The current issue of Washingtonian magazine features a long, fairly in-depth interview with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andrew Stern, whom author Chris Lehmann describes as an unlikely “Washington insider,” who “is very much in the thick of power politics today.” Lehmann describes the controversies for which Stern has become notorious, including his access to the White House and conflicts with other labor leaders.
What makes this interview especially worth reading, however, is its account of Stern’s and SEIU’s role in the recent policy fight over health care, which the Obama administration — and its labor allies, including SEIU — won. As Lehmann notes, “Perhaps more than any other influence broker in Washington, he has thrown the fortunes of his constituency in with the effort to revamp the nation’s health-care system.” So committed was he to this goal, that he approached with in grand strategic fashion.
A 2007 press appearance touting health-care reform with then–Walmart CEO Lee Scott—complete with a phone-in appearance by Republican California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—sent Stern detractors into fulminations that would bewilder the Glenn Becks of the world. “The single biggest obstacle to single-payer health care in this country is Andy Stern,” Michael Lighty, policy director for the California Nurses Association—a union locked into one of the state’s organizing disputes with SEIU—told the Nation’s Liza Featherstone at the time.
The Walmart event was one in a series of Stern-backed conciliatory moves toward management that have jangled the nerves of the rank and file. Stern’s union has endorsed contracts with provisions that many rival leaders view contemptuously as giveaways to employers—securing minimal cost-of-living wage hikes in exchange for management pledges of noninterference with organizing drives. And at times Stern has come out in favor of key business-backed proposals—such as tort reform and charter schools—whose benefits to most wage workers are far from clear.
Building off the arguments he advanced in his 2006 book on globalization and the workplace, A Country That Works, Stern contends that labor leaders can’t simply shun strategic alliances with management.
“There’s a certain level of a relationship we need with employers besides just demonizing them,” he says. He cites the health-care fight as a case in point: “All I would say is that if today the pharmaceutical industry, the hospital industry, Walmart, and every big business was against health care, you could all go home and call this thing dead. But the truth is that people built coalitions with AARP and the Business Roundtable and Walmart, then kept an issue alive because it wasn’t completely politicized right from the beginning.”
Stern’s allies in the business world appreciate his more ecumenical approach to accommodating their interests. John Castellani, who heads the Business Roundtable, joined forces with Stern’s union as well as AARP and the National Federation of Independent Businesses in 2007 to spearhead the Divided We Fail coalition to keep the health-care issue in play before Congress.
As we now know, Stern’s strategy paid off. And while he and others on the left who wanted to see a “public option” health insurer directly run by government didn’t get everything they wanted, they still got plenty in the way of government expansion. That should be seen as part of an even bigger strategy of creating more opportunities for SEIU (and organized labor in general) to recruit new members, because government is the one sector of the American economy where unions’ organizing prospects look brightest. And they could look even brighter, if public sector unions bosses succeed in their efforts to expand the definition of “public” to include any service provider (such as for child care and home elder care) who receives any government assistance.
Just as troubling to those who value economic freedom should be business leaders’ readiness to meet leftists like Stern halfway in their government-expanding efforts, in the mistaken belief that the likes of SEIU will leave them alone well into the future. They will just eat them last.