Byline: Jonathan Alter
There's this guy you should know. His name is Andy Stern and he runs the largest and fastest-growing labor union in the United States. If this were 25 or 50 or 100 years ago, you would surely recognize a labor chieftain like Stern, but today you probably do not. Only two major news organizations--The New York Times and the AP--have full-time labor reporters, and two others have part-time coverage. For the media, labor is an afterthought--a dying animal.
With only 8.2 percent of the private-sector work force still enrolled in unions, why bother to keep track of a bright former social worker like Andy Stern? Two reasons. First, his union, the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), jolted the political world last week by joining with the biggest union of government workers (AFSCME) to endorse Howard Dean. (The communication workers' and teachers' unions will soon follow.) This may be seen in retrospect as a key moment in the Democratic contest and perhaps even the fall campaign. Second, Stern's approach--clean, idealistic, grass-roots organizing to bring in new members and voters--may be the only hope for saving not just the Democratic Party but the American labor movement.
Everyone knows it: unions are still fat and calcified. Until the SEIU and a few others stirred, they existed largely to perpetuate themselves and protect midcentury work rules, however asinine. And Democrats are gutless in cleaning their own house. Last week, for instance, a brave New York City Council member, Eva Moskowitz, was skewered for having the temerity to scrutinize school contracts that leave hundreds of classrooms half painted (one union paints walls only up to 10 feet; another the ceiling) and keeps teachers and principals from being fired for incompetence. Much of the problem is structural. The AFL-CIO has no power to tell locals to shape up or to merge competing fiefdoms. So unless organized labor's constitution is overhauled, the movement will keep withering.
What keeps labor kicking--and possibly poised to grow again--is what one 19th-century essayist called "plunder from above." President Bush's reward-the-rich ethos is creating class consciousness among working people for the first time in years. They want health care fixed and money for college. How strong is this liberal impulse? Not clear, but leaders like Stern are trying to capitalize on it. They're reversing age-old labor positions by …