Does Former SEIU President Andy Stern Really Advocate Labor Law Waivers?

Andy Stern with SEIU members

New Orleans   I know Jay Youngdahl, as an old friend and comrade, dating back to his father, Jim, a legendary labor lawyer, when he introduced us in the early 1970s. Our building on Main Street in Little Rock, and the home of KABF radio and ACORN for years, was once the old Youngdahl law offices. Jay after a typically winding road from the 60’s ended up as a labor and civil rights lawyer as well, based in New Mexico for years, who ended up sometimes thanklessly representing ACORN in some matters, just as his father had done. Jay is more an occasional labor lawyer now for a Laborers’ region, while also publishing and writing a column for the East Bay Express. All of which is a long way of saying that when I noticed that Jay had written a piece for In These Times “Working” bulletin it caught my eye, especially because there was a picture of Andy Stern and the title of the piece was “In the Fantasy Land of Labor Theorists: Andy Stern’s Latest Contribution.”

I know Andy Stern even better than Jay Youngdahl though, having worked with him for more than twenty years when Local 100 was part of SEIU and serving on SEIU International Board when he was president for eight years, and, if anything, would count him normally as an even better friend and comrade. I found myself reading Jay’s piece incredulously. Andy had teamed up with a conservative author to write a piece in the recent number of National Affairs. The essence of their argument, according to Jay, was to “reform” various labor laws by giving the federal government the ability to issue “waivers” to the states similar to what they are able to do for federal health programs and did to wheedle raw red states like Arkansas and others into participating in Obamacare.

Surely, Stern and Eli Lehrer’s argument were much more nuanced than Jay was painting. Surely, Jay was gilding the lily just a bit, given the hardcore Bay Area trepidation on all things Stern since the bitter trusteeship battle over old Local 250, the giant healthcare local in California. Jay makes the point that a transfer of these federal protections and powers, as argued by Stern, to states and local jurisdiction would exacerbate the blue-red state divide, along with a list of other weaknesses in their arguments. I figured I should reserve judgement until I read the original article and considered it carefully. Perhaps this was something run up the flag along the Beltway before the Trump truck crashed through the Washington wall. There must be more to all of this.

And, there was, but it wasn’t necessarily better.

Especially disturbing was the weight in their argument given to the success of state and local efforts to raise the minimum wage. Here Stern and Lehrer were confused about the difference between minimum standards and preemption, in fact arguing that Fair Labor Standards allowed “state preemption,” which is incorrect. The statute does what it says by establishing a minimum standard. Nothing prevents a state in such situations from raising standards, but in a national policy, no state can lower standards below the FLSA thresholds. Red or blue, they are also silent on the fact that such increases have largely been in areas where the majority of voters had the opportunity because of democratic reforms introduced by previous movements through citizen initiative and referendum which undercuts their pretended consensus that “all labor reform” has come at the state level, rather than mostly through popular demand. Much of their admittedly controversial proposals are cast as the ability to “experiment” as well, but there has been nothing stopping many jurisdictions from experimenting by offering procedures or protections for workers exempted from the NLRA or FLSA. California’s farmworker representation regime with its strengths and weaknesses is an example, as is Seattle’s current effort to create representation norms for on-demand or gig employees. The protections provided in law by states in India for example for many categories of informal workers are vastly superior to the silence of US law at every level, and even though nothing has stopped activity, it is certainly not because there is a need for a waiver to start it.

But, no need to pile on. Jay was not picking nits, and little more needs to be said, other than the one question that perplexes me: Why? I think we’re in no danger of seeing such waivers to federal labor protections allowed even in Trump time, so was this just about stirring the pot? Stern can’t really believe the arguments made in his name in this piece, so why would he allow himself to be associated with them? Inarguably, Andy Stern was one of the most dynamic and creative labor leaders of our generation, albeit with strengths and weaknesses, rights and wrongs, as we all have, but even having forsaken his voice as the head of the nation’s largest union, why would he allow himself to be placed in a position where any of his brothers and sisters would be allowed to wonder now, which side is he on?


A New Wal-Mart Workers Association

Belva Whitt from the original Wal-Mart Workes Association

Belva Whitt from the original Wal-Mart Workers Association in Tampa, FL

Ottawa The UFCW’s effort to assist the development of a workers’ association for the so-called “associates” of Wal-Mart finally has made its debut after a long period of work, claiming thousands of members and organization on the ground in California, Texas, Washington State, as well as efforts in Florida and elsewhere that are well known.  The coming out party was predictably a piece by one of the last of the labor reporters, Steve Greenhouse of the New York Times.  He interviewed Dan Schlademan, the director of the UFCW’s Making Change at Wal-Mart division.

