First Impressions from Conference Call with SEIU President Andy Stern
The call began in earnest with Mr. Stern giving a few opening remarks principally addressing a central concern of his, which is the income inequality in the United States and the relationship between closing the widening income gap and the effectiveness and pervasiveness of unionism in the country. He is, of course, correct that income inequality is a serious problem: after the disparity between the wealthiest and poorest Americans peaked in the year 2000, the income share of the top one percent of Americans again hit a high in 2006, matching its 1929 level. Going even further with the point, while median income in the United States has risen a paltry 17 percent since 1980, income of the top 0.1 percent (that's one-tenth of a percent) has quadrupled; and to continue hammering on the matter, according to Harper's Index, the percentage of people living at or below half of the federal poverty level has jumped 32 percent since 2000.
Point taken: income inequality is large and growing in the United States. Andy Stern believes that unions are part of the solution, but he also holds that the federal government must support workers, and politicians must be more responsive to their concernsprojected, at least to some extent, through union representationand less accountable to corporations and their executive interests which benefit so greatly from this ever-increasing income disparity.
To that extent, the last question I asked Mr. Stern was whether or not he would support my idea of a President-appointed Labor Czar to oversee labor issues in the United States. It is one thing to promote new lawsand I argued that we have quite a substrate, old as it is, of pro-labor law in this countrybut it is quite another to bring under the authoritative portfolio of one federal official the mass of wide-ranging, unequally enforced regulatory infrastructure that turns those labor laws into real action at the level of workers and their workplaces. Mr. Stern, if I may be so bold as to state this, agreed: he suggested a position from the Office of the Vice President, an idea I think has merit, given that OVP has acquired under Vice President Dick Cheney substantial power that is largely robust to Congress and even the President.
Returning to the earlier part of the conference call, Mr. Stern fairly thoroughly (given the time frame in which we were operating) responded to my question concerning the erosion of union power in the United States. It is his contention, to quote him, "Let workers make their own choice." In other words, removing barriers to unionization efforts is the best way to ensure that workers will make the choice that it is in their own best interest. To the extent that unions have lost the esteem of American workers, Mr. Stern made the pithy comment, "The best way to change your image is to change reality."
I had a chance to plug Part Two of my series, "The Economics of Wreckage," wherein I graphically demonstrated (indeed, I virtually flogged) the point that the erosion of real wages in this country is not something that has suddenly occurred under the Bush Administration; it is, instead, a decades-long phenomenon that I did my best to show was the result of sustained neo-Keynesian policy: as long as the average price level rises at a rate faster than that of workers' wages and salaries, those people have to work harderthat is, continually increase their productivityin order to maintain their standard of living. My graphs clearly, unarguably show that this is exactly what has been going on for years and years: average wages have unquestionably lagged overall price increases, and that's why productivity has been going up while wages, themselves, have never actually made any inflation-adjusted headway.
I'm not sure I fully understood that Mr. Stern had addressed this point in his opening remarks and in responses to questions before mine. He is surprisingly mindful of the do-nothing Congress of the present era, describing policy as "hopeless, clueless, and planless," but he is also knowledgeable of the long-term problem that this economy does not reward the common workers nearly as much as it does the executives of corporations and the generally wealthy. He believes that part of the answer, although not a panacea, is essential change in tax policy as well as legislative action that strengthens the hand of unions in bargaining for better wages and benefits.
Mr. Stern seems to be of two minds insofar as the current Congress is concerned. He charitably notes, perhaps reasonably, that the Democrats' "skills are a little rusty," which goes to some length in explaining why they have been so unable to wrest control of the legislative agenda from the minority Republicans, especially in the U.S. Senate. On the other hand, he distinguishes between the many Democrats on the Hill who show little initiative and those like Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) who are far more forward-leaning not just in their rhetoric, but also in their legislative agenda.
I should at this juncture suspend further attempts to sort through my notes on the conference call and allow the transcript, which will be published Monday, to speak for itself. In summary, it was more interesting than I had expected: the SEIU president's answers were framed to stay on-point, but he was extemporaneously able to field a variety of questions dealing with everything from immigration to education. Whether or not he is, as SEIU promotional literature asserts, a new kind of labor leader remains to be seen in the years ahead. For my own part, I would be delighted just to see an old kind of labor leader make a comeback.
Then again, I'm sort of a romantic when it comes to the occasional knock-down, drag-out fight between strike-breaking corporate thugs and union guys on a picket line.
