The New York Times Magazine gives all-too rare front-page coverage to Andy Stern’s push to reform the AFL-CIO:
”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 jobs.”
Good news is, the Times is highlighting something going on in the labor movement, and in a way that may challenge some of its readers’ conceptions of labor as so 19th-century. Bad news, as Nathan ably argues, is that Matt Bai insists on divorcing Stern from the larger movement he’s part of, framing him instead as a lone brave dissenter from a ubiquitous orthodoxy of inertia. As Nathan writes:
The author repeatedly refers to “union bosses”, the old cliche that tries to compare union leaders to corporate executives. Except a top union leader can’t fire members or force them to go on strike or approve a contract. It’s ultimately a phrase that is used to ignore the crucial difference in the role of workers in unions versus corporations: workers get a vote in a union. Yet nowhere in the piece is any internal life of unions acknowledged. In fact, in a massive piece, other unions’ leaders are mentioned but only one other union official in all of SEIU is mentioned, namely Anna Burger, who is described as Andy Stern’s “political aide”, ignoring her position as a separately elected top official of the union with a quite independent biography. Nowhere mentioned are key local SEIU leaders like Dennis Rivera, head of New York’s 200,000-member SEIU 1199, which is notoriously outside of the national office’s control, or Sal Roselli, leader of California’s nursing local…
Navel-gazing and blaming various union leaders for failures of the union movement is a daily parlour game among union activists. John Sweeney won election as AFL-CIO leader in 1995 centered on exactly such criticisms of business-as-usual in the union leadership. And serious changes were made. New resources were devoted to organizing, AFL-CIO foreign relations were completely remade, and a host of other changes were made. All Andy Stern is arguing is that not enough was done. But he’s continuing an argument that’s decades old, which is why other unions could easily contribute alternative proposals for change. Instead of emphasizing the substance of differences over where the labor movement needs to go, the magazine piece lazily sets up Tom Buffenbarger, leader of the Machinists union, as a stereotypical “old union” resister to change.