Keynote Address to SEIU Convention by President Andrew L. Stern
Monday, June 21, 2004, San Francisco, CA
THANK YOU RONI, my Local 668 sister. For me, being a part of this union is
a gift. It allows us -- two rank-and-file state workers from Pennsylvania
-- to unite our strength with the strength of home care, hospital and
nursing home workers, janitors, public and security workers.
All of us alone are hard working but just ordinary people, but together we
offer each other the most extraordinary gift - a purple fighting union
called SEIU with the power every day to change people's lives. When we all
work together -we the once powerless magically transform each other into
the powerful. It is a gift - a gift we give to each other.
So first I thank all of you for the privilege to have led this incredible
For me it has been a dream come true. And if over the next few days you
hear lots of kind words and overly generous praise about me, remember those
kind words belong to each one of you. After 8 years as your President, I am
wise enough to understand that our union is a powerful force for change not
because of who I am but because of who I represent. So, take a second to
extend your hand - turn around and say hello and thanks for the gift we
give each other - SEIU.
Four years ago at the time of our Pittsburgh Convention, the sisters who
you heard from this morning - Patty and Clara and Martha and Ulawnda --
probably had no idea that SEIU's delegates were adopting a plan to build
new strength and new unity in their union. But the decisions we made in
Pittsburgh, and the course it set for our union, mattered. They mattered
for Patty. They mattered for Ulwanda, and they mattered for millions of
other workers seeking health care, better wages, or dignity on their job.
So as we convene this 23rd International Convention, don't get star struck
by the entertainers, politicians, and guests from around the world, and
don't be fooled by all the self-congratulation and celebration. We are here
to make big choices and consider historic sea changes for our members and
for this union. And it's your choices -- your decisions-that will matter!
Now, historically, that was not always true. For SEIU's first 60 years, our
conventions were about internal SEIU issues. They were basically family
affairs. The delegates to our 1st convention in 1921 were from 7 janitor
unions, and the convention's sole purpose was for those local union leaders
to create a new national union with a simple founding principle -- local
union independence and autonomy.
And it made sense -- for the times. Building owners were local. Politics
were local. Contractors were local. Bargaining was local and -- with no
airplanes or Internet -- solidarity was local as well.
For SEIU's first 60 years, the responsibility to change our member's
lives depended almost entirely on local unions. But when John Sweeney
became our 7th International president in 1980, our economy was changing,
our industries were changing, and our employers were changing from local to
national and even International in size.
In response to those changes, President Sweeney at the 1984 Convention had
the courage to propose a new framework for SEIU to keep local union
independence as a value but to rebalance the roles of locals and the
national union. Sweeney created new national industry divisions, national
organizing programs, and national staff, funded by the largest national per
capita tax increase in SEIU history.
By 1992, those changes helped put SEIU in the elite ranks of labor - one
million strong. In 1996, after John Sweeney left to become President of the
AFL-CIO, our convention delegates confronted a choice not only about who
headed SEIU -- but also and more importantly -- which way was SEIU headed.
We elected a new diverse leadership team and started to transform SEIU into
a more purple, militant, democratic, and organizing union. And we sure
made purple a hot color-right?
By our 2000 convention, a lot had happened. We had won the LA Justice for
Janitors strike, joined with 1199NY to become the health care workers
union, won recognition for 74,000 home care workers in the largest
organizing drive in modern history, and gained new agency shop,
anti-privatization, and collective bargaining rights for public workers.
As we arrived in Pittsburgh after such huge victories, SEIU had ascended to
a new level as we announced that we were the largest union in the AFL-CIO.
We had a lot to celebrate, and our union followed that announcement with a
resounding vote for the New Strength Unity plan. We restructured locals to
unite the power of our members who do the same type of work. We focused on
helping non-union workers add their strength to ours in whole companies,
whole markets, whole industries -- not just one employer or worksite at a time.
We became the largest union in Puerto Rico. We created a new national
structure with strong leadership in Canada, united our health care unions
in Ontario-and are now leading the bargaining in an historic struggle for
all public workers in Québec. We made purple a color that every politician
better recognize. We gained and maintained health care in our contracts,
made health care the issue in this U.S. presidential election, and made the
legalization of hardworking, taxpaying immigrants a national issue as
well. We saved public hospitals. Limited mandatory overtime. Stopped
privatization of schools. Won billions of dollars for quality public
services. Turned home care jobs into union jobs. Grew by 347,178 members.
Oh, and before I forget there is one more item to celebrate today. This
morning I learned that the Governor of Michigan has appointed the members
of the board which will allow 45,000 new homecare workers to join SEIU.
But that is only part of the story?
When you do the math, add those 45,000 members to the members gained in new
homecare contracts in NY and Fresno?add the new hospital workers from
Spokane and LA, the new nursing home workers from Ohio, Pa and NJ, and the
new public workers from Georgia, the result by the end of this year: SEIU
will have grown almost as much in the last 8 years as we did in the entire
75 years before and we will be 1.8 million members strong, a half million
more than any other North American union. Then by the next convention we
will shatter the 2 million member ceiling and become the largest union that
has ever existed in American labor history.
