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“New” Agenda For America Hasn’t Improved With Age


A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track, by Andy Stern, (New York: Free Press) 2006, 212 pp. $24.

 

America Needs a Raise: Fighting For Economic Security and Social Justice, by John Sweeney (New York: Houghton Mifflin) 1996, 167 pp. $18.95.

 

 

 

As politicians pursued voters and media coverage around the country this Fall, labor’s most voluble and highly visible national spokesperson was out on the hustings as well. A non-candidate himself –at least for now– Service Employees President Andy Stern had a new book to promote. It is packaged very much like the “campaign bios” manufactured every four years to burnish the image of Democrats and Republicans seeking the presidential nomination of their respective parties. Stern’s A Country That Works also reminds one of John Sweeney’s 1996 manifesto, America Needs a Raise, which landed in bookstores during the AFL-CIO president’s own brief ascendancy as a widely-acclaimed “new voice” for labor.

 

To find out how the political thinking (and book marketing) of American labor leadership has evolved– for better or worse–during the intervening decade, it’s worth examining these two slim volumes. Laid side- by-side, they shed considerable light on the over- lapping SEIU careers of the authors and the dramatic developments, within the AFL-CIO, that gave birth to their respective ghost-assisted literary efforts. (The title page of  America Needs a Raise credits former White House speech-writer David Kusnet as Sweeney’s main wordsmith; meanwhile, A Country that Works buries its “special acknowledgment” of Jody Franklin’s “excellent writing and editing skills” on page 201).

 

Each book appeared in the wake of a high-profile AFL- CIO shake-up. Sweeney’s collage of childhood memories from the Bronx, old SEIU war stories, public policy prescriptions, and a modest account of his 1995 bid for the federation presidency was published when he was still basking in the glow of that election victory–the first by a non-incumbent in 100 years. Aided by a chorus of outside academic boosters (in Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice), Sweeney’s PR handlers were trying to position him as the main public spokesperson for “social movement unionism” in America. He was a labor leader who would not shun “appearances on national television”–like his pallid, conservative predecessor Lane Kirkland often did, leaving labor without “a strong voice and a visible presence in the debates of the 1990s.”

 

Instead, as the head of a new, media-savvy AFL-CIO, Sweeney received rave reviews from leading figures in politics, feminism, the civil rights movement, and academia. The author of  America Needs a Raise was hailed as a “visionary leader” (Cornell West) who, “with the audacity and diligence of FDR during the Hundred Days, has transformed American labor” (Daniel Patrick Moynihan). After Sweeney’s election, progressives looked to “a newly militant labor movement for a larger vision of American business than the next quarter’s stock market index” (Betty Friedan) and “a compelling strategy for how working Americans can restore not only their living standards, but also the traditional American values of work, family, and community” (Marian Wright Edelman). Said Julian Bond: “Anyone concerned with economic democracy and social justice must read America Needs a Raise.”

 

Reading Sweeney’s book jacket copy ten years later, it’s hard to recognize, in such descriptions, the self- effacing septuagenarian still hanging on to the AFL-CIO presidency long past his promised retirement age. Nearly 73 and quite pass, Sweeney looks more like an old Irish-Catholic priest than a “labor militant” or “visionary.” He is, in fact, presiding–with greatly reduced visibility (but still very high pay)–over a much-diminished flock. Five million of his former parishioners belong to another congregation.

 

The media spotlight has shifted accordingly to the flashy  “mega-church” minister down the block who spirited them away and replaced Monsignor Sweeney, on the public stage, as America‘s most-quoted labor leader. A number of union-oriented intellectuals have left Sweeney’s parish as well, moving to new pews in the amen corner of Change To Win (CTW). According to one of them, best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich, “the future of the American dream” is now “in the hands of Andy Stern,” who has a “vital agenda for change” and “a bold vision for reform” (as opposed to Sweeney’s now dusty, decade-old sermons).

 

Stern first seized the microphone (not to mention the blogosphere) from his one-time mentor during the 2003-4 media campaign that accompanied his creation of a “New Unity Partnership” with Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm, leaders of the yet-to-be married UNITE and HERE. Round Two of Stern’s PR blitz unfolded in 2005, when NUP morphed into CTW, its affiliated unions stopped paying dues to the AFL-CIO, and then boycotted the federation’s national convention. Stern’s resulting “fifteen minutes” of personal fame and media acclaim– in outlets ranging from Business Week and Fortune to 60 Minutes and the Sunday Times Magazine–has been very long indeed. It was recently extended further via the fall 2006 nationwide book tour that followed publication of his new book.