Schlademan is well respected in the labor movement and rose over his years at SEIU to a key position as officer and organizing director of Local 1 based in Chicago with responsibilities from the Midwest through Texas, including the recognition drives for janitors in Houston, whose success surprised many observers.   Dan is a solid and straightforward organizer, who contributed greatly over the years with insight and imagination to several Organizers’ Forum dialogues where he participated actively, was good company, and a friend.

His argument was stated plainly and is inarguable:

“Mr. Schlademan said Wal-Mart employees should not have to wait until Wal-Mart someday recognizes the union through an organizing drive before they have a voice on the job.”

Greenhouse mentioned our effort to build the Wal-Mart Workers Association among workers in Florida between 2004 and 2009 as the predecessor to this new initiative following in many of our same footsteps and now called OUR Wal-Mart (Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart).   For some reason he calls it the “foundation-backed” effort which is interesting, though wishful thinking and inaccurate.  We did get some small – and much appreciated — support from several foundations, but as he knew the bulk of the resources came from SEIU, as part of its overall initiative and convention pledge to reform the company, and the AFL-CIO, which also put in staff and resources.  The UFCW was a more begrudging partner at the time, suspicious of SEIU’s intentions at one level and still trying to sort out how to politically sell the new “majority union” associational model that we were promoting within the existing grocery locals around the country.  We had in fact concentrated in Florida for many excellent reasons, but were mindful that it was also easier to develop the workers association model there since no strong grocery or retail locals existed in the state at that time.  I can still remember vividly my conversations with President Joe Hansen of the UFCW and telling him we had good news and bad news.  The good news was that the pilot worked, workers joined, we won issues and grievances at the store level, and people paid dues and built organization.  The bad news for him was that the pilot worked, workers joined, we won issues and grievances at the store level, and people paid dues and built organization, and I did not know if there was a deep enough consensus within UFCW to adapt to a new organizing model with Wal-Mart.  The question was unanswered until now.

While directing the project I wrote several pieces about the strategy and techniques (available under “writing” on and talking with Rick Smith, who was on the ground with me in Florida, we could both count a number of conversations with organizers and consultants going through with us the steps we had taken to build the 1000 members we had in more than 30 stores in central Florida at the high water mark of the effort.   It is gratifying to see this new effort and fingers are crossed and we are sending good love in their direction.

The real death knell for the Wal-Mart Workers’ Association had nothing to do with the success of the association or the actions of the leaders and members in the stores on the ground.  The indecision and suspicion within UFCW made our project untenable there, and in the unraveling of the labor movement between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, where SEIU and UFCW were founding partners, we became an uncomfortable friction point and aggravation at the level of top floor politics that trumped the work on the ground.  When Andy Stern, then President of SEIU, embraced Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart in trying to create a health care reform coalition and UFCW’s Hansen was not in the room, we were dead within days, as Hansen demanded SEIU shutoff support for our project and reaffirm their pledge that Wal-Mart was squarely in UFCW’s jurisdiction.   Within two weeks I had to lay off 20 organizers in the field, cutting the heart out of the capacity of the project.  Diminished and without labor institutional support at best we could only maintain the Wal-Mart Workers’ Association.   Rick and I were able to keep the work robust on the site fighting program in Florida much longer, finally stopping construction of 32 consecutive superstores, and the India FDI Watch Campaign thwarting the company’s development there continues to this day, but despite herculean hustle, subcontracting, other initiatives in California by 2009 I couldn’t keep the pieces together any more on the Florida program and we pulled the plug.  Talking to one of the old organizers with the WWA a couple of weeks ago in Florida, she reported that she still hears from the leaders in Orlando and St. Pete, and they are still hunkered down in the stores, but that’s what’s left of the heartbeat.

In organizing we all stand on each other’s shoulders.   It would be great to see OUR Wal-Mart become the workers’ voice in Wal-Mart.  There’s much to be done and much to be won.  The problem today though is no different than it was several years ago.  To build the organization of workers will take years, huge resources, and deep commitment.  My assessment continues to be that we need 100,000 to 150,000 dues paying members in a Wal-Mart Workers’ Association to be a sustainable force with sufficient voice and strength to leverage the company.

A good start isn’t enough.  We’ve done that and been there.  We need to finally get the job done.  It’s worth doing.  It could change the entire labor movement, and that’s worth the work as well.


Are we Hearing the Death Knell for Unions?

New Orleans The backdrop to the grCN21811OhioUnion-NoEPSeat excitement and fight back in Wisconsin, Ohio, and India for the labor movement seems to be a very black curtain that some are trying to pull across the stage.  The evidence seems everywhere.  Steven Greenhouse, one of the last labor reporters, sounded the death knell in the Times while watching the pushback in Madison.  Reporters today in the Times tried to compare the lack of support for unions with the positive support for collective bargaining.  What does that mean? There is no collective bargaining without unions as the representatives across the table from the employer?  It’s like saying you like marriage but don’t like either women or men.

