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Andy Stern - All-American hero

AJ Byrne reviews Andy Stern's Getting America back on track: a country that
Another great hero has emerged in the American labour movement. Andy Stern, leader of the
Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has a great mission - and now he has written
a book making sure we all know about it.
When Transport and General Workers Union general secretary Tony Woodley spoke at the
TGWU delegates’ conference on July 11 2005, he welcomed his future international partner
in their new global union: “That’s why I am delighted to welcome here today my friend and
comrade, Andy Stern, president of our sister union, the SEIU. What a leader. What a
visionary this guy is.”
So who is this “visionary”, Andy Stern? He and the Teamsters’ boss, Jimmy Hoffa, led a 40%
split in the AFL-CIO in 2005, forming the new Change to Win federation. He never made any
mystery about what changes he wanted. First, he wanted to recruit more members - his union
has tripled its membership over the past several years to 1.8 million today. However, he also
wanted to ‘rationalise’ the union’s base by negotiating the handing over of workers who more
properly ‘belonged’ to other unions. And, as well as wanting the unions to “become more
democratic” and “improve the relationship with individual members”, he hoped to “find ways
to persuade business leaders to work in partnership with them” (p37).
He speaks of workers “self-managing their work lives” and predicts that “one in four workers
will be contingent employees [!] or self-employed by 2010. Individuals want more flexibility
in their jobs” (p38). We would suggest that the “contingent employees” would give a great
deal to have far less “flexibility” and more security.
As for international questions, Lech Walesa and his “brave trade unionists” had demonstrated
the need for “free, democratic unions, in contrast to the government-dominated unions of the
communist dictatorships” by winning the cold war and “destroying all obstacles to market
capitalism” (p38).
Strangely in the preceding chapter he recounts his visit to China and the lavish reception
given to his delegation by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). He says:
“The ACFTU’s willingness to transform itself to effectively counter the impact of
globalisation has far-reaching implications for the workers everywhere” (p28). This is
because they have resorted to traditional American tactics of ‘blacklisting’ foreign-owned
enterprises that defied Chinese labour laws. Clearly the ACFTU cannot be one of those
dreadful “government-dominated unions of the communist dictatorships”, as it is entirely in
favour of “market capitalism”.
So much so in fact that it had to ask Wal-Mart to put up a token show of resistance when it
initially requested the right to ‘organise’ its workers. This entirely bogus organisation of 150
million members makes sure that these stores and factories are not organised - the state itself
is guarding Wal-Mart against the workers. Wal-Mart will not tolerate unions in its US stores
and only concedes recognition in countries where the movement is strong enough to impose
its will.
There must be some problems, however, because the Communist Party of China itself
decided to organise two branches in Wal-Mart - more professional state informers on militant
workers were needed. It is therefore sickening to see a left publication giving an uncritical
report of Jimmy Hoffa’s visit to the ACFTU under the headline “China’s unions organise
Wal-Mart” (News Line June 11). Apparently, “The Chinese government has also drafted a law
strengthening the union, so it can better protect workers.”
Hoffa is reported as saying: “We left China with a commitment to continue our discussions
with Chinese organisations on how best to promote the rights of workers here, there and
everywhere in the world.” The discovery this week of some 500 brick kiln slaves, including
children, who were put to work with the collusion of the local Communist Party, speaks
volumes of the effectiveness of ‘Chinese labour laws’ and how the CPC ‘promotes the rights
of workers’. Strange bedfellows indeed - Change to Win, the ACFTU and News Line.
But maybe that’s just China. After all the book is subtitled Getting America back on track.
Stern is a true-blue patriot of the American dream, so maybe he fights to the death for his
own workers. An article by Alan Benjamin in the January-February 2007 issue of San
Francisco newspaper, The Organizer, puts us straight:
“In his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Stern explained his reasons for seeking
healthcare partnerships with the employers: ‘We must try to be partners with our employers,
who have told us we should change and understand their competitive issues and try to add
value, not create problems,’ Stern said. ‘Unions need to appreciate there are ways in which
we add value and can be helpful. This is especially the case in relation to health-care. The
employer-based healthcare system is dead. It’s a relic of the industrial economy, and it makes
corporations unable to compete fairly when America is the only country that asks its
employers to put the price of healthcare on the cost of its products.’”
These are not just empty words. Stern has been working overtime offering his ‘helpful’
services to some of the most anti-union and retrograde sectors of big business in this country.
Stern and Wal-Mart have announced a healthcare partnership “aimed at attaining universal
healthcare coverage”. The partnership also includes Intel Corp, AT&T Inc and Kelly Services
Inc, a temporary staffing agency. According to an earlier Associated Press release, “no
specific policies were proposed to achieve this goal. Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott said that Wal-
Mart is not committed to spending more on healthcare or making any immediate promises to
provide health coverage to more workers” (February 7).
