Policy Today magazine cover
September 8, 2005

PT talks to Andy Stern, President of the Service Employees International Union about his organization's split from the AFL-CIO, the problems facing organized labor today and his ideas on to solve them.

PT: Looking at all the underlying issues, why did this split ultimately happen?

Stern: First you have to understand the context.  We are living through the most profound, transformative economic revolution in world history. We're switching from a localized industrial economy to an international service and information economy, and so far, the results for American workers have not been good.  Our economy has changed and our employers have changed, yet our organization has remained the same.  So, what we proposed was to reorganize the labor movement to make it more modern, flexible, innovative and growth oriented.

PT: How will you accomplish this?

Stern: By allowing members to become part of much larger unions that have a focus on a specific industry or sector, that have the resources and the strategy to be successful.  We said that the AFL-CIO functioned too much like the United Nations, and that needs to change; it needs to be more like NATO.

PT: In what sense?

Stern: In the United Nations, there's a lot of debate, but one country can veto significant changes on the Security Council.  That's how the AFL-CIO has operated.  With NATO, there's more of a sense that "we're here for the common defense" and we can't afford to let everybody make their own decisions all the time.  You can't fight a war-in the case of NATO-by consensus.  It's a similar scenario with organized labor.

PT: Why would organizational changes to the union movement make a difference in terms of benefits for unionized workers?

Stern: The most heavily unionized industry in America is the airline industry.  Yet, because of how we are organized-12 unions, some that represent a craft, some that represent a company, and none of which really coordinate or cooperate- wages and benefits have decreased dramatically despite relatively steady numbers of jobs and workers.

PT: Union membership has been declining steadily.  What do you attribute this to?

Stern: First, there has been a change in the mix of jobs in this country.  There has been a change in the attitude of employers to become aggressively anti-union. There are more opportunities for companies to operate union-free by using an array of fairly disgraceful tactics.

PT: What about within the movement itself?  I've heard some unionized workers say that they feel a sense of disconnection from their union.  How does this affect recruiting and the labor movement's overall success?

Stern: I think that in any organization, its founders have a much greater awareness of the value of the institution than people that come two or three iterations later.  The union movement has done an inadequate job of modernizing itself in terms of telecommunications, not expecting members to come to meetings all the time, only doing things on paper. 

PT: What can be done to reverse this trend?

Stern: We need to modernize our communications strategies.  Every one of our members has a cell phone. We have text messaging, and text messaging can be interactive.

We're in the process right now of trying to reinvent what a local union is, putting more stress on participation and involvement and less on grievance/service center model where we end up dealing with three percent of the workforce.  We should still deal with these issues, but we should also talk to people regularly.

PT: What else can be done to make unionization more attractive to workers and increase the rolls?

Stern: There are a lot of issues that are important to people that unions haven't traditionally dealt with and I think we need to.  We need to broaden the role of unions so they are more relevant.  We've been studying "megachurches," which are probably the fastest growing community-based organization in America.  In the last nine years, it has gone from around 100 churches that have between 20,000 and 40,000 members to around 1,200.  If you go there, it's not just religious.  They provide a large array of family assistance, personal assistance, community services, job training etc.    We need to continue to be focused on individual problems, but we also need a broader mission.

PT: Times have changed though.  How do you feel these needs can best be met in today's global economic conditions?

Stern: We have global conditions and global employers, therefore we need global unions.  "Workers of the world unite," which used to be a slogan, is really going to have to be a way of life, because national unions can't deal with global employers successfully.

Some of it is going to involve personal adjustment.  Workers are going to have to manage things a lot more than they used to.  Employers used to manage your life at work; you had one job, a retirement plan, a health plan and your career development happened inside the same plant or firm.  Today people are moving from job to job and the relationships between workers and employers are different.  We have a different set of needs for workers today.  Some workers who have shifted from job to job may step back and wonder, "How did I end up with six different 401ks?    I think unions have a potential role in helping workers manage their work life as it becomes more complex.

PT: What can unions do to lure new members from nontraditional sectors?

Stern:  We need a different model of unionism for some of them.  Many white-collar workers have different issues.  In the high-tech industry, frequently people are moving through jobs with no standards, no centralized health care or pension benefits.  We could try to build joint ventures with employers that are oriented more toward the sector than the workplace.  We could work to establish a group of benefits that-as you pass from employer to employer-would maintain continuity, and work for constant retraining.  Unions could help vulnerable employees locate the future jobs in the industry in order to prepare and train them.  There are ways to attract nontraditional members, particularly if you can build partnerships with employers, to find and add value to the organization.

PT: This sounds like a tactical shift.  Is there a structural element that needs to be addressed as well?

Stern: Yes.  We need to be relevant to both employers and workers.  This means appreciating that the 1930's model of union organization, in which unions operated in a confrontational mode, may not always be applicable today.  We've carried that confrontational model into the service sector, where it's not particularly helpful.  We need to be more modern, flexible and creative.  Some employers come and go, some are big and small, and we can't continue to try to fit our round peg into a square hole.

PT: President Stern, thank you for your time.