More depressing to me was reading an Ezra Klein interview with former SEIU President Andy Stern in yesterday’s Washington Post. I wish it were a case of misunderstanding or mistaken identity, but Andy seems happy enough with how his views were presented that he linked to the interview on his twitter account, so I guess this is what he really thinks.  Long and short he seems to say, his well ran dry:

“What I would say is I felt that the next strategy of change would be different. I had tried everything I knew. I was too much of a victim of the model I created. I tried Change to Win and helping Obama, and then I just ran out of Andy Stern ideas.”

I actually don’t believe that is either true or what Andy really thinks.  The rest of the interview in fact belies that quote as does his interest in broadcasting the interview.  Andy has never been short of ideas, what he seems to have realized is two more fundamental things in leaving SEIU.  First, that he could not convince people to follow his ideas, and, secondly,  after having led people to follow him  through past ventures like Change to Win, sometimes they don’t work.  It may have been the right idea, but it was the wrong strategy or set of tactics.  The rest of the ideas in the interview are feints in different directions.  I can remember how he scoffed at the German workers’ councils a dozen years ago, so it’s a little hard to see him touting them now.  I’ll think about all of that and get back to you….

But worse in all of these comments whether high or low, Twitter or Times, is that even when expressing hope they still reflect the old post-Katrina refrigerator slogan:  Hope is Not a Plan.  There still seems to be no coherent strategy or plan that pulls labor together in a more fundamental direction to rebuild and reassert.  In some ways it is too easy to see Wisconsin as a last gasp of the old school.  I heard recently that the Madison AFL-CIO was debating calling a general strike.  If called, who would come?  If we came, what would we really stop?  I want to see this and count the feet on those streets!

In the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago a breathless story about a possible $100,000,000 organizing campaign being launched by SEIU in more than a dozen cities around the country was attributed to an anonymous SEIU board member and other sources.  Whatever the merits and truth of those reports, SEIU and every other union need to pull all of their last dollars together and figure out how to survive and turn the tide and do it now, make it real, and make it very, very different, because the bell has rung on the old school and the old ideas, as Stern acknowledges, and we are running out of time and money with the tide coming in hard against us.

Time for speeches is over.  It’s only sweat that counts now.


Deficit Commission’s Assault on Workers and the Poor

hillman_bio_portraitNew York Staying in the guest room of an old ILGWU coop near Grand and FDR with a view of Brooklyn and the Williamsburg Bridge from one window and across the street the sprawling Hillman complex named after Sidney Hillman the old Amalgamated Clothing Workers leader, I could remember the vision of unions – and even government – to provide life to death strength for our members.  I say government, because these coops were all built as worker and retirement housing through federal financing programs in the 1950-60s.  To complete the cycle I was the guest of Sam Mitchell, a retired Canadian professor from Ottawa, who had inherited the place from an uncle, who had far outlived his father, my old friend and colleague, H. L. Mitchell, founder of the historic Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) in eastern Arkansas almost 100 years ago.

There were some brief moments over the last 100 years where it was not politic to victimize the poor and workers.  Reading the propositions of the bi-partisan Deficit Commission and its total assault on citizen wealth, if there was any doubt, it’s crystal clear that at least many of the blue ribbons on this commission think those times are long gone.  The headlines have focused on spending cuts and adjustments, but this is much, much more and much, much less, and I don’t say this because all of the adjustments are wrong.

Sitting with my view of Brooklyn, I could read the morning paper, the New York Times, and its chart on the cuts which mislabeled some of the most severe anti-poor attacks as “tax increases.”   I assume they mean revenue increases, since the point was to eliminate entitlements like the critical ones for working families and low income workers, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the child tax credit, both of which have long enjoyed total bipartisan support whether Clinton or the Bushes or Obama at the top.

They want to save $24 billion by freezing federal and non-combatant salaries for three years moving the concept of an “all voluntary” army bias to public workers without reckoning with the impact there on families, communities, or anything else.   In the same spirit this commission’s leaders argued for cutting social security benefits for retirees, and remember those of us who need social security the most are lower income workers without fancy salaries and benefit programs.  Reducing automatic cost of living increases also would guarantee that we impoverish senior citizens depending on social security for their subsistence living.  I hope Mexico is read for all of the undocumented seniors that will be swarming across the border looking for lower living costs.

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Bet on SEIU in West Coast Family Feud

SEIU LogoNew Orleans In about a month the biggest union election in 2010 will be counted once all of the mail ballots are in from over 40,000 Kaiser Permanente workers who are being polled.  Unfortunately this not another milestone of successful union organizing, but hopefully the final major battle in the intense and long standing, bloody war between SEIU and what is left of its breakaway dissident local of many names, but most recently United Healthcare West, old Local 250.  Elections even in the constrained settings undemocratic workplaces are never easy to predict, because when it’s all said and done, workers vote with their feet and they’ve been running all different directions at Kaiser in the last several years of this internecine war.  Nonetheless without talking to any insiders and without being privy to any internal voter assessments or polling from either side, I’m pretty confident that it’s not too early to declare SEIU the winner now, way before the votes are counted.