 

Stern’s superior preaching style notwithstanding, his emergence as labor’s premier pitchman in the marketplace of ideas leaves us with a serious “messaging” problem. The SEIU president may be a much better “talking head” than Sweeney–on TV, radio, in print, or in person. But his recent statements, on a number of political and economic issues, have aroused growing concern among progressive trade unionists, including members of his own union. His conservative pronouncements–usually made in front of business audiences and dressed up as creative new thinking– don’t improve with repetition or further elaboration between hard-covers. In Stern’s book, CTW’s demand–”Make Work Pay”–comes across as a cosmetic re- working of Sweeney’s mantra, “America Needs A Raise.” Furthermore, Stern’s “bold unassailable plan” to “get America back on track” actually falls short of Sweeney’s 1996 proposals on similar topics–workers rights, retirement, health care, education, and taxation. And definitely missing from Stern’s laundry list of “vital reforms” is the warm and fuzzy  feel of Sweeney’s valiant defense of the post-war “social compact” and the good old days of the Great Society and New Deal.

 

According to Stern, “anyone who might long wistfully for a return to the New Deal policies of 1935 should consider that America today is as far from the time of FDR as the New Deal was from Abe Lincoln and the Civil War.” Instead of such liberal nostalgia or the politics of Democratic Socialists of America–a group that still counts Sweeney as a member–Stern serves up a brand of futurism that’s just plain fuzzy. Inspired by the likes of Alvin and Heidi Toffler, A Country that Works is a breathless celebration of “change processes” in politics, government, the economy, and unions, which fails to assess the actual positive or negative impact of particular changes on workers or society. (The word “change” itself is used 50 times in just 212 pages; in the mind of the author, it clearly denotes something good coming down the pike– regardless of content or circumstances.). In the church of Reverend Andy, Americans are urged to” [P]ause and take the time to appreciate the glory and grandness of our future. Humanity faces a quantum leap forward, and we are engaged in building a remarkable new civilization from the ground up. No single generation has ever been offered such possibilities; we should seize them with passion and zest.”

 

Not surprisingly in light of such passages, Stern has been communing lately with a fellow “change agent” named Newt Gingrich. The author reports that  he and Change To Win chairperson Anna Burger were “pleasantly surprised” by the former House Speaker’s thoughtfulness and candor,” plus his “smart, contemplative demeanor,” when they all  met at a Republican Main Street Partnership meeting in Chicago where the speakers included Burger.

 

“As only a history scholar can, Gingrich talked in broad historical terms of the change-making process, the challenges facing our country, and America’s need to confront its future….he argued [that] labor would have to continually rethink its role in the changing economy–specifically, how it could deliver increased productivity and better services to its members and employers. Gingrich’s thinking reinforced much of my own….” (emphasis added)

 

As a personal memento of their conversations, Gingrich presented Stern with “a set of diagrams he called Designing Transformational Change” that communicate twelve steps to promote organizational transformation.” Newt embellished this “parting gift” with “his handwritten comments” on the diagrams and “followed up” by later sending his new friend, Andy,  “a personally annotated edition of the Tofflers’ Creating A New Civilization.”

 

The U.S. Army is among those civilizing institutions that Gingrich, joined by Stern, applaud for “consciously and continuously conforming itself to changing times.” In their talks, “Gingrich cited his respect” for “the army’s management” because the military “accepts change as a fact of life and has worked for decades to reshape itself to meet changing security needs. It actually integrates change into its planning process.” Stern notes that some Americans wonder, nevertheless, whether the army should still be blamed for the quagmire in Iraq.  Drawing on the insights of Gingrich, Stern believes instead “that our political leaders rushed to war in Iraq without a plan and enough troops to secure peace–over the objections of many in the military, as some former generals have revealed.” He concludes reassuringly that, “If the Iraq fiasco was the outcome of ineffective planning, then my guess is the army will evaluate their planning process and make any necessary”–yes, you guessed it–”changes.”

 

This example of what Stern’s book jacket copy calls his “eye-opening analysis” would be fairly eye-opening even if the paragraph above wasn’t the only reference to “Iraq” cited in the book’s index. One would think that a $2 billion a week war–not to mention America’s costly post-9/11 military build-up–might warrant a little more discussion in a book that purports to explain what’s “Wrong With a Country That Helps the Rich Get Richer While Most Americans Get The Squeeze.”