We have a lot to be proud of, but as we discussed yesterday, the world just
won't stop changing and the forces arrayed against us are now stronger,
larger, more aggressive, and more global than ever.
So at this convention we intend to challenge you to consider even more
fundamental and historic changes in our union. The local union independence
that once made sense in a more localized world needs to give way to a new
interdependence -- with new roles and responsibilities to achieve an old
goal: to improve the lives of our members and all working families.
What we're proposing to build is a new Circle of Strength. It's about 7
separate strengths - but interconnected - that we first build and then link
It starts with Industry Strength - long-term plans to create truly national
unions in each of our four divisions - hospitals, long-term care, public
service, and building service -- which yesterday you all signed pledges in
your Division to carry out.
So did you mean it? Are you ready to build Industry Strength?
To build industry strength we need National Strength. Today we are a
bookend union. Sixty percent of our US members are in just two states:
California and New York. Most states in the American South and Southwest
have no collective bargaining laws for public employees, while private
sector workers face "right to work for less" laws designed to make it
harder to build union strength. These states drag down pay and benefit
standards, export bad public policies, and provide key anti-union votes in
the US Congress.
At this convention, I will ask you to approve a United Strategy for
Strength - so members in other states can gain the power members now have
in NY and California, and so we can start building the new strength we need
in the South and the Southwest - until the day comes when every state is
colored in purple! Are you ready to build National Strength?
We know that even if we build strength in our industries and our nations,
no one union, including SEIU, can succeed as an isolated island of strength
in a non-union sea. As the largest union, it is our job to help rebuild
U.S. labor's strength.
Next June, the AFL-CIO will celebrate its 50th anniversary. At the time it
was established, one out of three workers in the U.S. was in a union. Each
union had a clear industry or sector focus that matched the structure of
work in the economy. Labor's industry strength was the vehicle for
millions to join the middle class. Private sector workers then used their
strength to win collective bargaining for public workers, and union wages
and benefits brought everyone up.
Today, with only 1 in 12 workers in the private sector in unions and less than
1 in 8 workers in unions overall, non-union wages in companies like
Wal-Mart are dragging everyone down.
Our employers have changed, our industries have changed, but the labor
movement's structure and culture have sadly stayed the same.
John Sweeney, a good man who devoted his life to our union, tried to
breathe new life into the AFL-CIO. But John Sweeney has proven that the
problem is not who captains the ship -- but that the ship was not built to
navigate the storms of the modern world.
The unions of the AFL-CIO contain thousands of hardworking, dedicated
unionists. But the AFL-CIO is a loose trade association of 65 separate and
autonomous unions, instead of a strong, united organization.
It's a structure that divides workers' strength by allowing each union to
organize in any industry, then bargain on their own -- even when workers
share common employers.
It has no enforceable standards to stop a union from conspiring with
employers to keep another stronger union out -- or from negotiating
contracts with lower pay and standards than members of another union have
spent a lifetime establishing. And as it is set up today, I believe, it
has no hope of uniting the 90 percent of workers who have no union at all.
Within SEIU, when our own policies, traditions, or the interests of
individual leaders kept workers from uniting their strength -- we changed
them. And, sisters and brothers, it is time and it is so long overdue that
we join with our union allies and either transform the AFL-CIO -- or build
something stronger that can really change workers' lives. Are you ready to
build new Labor Strength? [emphasis added]
One more reason that the labor movement needs an overhaul is that it was
not set up to deal with today's global economy or growing global
companies. Today's global corporations have no permanent home, recognize
no national borders, salute no flag but their own corporate logo, and take
their money to anywhere where they can make the most - and pay the least.
Maybe you've heard of the multiservice outsourcing industry or know the
industry's largest companies, Sodexho -- based in France, operating in 76
countries; Compass -- based in Great Britain, operating in 90 countries;
and Aramark, now based in the U.S. but already operating in 19 countries
around the world.
Today, these three companies employ 1.1 million workers and are growing so
fast in cleaning, food service, laundry, transportation, maintenance and
anything else that can be contracted out in schools, universities,
government, office buildings, hospitals and nursing homes that in a few
years they will overtake Wal-Mart in size.
Does anybody here have jobs in your local union that could be contracted
out to companies like this? Let me see a show of hands.
These three global service companies - they are our "WalMart."
And they are not the only signs of globalization knocking on our door.
The two largest security companies in North America -- Securitas and Group
4 -- are based in Sweden and Denmark.
Two of the three largest school bus companies that are spearheading
privatization of public sector jobs in the U.S. are based in Great Britain.
Building service members work in buildings owned by global financial
interests and foreign pension funds.
A global challenge requires a global strategy.
