Labor's New Lease on Life

After 50 of years of unity, the house of labor is divided again. On Monday, Service Employees International Union President Andrew Stern and Teamsters President James Hoffa announced that their unions would officially disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO and form their own labor federation.

Most conservatives and libertarians have been giddy about the prospect of an AFL-CIO breakup, hoping that the schism would diminish labor's power and influence. Many liberals are worried about the same thing. That might indeed happen, but a more likely outcome is that a new labor federation rivaling the AFL-CIO and led by Andy Stern will actually reinvigorate labor and move it into the 21st century.

Stern is a savvy leader who has a sophisticated grasp of the new economy and understands that, in order to survive, labor must be more than just an appendage of the Democratic Party. He envisions a new labor movement that takes a different approach to organizing and doesn't conform to old union stereotypes.

The decline of organized labor has been well-documented: In 1954, roughly one-third of the American workforce was unionized, compared to 12.5 percent today. The reason for the decline has to do with a variety of factors including globalization, free trade and the changing nature of the American work force. American labor unions haven't adapted to any of these circumstances.

A former social worker with an Ivy League education, Stern knows that the old union model won't work anymore. In Monday's press conference, he lambasted labor for its lack of forward-thinking.

"The labor movement has a way that looks to the future through the rear-view mirror," Stern said. "Our world has changed, our economy has changed, our employers have changed, but the AFL-CIO is not willing to make fundamental changes as well. SEIU has changed." He later added, "It's not the 1930s anymore."

Stern frequently talks about ways that unions can adapt and become more attractive for today's workers. In a recent speech at the PC Forum, a group of elite technology CEOs, he suggested that technology workers--not exactly the prototypical union audience--and management need to consider new ways to work together.

Instead of just criticizing corporations for outsourcing, Stern--as reported by the San Jose Mercury News--called for "creating income-replacement and retraining programs that are suitable for skilled high-tech workers who need to constantly reinvent themselves." He even mocked the old caricature of gruff union leaders by showing brief clips from movies like "On the Waterfront" and "Hoffa."

The speech was classic Stern--trying to downplay the old-union stereotype and play-up a new, fresh, dynamic approach to unions organizing and union growth.

Stern hasn't stopped at just questioning how unions organize. He has also called into question labor's long-time alliance with the Democratic Party.

In a revealing magazine article published this past January, Stern was quoted as saying that the economic policy of the Democratic Party "is basically being opposed to Republicans and protecting the New Deal. It makes me realize how vibrant the Republicans are in creating 21st-century ideas, and how sad it is that we're defending 60-year-old ideas.

Stern echoed that line of attack on an SEIU blog last year, writing, "I also agree that the labor movement has been too much of an appendage of the Democratic Party." Earlier this month, Stern shocked Beltway insiders by boldly declaring "We can't just elect Democratic politicians and try to take back the House and take back the Senate and think that's going to change workers' lives."

In May, he blasted unions' excessive spending on politics when he said, "I think over the last several years we've gotten more and more focused on politics and particularly on Democratic politics. And I don't think that's what will grow our labor movement stronger. I don't think it's the kind of strategy that can win."

It's not that Stern thinks labor needs to abandon the Democratic Party completely--far from it. But Stern correctly believes that the interests of rank-and-file union members are better served by organizing and rebuilding the labor movement, not acting as the Democratic Party's ATM.

To the extent that labor does play a role in politics, Stern's group might also be willing to give a little more to both parties. While still donating the vast majority of its money to Democrats last year, SEIU created shock waves when it donated $575,000 to the Republican Governors Association--making SEIU the largest contributor to the RGA, giving more than conservative stalwarts such as the National Rifle Association and American Gas Association.

Stern tried to downplay differences between his followers and those of the AFL-CIO during Monday's press conference. He said he hopes the new federation could "work together with the AFL-CIO on politics." But given all of his public criticisms, zeal for new ideas and contributions to the RGA, it's probable that his new federation will be more independent from the Democratic Party than the AFL-CIO is now.

An independent streak and willingness to take a risk are definitely part of Stern's fabric.

Those who have opposed him--most notably AFL-CIO President John Sweeney--bemoan that sort of thinking, claiming that labor needs to speak with one voice in times of decline.

Stern has turned that theory on its head. Forming a new federation will finally give the labor movement the competition that it desperately needs.

That might make Stern a radical in the eyes of his union friends, but it should alert those on the right that he is a real force to be reckoned with.

Bryan O'Keefe is a researcher at AEI.

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