 

To be fair, Sweeney’s book, “America Needs a Raise,” was equally silent on the price that workers pay for the disastrous foreign and military policies of their own government. Yet, the AFL-CIO president wasn’t writing ten years ago as the head of a union, which, like Stern’s, has adopted an anti-war resolution at its most recent national convention and then allied itself, through many of its local affiliates, with U.S. Labor Against The War. Like Stern, Sweeney indicts “mean- spirited business leaders”–not capitalism or the military-industrial complex–for making life worse for millions of Americans. Both denounce corporate downsizing, the erosion of job-based benefits and employment security, and the resulting wage stagnation, income inequality, and longer working hours, which take a terrible toll on family life and opportunities for civic engagement among working people.

 

The root cause of such problems, as Sweeney defines it, is “corporate America doing business the wrong way.” Too many shortsighted employers are meeting “the challenge of global competition” by taking the “low- wage path” of “driving down wages and living standards.” Instead of “cooperating with workers and improving the quality of goods and services,” they’ve “decided to break the postwar social contract” and utilize anti-union decisions by National Labor Relations Board to undermine labor and destroy the Wagner Act’s Depression era “promise of industrial democracy.”

 

Enter Andy Stern–after a decade of failed efforts by Sweeney to “save our bosses from themselves.” In “A Country That Works,” Stern uses management consultant jargon to offer up a series of “twenty-first century policies to ensure America‘s continued economic leadership” based on “a bold future-oriented vision…new ideas and a thoughtful, collaborative, nonpartisan approach.” To entice management into the same “value-added” partnerships proposed more sparingly by Sweeney (but apparently spurned by employers after they perused  America Needs a Raise), Stern distances himself from the “class struggle mentality” that persists in some unions today. According to the author, rank-and-file wariness about labor-management cooperation is a counter-productive “vestige of an earlier, rough era of industrial unions.”

 

Stern believes that all of organized labor should, like his own union, be more appreciative of “employers’ competitive reality and attempt to create or add value to their business models” as “a basic operating principle.” In the apt description of  political consultant Donna Brazile, Stern favors a “strategy of adaptive cooperation.” (In  essence, if you can’t beat them, join them.) As examples, he touts SEIU “alliances with hospitals and nursing home owners” on both coasts, with Kaiser Permanente in California and the health care industry in New York. To forge the Kaiser partnership, angry union members first had to shed their attachment to “their own ineffective strikes and concession bargaining;” In N.Y., SEIU 1199′s “partnership approach challenged many leaders’ traditional ‘class struggle’ attitudes about employers,” a hang-up they’ve apparently overcome while lobbying together for increased public funding and, more recently, hospital consolidation and closings.

 

To build “new relationships with public employers in the South and Southwest,” SEIU introduces what  Stern calls “the ‘IQ’ program–innovation and quality,” while “eschewing traditional collective-bargaining issues and focusing on improving public services.” In states like North Carolina, Mississippi, or Texas, it’s not hard to eschew “traditional collective bargaining” because it doesn’t exist in the public sector. One would think that the real challenge there–which has been taken up by other unions–is to build membership organizations that can fight for and eventually win collective bargaining rights for government employees. While it’s always a good idea to link demands for better pay and benefits to public service improvements funded through progressive taxation, Stern’s focus, as usual, is on forging SEIU’s own institutional “relationships with employers.” Worker activity, community engagement, and political action that might actually change the balance of power between labor and management–all get short shrift, unless “the power of persuasion” fails, and the union must then resort to the “persuasion of power.”

 

As Stern admits, most employers are not being persuaded, either way, that they need a union “partner” (proving that Jesse Jackson-style alliterative rhetoric only gets you so far–even if you’re Jesse!) As part of his peripatetic speech making to human resources managers and open letter writing to Fortune 500 CEOs, Stern has been promoting the idea that “responsible unions” should embrace outsourcing. At the PC Forum, a national meeting of high-tech entrepreneurs, he “shared a variation on the outsourcing concept,” providing “a straightforward intellectual argument that made solid business sense–but there were no takers…” Much to Stern’s dismay, “changing non-union employers attitudes…remains a monumental challenge. They often don’t believe that partnerships with unions are possible, nor are they able to overcome their prejudices against unions in order to establish a different kind of relationship that could add value to their bottom line.”

