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?

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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 www.chieforganizer.org) 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.

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