operation management

| December 10, 2015

Reshaping the Union to Save the Union

Andrew Stern, president of the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has been a labor activist and innovator for more than 30 years. His commitment to the labor cause underwent a renewal after the unexpected death of his 13-year-old daughter Cassie in 2002. After Cassie passed away of complications from spinal surgery, Stern realized that something in him had awakened.

%u201CCassie gave me the courage to have the voice,%u201D he explains. He started speaking more forcefully, and openly. %u201CI lost a lot of my concern about what people thought of me,%u201D he says. %u201CMy greatest fear,%u201D Stern says, %u201Cis not having the courage to take on a fight, whether it%u2019s the labor movement, the Democratic Party, or anybody else that stands in the way of workers doing well.%u201D After Cassie%u2019s death, the question taunted him: %u201CWhat am I so scared about?%u201D

Stern took his revolution into the leadership of the giant AFL-CIO. He wanted the federation to merge some of its small unions with larger ones. Stern also wanted to recruit more aggressively and across entire sectors, not just at individual workplaces. He wanted to work with businesses in labor negotiations by reducing their fears of being undercut by competing workplaces. He believed that the AFL-CIO could do it because his own union had done it. Membership in the SEIU has tripled since the 1980s to 1.8 million.

Then in 2005, he stunned the American labor movement when he led the SEIU and six other unions to defect from the AFL-CIO. Stern effectively split the union in two, peeling off about 40% of its membership.

Unlike the typical union boss, Stern understands the economics of globalization. He believes that it is necessary to take the labor movement far beyond the workplace. Stern believes that the labor union model built in the 1930s is failing. %u201CDo we try to revive that model?%u201D he asks, %u201COr do we say, %u2018The economy is different now, and workers need different kinds of organizations?%u2019%u201D

According to Stern, labor has slipped into a form of economic Darwinism. He feels that the global economy has made things worse, with multinationals competing to find the cheapest labor, minus unions%u2014what he refers to as the %u201CWal-Mart effect.%u201D For workers to thrive, big labor has to act as big businesses does; go global, recruit without borders, unionize workers across entire economic sectors.

He even had a model for the new workers%u2019 organization: the AARP. He envisions a new national membership and advocacy organization for millions of working people having the clout in Washington that AARP does now. A labor group like that could be very appealing to the 92% of private-sector workers who have no interest in traditional bargaining, but still worry about losing their jobs.

Surveys show that Americans want unions but are afraid their employers will retaliate, including illegally firing organizers for their activities. Workers, Stern says, are devalued, and he is trying to change the way Americans view labor and the economy as a whole.

Why are companies afraid of unions? Why have unions been successful in the past? Are unions still effective today?

How can unorganized workers today find common ground in organizing causes like the union organizations of the past? Can newer versions of unions work today?

Have you ever worked for an organization and were asked to join the union? If so, what was your experience? Was it worth the time and money being in the union?

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