The Dark Wraith looks back fondly on a by-gone era.
Friday Teleconference Questions for SEIU President Andy Stern
My first of three questions to you Mr. Stern, has to do with the erosion of union strength: in numbers, in composition, in political support, and in judicial consideration, organized labor has waned considerably as a force in the architecture of American society, and this has occurred over a long period of time. Arguably, the decline had its roots in the years immediately following World War II, when the country turned to the political right, with anti-labor hallmarks that included the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947 and the damaging accusations of communist infiltration leveled against unions in the 1950s. Furthermore, President Ronald Reagan's brute-force approach in dealing with PATCO in 1981 was effectively a declaration of war by the United States government on any union that dared cross it, and this ultimately emboldened both corporations and the judiciary in a long-term shift in the balance of power between a government-corporate alliance on the one hand and unions on the other.
The rate of union membership has been in a long-term decline, falling from 20.1 percent in 1983 to a current level of about 12 percent. (The erosion of the membership base actually goes back clear to the 1950s, though). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, government employees have a rate of union membership of more than 36 percent versus private sector union membership rate of 7.4 percent, meaning that unionization is almost five times as high in the sector of the economy where the ability of unions to project their most effective bargaining tools, those involving work-related actions, are at their weakest. Furthermore, in terms of composition, union membership stands at an overall rate of 13 percent, but for women, at only 10.9 percent, meaning that those who are the most likely to be the victims of wage suppression and, indeed, discrimination are about 15 percent less likely to be directly represented at the bargaining table, even though they are more represented in the service sector: the problem is that this is the sector where wages are historically quite low and most likely to lag overall inflation.
My question to you is simple: In your judgment, how can the erosion of union membership rates, the disparity in union representation, and the long-term political hostility to unions in this country be turned around; and what, specifically, is your plan to contribute to this much-needed effort?
My second question involves my experience as a college teacher. I am simply stunned by the lack of knowledge students have of the history of labor movements in the United States. This is not merely a matter of minor gaps in knowledge of names and dates; this is, instead, a thorough absence of any grasp whatsoever of organized labor activities and the battles that have been fought in the streets, in the halls of power, and in the courts. There is little chance, in my informed judgment, of making this nation's electorate receptive to pro-labor legislation, and more fundamentally, to a pro-labor orientation, if we are producing one generation after another that has no sense of history in this regard.
The only way to rectify this is through a concerted, sustained, comprehensive program of support for education initiatives in primary and secondary schools to get the message across; and not just once, but over and over again through deep infusion into students' minds that the American experience is very much the labor experience, and that those kids to whom we are telling the story of labor are, themselves, going to grow up to be part of a workforce in which a fundamental, irreconcilable adversarialism will always exist between what they need and deserve as their just compensation for their labor and what their employers will want to grant them.
My question to you is this: How do you see the Service Employees International Union, specifically, and unions in this country, generally, addressing the need to foster a pro-labor, pro-union attitude in America's youth in the years when they would be most receptive to the development of such attitudes as part of their educational experience?
My third and final question to you concerns healthcare. Without going into the fatiguing and overwhelming statistics on the multi-dimensional challenge facing the United States in the coming decades with respect to dealing with spiraling healthcare costs, a graying population, and a government already facing out-years budget deficits of staggering proportions, let me focus on the role of labor unions in crafting a workable, if difficult, model. Consistent with my own suspicion of sweeping, comprehensive solutions, especially ones that involve a government that can turn on a dime from beneficent to brutish, it seems to me that the internationalization of unions, especially an internationalization into countries with younger labor forces that could make healthcare plans actuarially very sound, would be a powerful tool for union recruiting in the United States, as well as a way to make labor standards in other countries, particularly those in developing nations, far better than they are now. Offering Americans a more sound, more secure healthcare coverage basis (with, perhaps, an umbrella provided by the federal government) would attract dues-paying workers here at home; bringing higher labor standards to other countries would afford workers there a better life; and globalization of labor unions would make them politically more robust to the particulars of any given government in any given country and could, in fact, become a bulwark against tyranny. As grand as all of that sounds, I would submit that, unless unions in the United States are willing to reach out, take control of the labor side of globalization, and use it to their advantage for their members, then that globalization is going to remain in the exclusive control of corporate interests and the governments bought and paid for by those anti-worker interests.
What are your thoughts on this?
Again, the Dark Wraith will publish a follow-up post, which will include the substantial elements of Mr. Stern's responses.