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ANDY STERN
Andy Stern, photo by Robin Holland
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June 15, 2007

Pundits have been proclaiming the death of the American labor movement for years. So when in 2005 Andy Stern, the President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), took his members and the Teamsters and left the AFL-CIO some saw it as the first step in an inevitable dissolution of labor's political power.

Stern and his new coalition, Change to Win, maintained that the AFL-CIO, labor's main face for 50 years, no longer spoke for the needs of the American worker. The same could be said, commented Stern, for the Democratic Party, labor's traditional political voice. In the 2004 election cycle SEIU was the biggest single contributor to both the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Stern faced skepticism from both the union leaders, rank and file and the business sector from the outset. "Can This Man Save Labor?" queried BUSINESSWEEK. Indeed, when you look at what American workers face — outsourcing, declining pensions, disappearing healthcare and wage stagnation — the prospect might appear grim. Stern's union itself reflects the changing face of the American labor market — representing service rather than industrial jobs. As overall union membership figures fall, the SEIU is growing — but workers in many of SEIU's fields are historically among the lower-paid.

Stern's strategies have not been "typical labor" answers. He's been talking about globalization, private equity buyouts and talking with Wall Street moguls and corporate heads. THE WALL STREET JOURNAL reported Mr. Stern as saying "he much prefers working with the buyout kings than with their public-company counterparts." And US NEWS & WORLD REPORT described him as "sounding more like an executive than a union boss."

Some of SEIU's recent projects seem to fit well into the traditional labor organizing mold. The SEIU brought its "Justice for Janitors" to Houston. The strike resulted in an agreement with five major cleaning contractors that will double income and provide health insurance by 2009. On Fisher Island, off Miami Beach, SEIU organizers are attempting to raise the minimum wage from $8.50 an hour for service industry workers employed on what is one of the wealthiest zip codes on America.

The SEIU is also targeting boardrooms through "Wal-Mart Watch" and "Behind the Buyouts: Inside the World of Private Equity" The Wal-Mart project began as "a nationwide public education campaign to challenge the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, to become a better employer, neighbor, and corporate citizen." The project resulted in a 2007 meeting between Andy Stern and Sam Walton and the foundation of Better Health Care Together. The program's goal is not winning traditional employer-sponsored healthcare for Wal-Mart's many employees but to "end the nation's reliance on employer-backed health insurance and develop a system for providing universal low-cost coverage within five years."

In "Behind the Buyouts: Inside the World of Private Equity," Stern and SEIU have turned their attention to the increasing importance of private equity firms (equity capital available to companies or investors, but not quoted on a stock market) in the American economy. The stated purpose of the site is to ensure that "the buyout industry should play by the same set of rules as everyone else." THE WALL STREET JOURNAL says "Andy Stern...has built a Web site that attacks buyout firms for enriching themselves at the expense of workers." But the JOURNAL also acknowledges that Stern has taken his cause directly to the buyout chiefs themselves. (Find out more below.)

Stern began his career in 1973 as a Pennsylvania social service worker and member of SEIU Local 668 and rose through the ranks before his election as SEIU president in 1996. He serves on the boards of directors of diverse organizations, including the Institute of Medicine, Rock the Vote, and the Broad Foundation. Stern is the author of the book, A COUNTRY THAT WORKS: GETTING AMERICA BACK ON TRACK (2006). You can read his blog at THE HUFFINGTON POST.

References and Reading:
Service Employees International Union
The Service Employees International Union is 1.8 million working people and 50,000 retirees united to improve services and our communities throughout North America. Focused on uniting workers in four sectors–-hospital systems, long term care, property services, and public services–-SEIU is the largest health care union, the largest property services union, and the second-largest public employees union.

Change to Win
Change to Win was founded in September 2005 by seven unions and represents six million workers: International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Laborers' International Union of North America, Service Employees International Union, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, United Farm Workers of America, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and UNITE HERE.

AFL-CIO
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is a voluntary federation of 55 national and international labor unions and represents 10 million workers. he AFL-CIO was created in 1955 by the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Wal-Mart Watch
Details on the SEIU program to "get Wal-Mart to respond to a wide array of concerns about its business practices." And details on the results — "Handshake with Sam."

Wal-Mart Facts
Information on corporate politics and programs as well as facts and figures on the Wal-Mart Corporation.

Behind the Buyouts
The site contains a primer on the private equity business, reports on the largest private equity firms and information on recent deals.

Is Private Equity Bad for Workers?
Join in the WALL STREET JOURNAL'S online discussion SEIU's "Behind the Buyouts."

"Love, Labor, Loss A Child's Death Stirred Andrew Stern To Challenge Himself -- and Unionism"
Lynne Duke, THE WASHINGTON POST, January 3, 2006.

"Andy Stern: The New Boss"
60 MINUTES, CBS, May 14, 2006.

"The New Boss"
Matt Bai, THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, January 30, 2005.

Additional Reading

"Blackstone IPO Faces Roadblock In Senate"
David Cho, THE WASHINGTON POST, June 15, 2007

"Inequality in America"
The rich, the poor and the growing gap between them, THE ECONOMIST, June 15, 2006

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Union Membership
Union membership has declined from 26.5 percent of the workforce in 1976 to 13.1 percent in 2006. Who is unionized has also changed, with the public sector overtaking private sector membership numbers. In 2006 the median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers varied as follows: union members, $833 per week, those represented by unions, $827 and non-union workers, $642.

Photo by Robin Holland

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