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10 Questions for Andrew Stern

4 minute read
Joseph R. Szczesny

Some see imagination; others see ego. Either way, Andrew Stern’s vision for a more aggressive labor movement persuaded his union, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers, together representing 4.6 million workers, to split from the AFL-CIO. TIME’s Joseph R. Szczesny asks the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chief to explain the bitter divorce.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST JOIN A UNION, AND WHY?

I first joined in 1973 because they were serving pizza.

WAS IT FREE?

Yes. The union was new–it had just been formed in the past year–and they were trying to get established. Sometimes union meetings don’t attract a lot of people, so one of the techniques they were using was to offer pizza.

AS A UNION LEADER, WHEN DID YOU REALIZE YOU HAD TO MAKE A RADICAL BREAK FROM THE PAST?

For me, it came in watching what happened in the airline industry, where workers lost their pensions, and in the steel industry, where retirees lost their health care. But the final decision was made on the weekend before the convention, just sitting in a room with the other union presidents. You always have a hope that something’s going to get resolved at the last minute. It’s the nature of labor negotiations. But we then realized this was more of a situation where things were not going to shift toward a settlement but where you had to decide if you were going to strike or not.

HAS IT BEEN PAINFUL FOR YOU TO HAVE SUCH A PUBLIC FIGHT WITH JOHN SWEENEY, SINCE HE WAS YOUR MENTOR?

Certainly I had hoped that John Sweeney would lead this change process. There was no joy in disagreeing with someone whom I respect as much as John Sweeney. It was disappointing because we couldn’t find a common way forward and even more complicated because I know the commitments he’s made in his life to try and change workers’ lives.

WHAT CAN LABOR DO TO INFLUENCE THE DEVELOPMENT OF JOBS AS COMPANIES MOVE MORE OF THEM ABROAD, TO PLACES LIKE CHINA?

We are dealing with global employers. The answer to that is global unions, and we’re going to start that conversation at a meeting in Chicago in a couple of weeks.

WHAT NEW TACTICS AND STRATEGIES ARE YOU GOING TO BRING TO BEAR?

We’re not going to organize employers one store at a time. We have to organize across industries and companies. Look at the airline industry, one of most heavily unionized industries in the country. What you have to do is make wages be like fuel, so that no one competes on labor costs but on service, efficiency and innovation. You could have pooled pensions and health care and even a basic entry-level wage rate for everyone.

ORGANIZED LABOR HAS ALWAYS DEPENDED ON POLITICAL ACTION. WON’T LABOR’S VOICE SHRINK ON CAPITOL HILL AND IN STATE CAPITOLS IF IT’S DIVIDED?

We still expect to have a political partnership with the AFL-CIO. No union has been more active in politics than the SEIU. We had 2,000 members leave their homes [to campaign] in the last election and 50,000 volunteer to make phone calls.

HOW DOES THAT COMPARE WITH EARLIER CAMPAIGNS?

In 2000, we had about 20,000 SEIU members who signed up and volunteered to make phone calls, knock on doors, drop literature. We had very few leave their homes [to campaign] in 2000. We just assigned some of our staff. This is the first time we asked rank-and-file members and paid them for the time away from their job to participate full time around electoral activity. That was a big change. We call them the SEIU heroes.

HAVE YOU BEEN TO CHINA?

Yes, several times. We are spending time with Chinese unions so they won’t adopt a U.S. model with the attitude of “I’ve got mine, and the devil take the hindmost.” The idea that the rich get richer and somehow wealth is going to trickle down is a bankrupt economic and moral theory.

ADRIEN BRODY PLAYED A CHARISMATIC SEIU ORGANIZER WHO WINS THE HEART OF A BEAUTIFUL LATINA JANITOR IN THE MOVIE BREAD AND ROSES. WAS THAT YOU?

No. I get credit for a lot of things I shouldn’t. That was another SEIU organizer named Jono Shaffer.

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