SEIU Union President Interviewed By LA times
|Union boss acts locally, thinks globally
Andrew Stern, head of SEIU, says foreign as well as U.S. workers should share in employers' success.
By Molly Selvin, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 7, 2007
ANDREW STERN, MAYBE THE most powerful union boss in the country, doesn't always act the part.
As president of the Washington-based Service Employees International Union, Stern, 57, has attracted attention for standing with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Chief Executive H. Lee Scott Jr. and other corporate leaders, some of them decidedly anti-union, to push for a healthcare overhaul and for meeting with government officials in China in an effort to help improve working conditions there.
In Los Angeles and across the country, Stern has helped negotiate significant wage increases and benefits for janitors, nurses, security guards and others in the fast-growing service sector. Unlike most other unions, SEIU has grown -- to 1.9 million nationally -- in part by reaching out to low-wage and immigrant workers and with in-your-face tactics, including the Justice for Janitors walkout in Los Angeles 17 years ago.
The New Jersey native attended his first SEIU meeting in 1973 when he was a social worker, drawn by an offer of free pizza. Stern became union president in 1996. He was in Los Angeles last week to speak to the Asia Society.
.Union membership has continued to slide in recent decades. Why do you believe unions are still relevant?
People who don't have an organization tend to do worse than people who do. It's not just by chance that union workers who do the same job earn about 35% more than nonunion workers and are 50% more likely to have benefits and pensions. Unions just happen to work. They're able to distribute the success of a successful employer so it all doesn't go to the executive and the shareholders, so that the people who helped create it get a piece of their hard work.
.Why has SEIU grown while other unions have not?
I think most workers appreciate there are times
when you have to stand up for yourself but they also . . . want a union that can help them get the benefits they need to feel secure for themselves and their families and that building partnerships with their employers is a healthy phenomenon that's based on respect.
.What kind of partnerships?
I'm talking about appreciating that their employers live in a competitive environment and unions can't be an albatross around their competitive neck. We understand we need to organize whole industries or whole markets or whole sectors to not put union employers at a disadvantage. [Those] were some of the issues that obviously the auto workers faced in organizing only the Big Three and not the other new employers that came to America.
.You've said employer-based health insurance is an outmoded way of caring for workers and their families. What should replace it?
It's impossible to imagine how America is the only country on Earth that puts the price of healthcare on the cost of its products. It's just a stupid economic plan for the country. There are lots of people thinking of putting a public alternative into the mix. Obviously we have to figure out a financing scheme for whatever we do. . . . In California we're talking about a sliding scale of employer responsibility. We can move, as some other countries have, toward value-added taxes or other forms of revenue raisers to finance the entire healthcare system if we wanted to go that way. I think in the end we're going to have shared responsibility between employees, employers. There's going to be a marriage here.
.Why should American workers be concerned about worker rights in other countries?
Today, a worker in Los Angeles employed by Wackenhut is working for the same firm that is the largest private-sector employer in Africa. . . . What our members appreciate is that when you work for the same employer, whether they be in Africa, Florida or Sydney, Australia, you're stronger when you work together. Capital went global; trade went global; finance went global. It's impossible for unions to stay local or regional.
.But won't higher wages for workers abroad, particularly in manufacturing, make products more expensive for American consumers?
They may. Our problem in America is not the toys being made in China; it's the fact that the 99% of people who go to work every day [are] not getting their fair share. It's disproportionately going to the 1% of our economy. We have a distribution problem, not a jobs problem and not a China problem.
.Why is the Writers Guild strike significant?
The world's changing; there's a different way that [entertainment] companies are going to make money -- through DVDs, through the Internet. The question is, are the workers going to share in the new ways that companies are going to be successful? If they're not, they're going to be left in the old part of the industry. This really is the first significant 21st century strike. It's raising the issues, as work changes, about how prosperity is going to be shared. This is really a strike about mind work, not muscle work.
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