So today I am asking you, SEIU's 21st century leaders, to decide to go
where no union has ever gone before -- to authorize SEIU to pursue
alliances that will build the first truly global union in world history?.a
global union with the strength to win global agreements from global
employers, and unite workers who do the same type of work whether in
Albany, NY or Adelaide, Australia; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan or Stockholm,
Sweden; San Juan, Puerto Rico or Sao Paulo, Brazil.
To our union allies who are here from around the world, I ask that we join
forces to learn from each other and replace old, outdated, weak
International relationships with real strategies and real unity.
And today I send this message to every emerging global corporation:
"justice; family, community, and union" are the same in every language --
and wherever you go and whatever you do, a new global labor movement is
coming to find you.
As for Wal-Mart, at this convention I am asking you to help create a new
global campaign-Wal-Mart. No Bargain! -- that explains to the world that
Wal-Mart's low prices cost too much - they cost workers too much, and small
businesses, communities, and nations too much.
Wal-Mart is leading the way in corporations' drive to lower pay and benefit
standards everywhere - and we, for our part, must help lead the worldwide
fight for justice. So I will be asking you to make a 1 million dollar
investment from SEIU to start up a new network of workers and communities,
united to bring Wal-Mart's standards up instead of bringing everyone else's
down. Are we ready to build Global Strength?
Uniting the labor movement in our own countries and around the world is
important, but even if we do that, we still can't do the job alone. We
also need the community strength that comes from alliances with the people
our members serve every day and with organizations that share our goals.
At this convention, you will be asked to approve a report of our Social and
Economic Justice Committee to strengthen our work in our communities with a
focus on two core issues that affect us all. First, the right of all
Americans to have what our Canadian sisters and brothers enjoy -- quality,
affordable health care for all - and second, a pathway to legalization for
all hardworking, taxpaying immigrants.
We also need to draw strength from the new forms of "community" that are
developing because of the Internet - which is connecting millions of people
who want to take action and get involved. We need those people to be part
of our movement So I am asking you to authorize SEIU to create Purple
Ocean, the world's first "open source," virtual union -- with a goal of
uniting one million more people who want to join our campaigns for justice.
Between our Internet linked community and our current members and community
allies, we're going to build the biggest movement for social and economic
justice the world has ever seen. Are you ready to build Community Strength?
Building all these strengths is a huge job, and it will only happen if we
dramatically increase the number of members and leaders involved in every
local union. To build local union strength, we must greatly expand our
leadership development program to train, mentor, and open doors for
everyone to grow and step up to new roles. We are asking you to create the
SEIU Institute for Change to help all our locals retool for the 21st
century and make sure that our union draws on the richness and diversity of
our experiences and trains the next generation of leaders of our union.
So I ask you, are you and your local unions ready to open new doors and
help everyone walk through them so we can build Local Union Strength?
I know that you are ready for the last piece of our Circle of Strength -
building the strength of working people in politics -- because without
political strength most of our goals are impossible.
At our convention 8 years ago we adopted a plan for political action based
not on Democrats or Republicans or left and right but on right and wrong.
This year, our purple political army led by 2,004 full-time "Heroes,"
backed up by 50,000 purple volunteers, is the largest mobilization by any
single organization in the history of American politics. Let's hear it for
our Heroes - Would you please stand?
Thank you. You know, as proud as we all are of our political work, there is
still one key missing link: how to hold our public officials accountable to
us - to working people. Too many politicians are after our vote the day
before the election -- and after our throat the day after, and they think
we can't do anything about it.
So I am asking you at this convention to set up a new political action fund
to be used solely for two purposes. First, to support elected officials
who our members say have shown unusual courage in standing up for working
people. And second, to take those who looked us in the eye and said they
were for us -- but then went out and betrayed us -- it's time, no matter
who they are or what party they come from, to pay them back. Whether it is
exposing them publicly in their districts, or finding and supporting a
worthy opponent for them, we want to make sure they hear the new SEIU
accountability theme song, "Hit the road, Jack, and don't ya come back no
more." [song plays]
So that's the Circle of Strength. You must now decide whether to build it.
When you look at it and all the historic challenges before us, I'm sure
some of you join me in wishing we could go back -- back to the days when
unity in your local union was enough to win better contracts with a local
employer, or when a single local union could elect the politicians that
affected their jobs. Back to a slower time without global communications
when our bosses were down the street and not in London or Paris, and when
jobs in public service and health care were secure and not targeted for
outsourcing and benefit cutting. But we all know that world is gone - it's
gone forever -- and any organization that fails to adapt will be gone
forever as well.
So at this convention our choices really matter. Over the next 3 days, we
have a chance to make changes that will help working people win -- not just
in our union but around the world. We can bring to earth a new world from
the ashes of the old because our union transforms us -- the powerless --
into the powerful. And I ask you to join together in using all that power
- all that strength -- to make the dreams of all workers and communities
around the world come true.
And if not us, then who?
And if not now, then when?