(Today we're joined by SEIU President Andy Stern, author of A Country That Works, in the comments. Please stop by and welcome him — JH)
Good afternoon. This is Jordan Barab. I'll be hosting today's FDL Book Salon. It's a pleasure to spend this Sunday with Firedoglake readers and particularly with the author of A Country That Works, Andy Stern, discussing one of the most interesting and challenging books I've read in a long time. Of course, for me, that's not saying much. As the main blogger at Confined Space , I rarely have time to read real books. So when Jane asked me to host this Book Salon, I was happy to be forced to read an entire book, particularly this one.
Most Americans had probably never heard of Andy Stern, President of the Service Employees International Union, until he threatened to break up the AFL-CIO, the federation of American unions that everyone has heard of. And, as Andy admits in his book, A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track , the press loves stories full of conflict, strong and heroic personalities fighting the good fight, drama, betrayal, tragedy, promise, hope. Even the blogosphere, generally favorable to labor (while ignoring all but the biggest labor issues), began to pay attention. Josh Marshall's TPM Cafe even launched a "House of Labor" section.
The media portrayed the split as a battle between the young dynamic Andy Stern, impatient with labor's fading numbers and influence, and the old fogies led by John Sweeney, who were happy to be lords over all they could see, but weren't paying sufficient attention to the fact that their domains (and influence) were rapidly shrinking into irrelevance. It was portrayed as a fight between those who thought priority should be given to organizing over those who thought priority should be given to politics. Of course, in reality, it wasn't anything that simple.
Despite all of the media attention throughout the summer of '95, once Stern led the Service Employees International Union out of the AFL-CIO, along with the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE-HERE, the Farmworkers, and the Laborers to form Change To Win (along with the Carpenters who had left the federation previously), interest generally died. Even the TPM Cafe's House of Labor faded away.
Personally, although Andy's organizing programs were quite exciting, I wasn't completely sure what I thought of his crusade to save the labor movement by dividing it. I had first med Andy Stern in the late 1970's when I was organizing a labor-sponsored anti-nuclear demonstration in Harrisburg, PA following the Three Mile Island near-disaster. Even then, as President of the Pennsylvania Social Service Employees Union, an SEIU affiliate in Harrisburg, he was pushing the labor envelope by providing major support for our efforts, including an occasional couch to sleep on. Opposing nuclear power was a rather brave stand for a labor leader. The building trades unions were fiercely pro-nuclear and not afraid to demonstrate that to unions like PSSU who strayed from the line. I followed Andy's move to head SEIU's organizing department in Washington DC under then-SEIU President John Sweeney, and then is rise to the top of the union when Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO in 1995. (more…)