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?


Union-backed Walmart and McDonalds’ Campaigns Face Uncertain Futures

DSC_6745New Orleans    The emperor with no clothes is not a pretty sight, and it’s almost as bad when the finger pointing at him is Dave Jamieson, a labor reporter for the Huffington Post in a piece entitled “Labor Groups are Taking on Walmart and McDonalds. But Who Will Fund the Fight?” I don’t have anything against him or the Huff Post, but this was a story we knew would be coming, the only surprise might be that it took so long to get here, and it still seems to catch us unprepared with our pants around our ankles.

The trigger for this tale is the annual meeting of Walmart gearing up in Bentonville, which has also become an annual action by organizations trying to force one of the world’s largest retailers to more accountability and better practices and standards for its workers. This year OUR Walmart is once again on the scene, but now divorced from its supporter and financier, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and trying to go on its own. A decade ago, UFCW did much the same thing with a competing effort called WakeUp Walmart not so much as to organize but to keep their brand and jurisdictional claims alive and compete with the SEIU-backed WalmartWatch and the multi-union effort we ran to prove that Walmart workers could be organized in Florida and to establish that we could stop their expansion with aggressive work and community allies both in the US and India. New leadership at UFCW jettisoned the program support for OUR Walmart leaving them trying to keep the flame alive, all of which seems terribly reminiscent of our earlier efforts.

Jamieson asks the simple question no one likes to hear in public about the viability of OUR Walmart and the sustainability of its effort without a deep-pocketed sponsor. He raises the same question about the multi-year expenditure that SEIU has made to organize McDonalds in companion with its support of the Fight for $15 campaign. SEIU has been resolute in its commitment to these efforts. Both campaigns can claim significant victories. Walmart did move on wages at the bottom. Not to $15 per hour but up to $10 across the board at a cost of billions. SEIU has seen dividends from its Fight for $15 in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles and in states like California and New York where it has significant membership, so they can claim some success from their advocacy. McDonalds does not seem to have moved any closer to the union than Walmart has moved towards UFCW, though closer observers with better information than I have claim that SEIU’s strategy is global, is sound, and may still yield significant organizational victories as well.

And, that’s the rub. Unions are not foundations. They have to eventually see members and dues or some direct benefit from the expenditure of dues or the reaction will be predictable, just as is was with UFCW’s leadership change. And, when it comes to funding, foundations are not a substitute for workers and their dues or workers and their unions. Foundations will shine a bright penny for a minute, but they will never double down to the level needed to get to scale in fighting giant enterprises like either of these companies.

Can OUR Walmart create a real workers’ movement at the giant retailer with a strategy that produces sufficient organization and membership that will finance a long struggle? It’s possible, we proved that in Florida, but that’s a 10, 20 or 30 year project, and would represent the life work and sacrifice of many to survive, and, even surviving, would, having proven the concept, still need support at some point to get to scale. The same transition will need to occur in the McDonalds’ campaign, but hopefully with the continuity of SEIU’s support and assistance.

No one else is going to finance these struggles without workers carrying a huge part of the weight. The publicity is great, but smoke and mirrors is not organizing. David Rolf of SEIU’s big Washington State local, was quoted as saying, “The old model has failed several generations … We should encourage these experiments, but we shouldn’t romanticize it. We still haven’t figured this out.” Certainly, he’s right, but his remarks must seem gratuitous to organizers and workers deep in the struggle. OUR Walmart has proven that the day of reckoning for such experiments comes quickly, so the time for figuring it all out for all of these organizing projects remains now, before it’s too late.


Please enjoy Beck’s Wow. Thanks to KABF.