 

A Country that Works contains no thoughtful discussion about the pros and cons of the labor movement “moderniz[ing] its strategic approaches to employers in order to take into account their competitive business needs.” The California Nurses Association (CNA) has compiled an impressive record of organizing, bargaining, and legislative success, while remaining a leading foe of “jointness” in health care. Yet its ideological and organizational dissent merits only a two-sentence dismissal from Stern. “Not every union agrees with our approach,” he writes. “To this day, the CNA still criticizes SEIU’s arrangement with Kaiser and has chosen not to join us in the process.” Readers of the book are left to wonder why CNA abstains–or find out on their own what the downside of health care partnerships might be for the quality of patient care or the right of patients  to sue their HMO (something SEIU has tried to take away from Californians as part of its joint lobbying with Kaiser).

 

On the subject of legislative and political action, Sweeney and Stern agree that Democrats are often a disappointment waiting to happen–particularly in the area of worker rights and job-killing free-trade deals. Sweeney recalls that labor was extremely unhappy with the results of Democratic control of both houses of Congress and the White House during Bill Clinton’s first term. “After two years in which working people had relatively little to show from their friends, it is not surprising that, with their abstentions and even their votes, they helped elect their enemies [in 1994].”

 

Sweeney urges unions to move beyond “politics as usual”–just making COPE contributions and candidate endorsements–to greater membership involvement in grassroots political initiatives. He has few good things to say about Republicans. Stern, meanwhile, says that “hitching our fate to….Democratic politicians [has] proved to be a losing strategy for American workers.” Unfortunately, his preferred “alternative” is more check-writing and deal-making involving the GOP. In this vein, A Country that Works praises Republicans office-holders like George Pataki, John McCain, and Mitt Romney–all for their dubious contributions to workers’ rights, immigration reform, or universal health care.  We learn also that, after his election as SEIU president ten years ago, Stern:

 

“[R]eached out to the Republican Party chair, Jim Nicholson, and SEIU became an “Eagle”–a $10,000 donor to the Republican National Committee. It was an expression of my interest in engaging Republicans on issues of concern to America‘s workers, and I was promised a conversation.”

 

Stern remained undeterred when the RNC “accepted SEIU’s contribution” but never got around to having  the “conversation.” Ever the optimist, he reports that:

 

“SEIU continues to keep an open mind and open door: At the Republican Convention in 2000, we honored several Republican legislators. We also employ Republican advisors. In 2004, SEIU was actually the largest contributor to both the Democratic and Republican Governors’ Associations, a fact that confused both party establishments.”

 

Nevertheless, Stern admits, “the Republican Party’s agenda on issues of work” is still “often not in our members’ best interests.” In 2004, this was particularly true in Indiana and Missouri where SEIU dollars helped elect GOP candidates who then proceeded to strip state workers (including some SEIU members) of limited bargaining rights obtained under previous governors–an outcome Stern neglects to mention. That same year, SEIU also aided a GOP gubernatorial hopeful in North Carolina who was running against a Democrat backed by the rest of the local labor movement. (Fortunately, the Republican lost.)

 

While his book promotes this “independent, non-partisan approach,” Stern’s true political identity is deeply Clintonite. As Atlantic Monthly editor Joshua Green recently observed, “veterans of Bill Clinton’s White House often speak of themselves as having been a ‘modernizing force’ in the Democratic Party….Their guiding idea was that a more pragmatic, results- oriented approach held greater promise for achieving traditional liberal goals.” As a self-styled modernizer of labor, Stern couldn’t agree more, in terms of both medium and message. “If the Democratic Party wants to win elections,” he argues, “it needs a permanent infrastructure–not controlled by the party’s elected officials–that employs and integrates the modern techniques of data management, marketing, mobilizing and new communications technologies.”

 

“Bill Clinton’s two [presidential] victories were not due to a Democratic Party infrastructure but were the result of his self-assembled, highly talented campaign staff and consultants, his finely honed, disciplined message that directly addressed issues of concern to voters, and his extraordinary charisma and leadership.”

 

The tragedy of Stern is the tragedy of Clinton–a fellow product of Sixties liberal idealism whose similar media savvy, organizational drive and ambition, personal charisma and formidable political skills all could have done much to advance a real progressive agenda, but instead have always been deployed on behalf of a cramped, technocratic, and triangulated politics, which has achieved very few “traditional liberal goals.”