Marnie Goodfriend of Labor Beat in Chicago has lambasted Stern for “rubber stamping”
Wal-Mart’s empty-rhetoric support for universal healthcare: “Stern should be putting intense
public scrutiny and pressure on Wal-Mart for its exploitative and degrading work conditions,”
Goodfriend noted, “not using Wal-Mart’s paper-thin public support for healthcare to
undermine his own campaign against the company.”
In January governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a new healthcare plan for California.
Politicians and corporate heads immediately applauded the proposal and said it could become
a model for ‘healthcare reform’ in states across the country.
However, the response from the trade union movement varied sharply. Unlike Stern, Art
Pulaski, secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation (AFL-CIO), was highly
critical. He stated: “This proposal will be a boon to insurance companies, but a bust for most
workers. This plan requires all Californians to buy health insurance with no guarantee that it
will be affordable or that coverage will be adequate. We are concerned that the plan creates
an incentive for employers who currently provide healthcare to drop coverage and instead
pay only a minimal tax … This is a plan that Wal-Mart can love and Wal-Mart workers will
hate. The proposed employer contribution is so low that even Wal-Mart, a corporation known
for its minimal employee healthcare coverage, already exceeds the requirements.”
The following extract from Stern’s book shows the actual direction the Change to Win
federation is taking: “I realised our priority should not be to make unionised employers non-
competitive by raising the wages and benefits they offered their employees over the non-
union company’s wages in the market. Instead, our priority should be to contribute to our
employers’ success by organising all their competitors. Only then would we be able to
bargain contracts that set the same minimum standards for all the competing employees and
then take the wage differentials off the table” (p58). It sounds in many ways like a naive 2007
version of Robert Owen’s utopian socialism until we recall that Stern’s god is Lech Walesa’s
market capitalism.
The book is full of this absolute nonsense ad nauseam. We learn that in California he struck a
deal with Kaiser Permanente over organising their nursing homes using these ‘principles’, but
the California Nurses Association foolishly “still critics the arrangements” - they objected to
the no-strike clauses, amongst other things, and have just joined the AFL-CIO.
Other points of interest include Stern’s admiration for that arch-reactionary, Newt Gingrich
(p99 et seq), despite his attempts to cripple union political campaigning back in 1998 by
taking away their right to make donations and use their funds for union education in the
infamous ‘pay-check protection’ ballots. Stern has boundless admiration for the
organisational skills of the US army - they could do with his advice in Iraq (p100-01) - and,
most bizarre of all, supports the fundamentalist ‘megachurches’ that have grown up in recent
years as examples of good care in the community. He even lists four best-selling books from
these bigots amongst his favourites in the ‘non-fiction’ category (p104).
Stern would like his union to be an ‘outsourcer’: that is, like construction, where “employers
outsource benefits administration to the union - a defined per-hour contribution for healthcare
and pensions benefits - while workers are employed on the construction projects … this
system provides benefits to both employers and employees. Employers gain flexibility and
workers gain continuity in the management of their funds” (pp108-09). Of course, the
workers do not gain “continuity” in their jobs - but he has already accepted this as a fact of
life and does not intend to combat it. And the unions will gain a nice little earner, he forgot to
The actual plan which is going to get America “back on track” is a juvenile piece of drivel
about the information superhighway, smaller schools, more taxes on corporations - all of
which is more of a prayer than a practical action plan. Why on earth would they listen to a
union movement that spends its time grovelling to them like Stern does? The conclusion is
just plain embarrassing: “America needs every citizen to speak out and see their collective
voices transformed into the winds of change. Only then can their leaders best steer” (p182) -
‘Oh for Christ’s sake,’ I’d say if I wasn’t an atheist.
Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson were elected as a reaction against the company unionism
of the Bill Morris/Roger Lyons era, yet Andy Stern has a far more rightwing project than that.
It is clear now that the split with AFL-CIO was to the right - and that is some achievement,
given how bureaucratically reactionary that organisation was and still is. But already it seems
that Stern’s views are being discussed and could well be put into practice by the Woodley-
Simpson leadership of Unite, the new merged union this side of the Atlantic.
According to Harry Kelber of The Labor Educator, “The line-up of pro-business publications
that eagerly gave Stern a forum to enhance his personality and promote his views includes
The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Washington Post
and a number of influential dailies around the country” (November 2006). Stern himself
states: “Like most traditional labor leaders I have been trained to be distrustful of and
antagonistic with ‘the boss’ and I brought that attitude to the relationship. The distrust can be
rightfully earned [apparently there are some reactionary employers], but this class struggle
mentality was a vestige of an earlier, rough era of industrial unions [Chinese brick kilns?]”
It is very clear why you won’t find Joe Hill at Andy Stern’s side.