Here’s why I believe they will win:

  • Delays Always Favor the Company: This decertification election has been on and off too long to allow the challenger to maintain the momentum against the incumbent.  In regular organizing that means the company wins more than 2/3rds of the time that the election is over 60 days from the filing.  In this case the “company” is SEIU, and its ability to tie up the challenger means just on the numbers, before any work was done, if normal odds prevailed their chances of winning were at 2/3rds.
  • Change the Boss: One of the standard pages in any law firm or company side labor relations manual holds that when you are caught behind, it’s best to change the boss or whomever the workers see as responsible for the problem.  SEIU’s boss has changed.  In this very personal struggle between Sal Rosselli from Oakland and SEIU’s Andy Stern from DC, too much of the dissident’s campaign always presumed it was safe to individualize the attack and target Stern as the problem.  When Rosselli saw me in the Detroit hotel hallway and told me he had heard that Mary Kay Henry had the votes to become SEIU’s president, he chortled that it was “good news for the union, but bad news for me.”  Had Anna Burger, Andy’s longtime leadership partner prevailed in the board election, the dissidents would have easily just said “same ol’ same ol’” but in Henry the workers would see a new leader from California harder to brand with the problems in Stern’s legacy, yet someone who had fought Rosselli for 20 years and had been the losing candidate as Secretary-Treasurer to Rosselli’s winning slate when he took over Local 250 after that trusteeship.  I’m not saying that Stern left SEIU because of this election, but I will say that SEIU’s organizing expert, Tom Woodruff, has been in too many hard fought company/union elections, not to have calculated the impact on this election.

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Andy Stern and the Long Goodbye

Andystern(2)Washington As I made my way back from half-way across the world, I watched the story unfold even before leaving Mumbai of first reports that Andy Stern would resign as President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and then a message from him by the time that I arrived at Dulles that there was a “time to lead and a time to leave.” There seems to be rampant speculation about what all of this means for Stern, for SEIU, and for the labor movement. There should be concern at the White House and among the progressive forces as well. Labor union meetings and decision making is still a lot like watching for smoke to signal from the Vatican that a new Pope has been chosen (speaking of a “time to leave”), but the SEIU International Board is meeting in DC for a couple of days, and I’m sure this is occupying a lot of attention as the jockeying and elbowing about the present and future is in full earnest.

When Local 100 was part of SEIU, I served for 8 years on that board having been elected on Stern’s slate during his first two terms before stepping down largely to move the Wal-Mart organizing pilots.  I would not pretend to know what is on the agenda now and since Local 100 is no longer an affiliate of SEIU, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I wouldn’t pretend to be a fan of everything Andy has done, but that’s the nature of the beast, nonetheless, if I were still on the board, I would be rising to speak in favor of the long goodbye for Stern.

He’s made his announcement and would be technically a lame duck, but I wouldn’t worry about that within the SEIU culture.  Speculation that he is being forced out is ridiculous.  He may have had some folks knocking at his door in hopes for anointment, but the board is Andy’s board from SEIUs Puerto Rican convention less than 2 years ago, and there’s no pressure there for him to leave. His last couple of chapters may have been more fraught with conflict given the split from the AFL, which has accomplished so little, and the internal problems on the West Coast and with other former union allies in HERE, and there’s a big hit coming whenever the final chapters of the problems with Tyrone Freeman in Los Angeles hit the front pages, but this is a guy who added 1.2 million members under his watch to all of the locals sitting around the big tables in whatever hotel is hosting the meeting, and he was the architect for about ½ million as Organizing Director under John Sweeney before he became International President. The Greenhouse article in the Times and some of the other pieces make it look like he’s got legacy issues, but there are none inside SEIU. Andy could stay another dozen years probably before facing much real heat.

In SEIU he’s earned a long goodbye on his own terms. I’m not sure how the current rules work on a special election, but given what it took to unlodge Sweeney’s successor, it’s probably a quick turnaround.  Andy should serve out his term for another two years and help in the hand off transition, the Obama re-election, and and the thousand other things on the “want to do” list before he leaves. The successor might be a little fidgety, but given the polarization in American politics now, letting Andy be the lightening rod for some of that for another couple of years makes sense while the successor straps it up. Trumka waited forever at the AFL-CIO and had no problem commanding the new space, and might could have used a two year transition internally there even though he had been around the building for more than a dozen years.

We have few real leaders in labor, so no one should sweat the small stuff. Andy did the job and made a difference.  SEIU would be crazy not to keep him for every day they can. I would move the “long goodbye!”