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NY Times Magazine, January 30, 2005
The New Boss

PURPLE IS THE color of Andrew Stern's life. He wears, almost exclusively,
purple shirts, purple jackets and purple caps. He carries a purple duffel
bag and drinks bottled water with a purple label, emblazoned with the
purple logo of the Service Employees International Union, of which Stern is
president. There are union halls in America where a man could get himself
hurt wearing a lilac shirt, but the S.E.I.U. is a different kind of union,
rooted in the new service economy. Its members aren't truck drivers or
assembly-line workers but janitors and nurses and home health care aides,
roughly a third of whom are black, Asian or Latino. While the old-line
industrial unions have been shrinking every year, Stern's union has been
organizing low-wage workers, many of whom have never belonged to a union,
at a torrid pace, to the point where the S.E.I.U. is now the largest and
fastest-growing trade union in North America. Once a movement of rust brown
and steel gray, Big Labor is increasingly represented, at rallies and
political conventions, by a rising sea of purple.

All of this makes Andy Stern -- a charismatic 54-year-old former
social-service worker -- a very powerful man in labor, and also in
Democratic politics. The job of running a union in America, even the
biggest union around, isn't what it once was. The age of automation and
globalization, with its "race to the bottom" among companies searching
for lower wages overseas, has savaged organized labor. Fifty years ago, a
third of workers in the United States carried union cards in their wallets;
now it's barely one in 10. An estimated 21 million service-industry workers
have never belonged to a union, and between most employers' antipathy to
unions and federal laws that discourage workers from demanding one, chances
are that the vast majority of them never will.

Over the years, union bosses have grown comfortable blaming everyone else
-- timid politicians, corrupt C.E.O.'s, greedy shareholders -- for their
inexorable decline. But last year, Andy Stern did something heretical: he
started pointing the finger back at his fellow union leaders. Of course
workers had been punished by forces outside their control, Stern said. But
what had big labor done to adapt? Union bosses, Stern scolded, had been too
busy flying around with senators and riding around in chauffeur-driven cars
to figure out how to counter the effects of globalization, which have cost
millions of Americans their jobs and their pensions. Faced with declining
union rolls, the bosses made things worse by raiding one another's
industries, which only diluted the power of their workers. The nation's
flight attendants, for instance, are now divided among several different
unions, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to wield any
leverage over an entire industry.

Stern put the union movement's eroding stature in business terms: if any
other $6.5 billion corporation had insisted on clinging to the same
decades-old business plan despite losing customers every year, its
executives would have been fired long ago.

"Our movement is going out of existence, and yet too many labor leaders go
and shake their heads and say they'll do something, and then they go back
and do the same thing the next day," Stern told me recently. He is a lean,
compact man with thinning white hair, and when he reclines in the purple
chair in his Washington office and crosses one leg over the other, he could
easily pass for a psychiatrist or a math professor. He added, "I don't
have a lot of time to mince words, because I don't think workers in our
country have a lot of time left if we don't change."

A week after the election in November, Stern delivered a proposal to the
A.F.L.-C.I.O. that sounded more like an ultimatum. He demanded that the
federation, the umbrella organization of the labor movement, embrace a
top-to-bottom reform, beginning with a plan to merge its 58 unions into 20,
for the purpose of consolidating power. If the other bosses wouldn't budge,
Stern threatened to take his 1.8 million members and bolt the federation --
effectively blowing up the A.F.L.-C.I.O. on the eve of its 50th
anniversary. Stern's critics say all of this is simply an excuse to grab
power. "What Andy's doing now with his compadres is what Vladimir Putin is
trying to do to the former Communist bloc countries," says Tom
Buffenbarger, president of the union that represents machinists and
aerospace workers. "He's trying to implement dictatorial rule."

Stern says he is done caring what the other bosses think. "If I don't have
the courage to do what my members put me here to do, then how do I ask a
janitor or a child-care worker to go in and see a private-sector employer
and say, 'We want to have a union in this place'?" Stern asks. "What's my
risk? That some people won't like me? Their risk is that they lose their

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/30/magazine/30STERN.html

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