 

Like Clinton, Stern is part of that generational cohort shaped by Vietnam-era campus activism and the McCarthy, Kennedy, or McGovern presidential campaigns of 1968 and 1972. In Clinton‘s career, youthful idealism quickly gave way to a pragmatic centrism and the search for business-friendly policy prescriptions that broke with the Democrat’s traditional New Deal nostrums, like reliance on “big government.” Since Stern became a Pennsylvania social worker union activist in the early 1970s, after a stint at the Wharton School of Business, his ascendancy in labor has followed a similar political trajectory. Like the former president, he sees himself as courageously challenging official orthodoxy on behalf of “new ideas.” In the media and before business audiences, he counter-poses his persona–as a smooth, sophisticated, globally-minded “change agent”– to that of blue-collar troglodytes in the rest of labor who “just don’t get it,” don’t want to “change to win,” and, instead, remaining sadly wedded to “class-struggle unionism.”

 

When Stern travels–and he is quite the globetrotter– the results are invariably path breaking as well. We learn in his book that he’s been to China six times. On one trip, braving as always “a backlash from my American labor-union colleagues,” he went to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to meet Mr. Wei Jianxing, the appointed president of a red company union, claiming 137 million members, that has shown little taste for workplace struggle of any kind.

 

“Mr. Wei was China’s highest-ranking labor leader, assigned by the Communist Party. More important, he served as one of the eight powerful members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, China’s highest governing body. Mr. Wei wielded enormous power over all the affairs of China, and his importance surpassed that of any labor leader I had previously met.”

 

Based on this conversation and others described in the book, Stern now maintains–with little supporting evidence–that the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is demonstrating a previously unnoticed “willingness to transform itself to effectively counter the impact of globalization”–a development hailed by the author for its “far-reaching implications for workers everywhere.”

 

In their respective arenas, here and overseas,  Stern and Clinton both command continuing attention because they represent “success.” In the case of the former president, his is based on being the only Democrat to serve more than one term in the White House in the last 38 years; in Stern’s case, proof of success comes from being, as his book-jacket proclaims, “the news-making president of the fastest-growing, most dynamic union in America” who has “led the charge for modernizing the ‘house of labor,’ taking unions out of the past and into the twenty-first century,” while building “stronger global alliances” with the likes of Mr. Wei.

 

Within labor, Stern’s message boils down to this: he and his union are “winners,” most of the others are “losers”–so, if any of them really want to be winners too, they’d better get with the SEIU/Change To Win program. His message for America is that we need A Country that Works and that “government, business, and labor must work together as a team in order for America to prosper in the new global economy.” In Sweeney’s ten-year old concluding chapter–”Changing Lives, Changing America”–there’s at least some recognition that the motor force needed for major change might be mobilization of the rank-and-file. “For all our problems,” he observes hopefully, “the labor movement can still draw on the energy, experience, intelligence, and resources of more than thirteen million members”– if working people can better “organize themselves to transform the economy.”

 

In Stern’s closing argument for “common sense ideas” that would “get America back on track,” there’s barely a nod to “the power of protest” or the role that various social movements played during the Sixties, “when the winds of change were gusting.” Nevertheless, the author’s list of  “course-correction reforms” in the area of taxation, education, health care, retirement, and telecommunications are said to be “so compelling, simple, and achievable that readers will find themselves enraged that they haven’t yet been enacted.” On the contrary, readers are more likely to end up wondering how any future Democratic administration might be pressured to adopt such an agenda without some real big 1960s(or 30s)-style gusts of wind.

 

A Country that Works is thus far less convincing and coherent as a brief for reform than America Needs a Raise because it deals so little with the dynamics of successful, grassroots movement-building. (Even the immigrant worker upsurge around the country in the spring of 2006 rates a mere two sentences). In Stern’s book, we’re left with the impression that what really brings about “change” is not mass mobilization, but rather some well-oiled labor organization equivalent of the Clintons’ personal political machine. In Stern’s union, not surprisingly, one finds the same kind of finely-honed message discipline, “highly talented staffers and consultants,” non-stop fund-raising (i.e. “doubled dues” because “you can’t have a champagne union with beer money”) and, last but not least, a maximum leader (or two) long on personal charisma, political opportunism, and relentless self-promotion.

 

 

Steve Early has been active in unions since the mid-1970s as a lawyer, labor journalist, organizer, or union representative. He is currently working on a book about the role of Sixties’ activists in American labor over the last four decades. (He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com)

 

Forthcoming in Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, March, 2007, Volume 10, Number 1.

 

 

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