economy.''
But he is no conservative.
``The economy,'' he says, ``on an aggregated basis, is doing fine
-- the problem is distribution.'' Hence the solution is not just,
or even primarily, government, which, Stern says, ``does a really
bad job of distribution over the long run.''
He aims to convince
nonunion workers ``that Ronald Reagan was wrong -- that wealth
does not trickle down.'' And that ``Bill Clinton also was wrong''
in saying high-tech employment is the wave of the future. A large
(19 percent) and growing portion of the work force is in services
and, Stern says, ``When you're involved with customers, you can't
have a class struggle." Instead, unions, such as those that
train employees for some Las Vegas hotels, have to rethink the
way they add value to the economy.
In 1972, when liberalism
hitched its wagon to George McGovern's presidential candidacy,
George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, made his preference clear by
not endorsing McGovern and by playing golf with President Nixon.
The next year, Stern, then 23, fresh from the University of Pennsylvania
and overflowing with enthusiasm for liberal causes, became a unionized
social worker and soon was head of a SEIU local.
Today Stern thinks
globally. He has been to China five times and believes few Americans
comprehend the scale of that nation's potential challenge to America's
economic supremacy. Intel Corp., he says, sponsors science fairs
around the world for students heading to college. Last year 66,000
young Americans participated in the local fairs that select finalists.
In China, 6 million participated.
A world with global
flows of trade and capital, and with global employers, needs,
Stern says, global unions. If Stern could organize China, that
nation's comparative trade advantages would be reduced. The National
Association of Manufacturers might want to pay his way to go there.
Stern would, of course,
rather bury Republicans than praise them, but his Democratic allies
cannot do the former until they pay attention to him doing the
latter, which he does, if only up to a point. This point:
Democrats, he says,
think presidential elections are like the quiz show ``College
Bowl.'' They think it is important to put forward someone like
Al Gore or John Kerry who can demonstrate mastery of minutia.
Republicans understand that presidential elections are like ``American
Idol'': It is best to put forward someone people actually like.
Stern has the theory
right, but his application of it needs some work. In 2003, he
endorsed Howard Dean.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group