All of this makes Andy Stern -- a charismatic 54-year-old former social-service worker -- a very powerful man in labor, and also in Democratic politics. The job of running a union in America, even the biggest union around, isn't what it once was. The age of automation and globalization, with its ''race to the bottom'' among companies searching for lower wages overseas, has savaged organized labor. Fifty years ago, a third of workers in the United States carried union cards in their wallets; now it's barely one in 10. An estimated 21 million service-industry workers have never belonged to a union, and between most employers' antipathy to unions and federal laws that discourage workers from demanding one, chances are that the vast majority of them never will.
Over the years, union bosses have grown comfortable blaming everyone else -- timid politicians, corrupt C.E.O.'s, greedy shareholders -- for their inexorable decline. But last year, Andy Stern did something heretical: he started pointing the finger back at his fellow union leaders. Of course workers had been punished by forces outside their control, Stern said. But what had big labor done to adapt? Union bosses, Stern scolded, had been too busy flying around with senators and riding around in chauffeur-driven cars to figure out how to counter the effects of globalization, which have cost millions of Americans their jobs and their pensions. Faced with declining union rolls, the bosses made things worse by raiding one another's industries, which only diluted the power of their workers. The nation's flight attendants, for instance, are now divided among several different unions, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to wield any leverage over an entire industry.
Stern put the union movement's eroding stature in business terms: if any other $6.5 billion corporation had insisted on clinging to the same decades-old business plan despite losing customers every year, its executives would have been fired long ago.
''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.''
The implications of Stern's crusade stretch well beyond the narrow world of organized labor and into the heart of the nation's politics. The stale and paralyzed political dialogue in Washington right now is a direct result of the deterioration of industrial America, followed by the rise of the Wal-Mart economy. Lacking any real solutions to the growing anxiety of working-class families, the two parties have instead become entrenched in a cynical battle over who or what is at fault. Republicans have made an art form of blaming the declining fortunes of the middle class on taxes and social programs; if government would simply get out of the way, they suggest, businesses would magically provide all the well-paying jobs we need. Democrats, meanwhile, cling to the mythology of the factory age, blaming Republican greed and ''Benedict Arnold C.E.O.'s'' -- to use John Kerry's phrase -- for the historical shift toward globalization; if only Washington would close a few tax loopholes, they seem to be saying, the American worker could again live happily in 1950.
the last place you might expect to find a more thoughtful and compelling vision
for the global age is in the fossilized, dogmatic leadership of organized
labor. But Andy Stern is a different kind of labor chief. He intends to create
a new, more dynamic kind of movement around the workers of the 21st century.
And if some old friends in labor and the Democratic Party get their feelings
hurt in the process, that's all right with him.
The Old Boss
Earlier this month, Tom Buffenbarger invited me down to the machinists' union's training facility on the Patuxent River in southern Maryland, about a 90-minute drive from Washington. The little campus features 87 hotel rooms, a library, a theater and a dockside dining room. There was no training going on that week, and as I wandered the empty halls, I peered into glass cases containing some of the products made by the heavy-machine operators and plant workers who make up much of the union's rank and file: a parking meter, aluminum soda cans, a Winchester rifle, a box of animal crackers. There were black-and-white photos of the union's past presidents with Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey and Ted Kennedy. I glimpsed an exhibit meant to celebrate what the machinists apparently considered a triumphant moment: the Eastern Airlines strike that began in 1989 and ended, two years later, with the destruction of the company. It was as if I had wandered into the industrial economy's version of Jurassic Park: ''Welcome to Laborland, U.S.A., and please be careful -- there are actual union leaders wandering around.''
At its zenith, in 1969, the machinists' union was about a million strong, but that was before robots supplanted assembly-line workers and Chinese factories began replacing a lot of American plants. The union now has some 380,000 active, dues-paying members. Buffenbarger told me that the union had lost more than 100,000 members in the last four years alone -- members whose jobs were eliminated or moved overseas -- for which he placed the blame squarely on free-trade deals and the Bush administration. Buffenbarger looks like what you would probably imagine a union boss to look like. He is a big, fleshy man with a bald crown and ursine hands. He began his career, decades ago, as a tool-and-dye apprentice. Now he flies around in the union's very own Lear jet. ''We couldn't do what we do without it,'' he explained unapologetically.
Buffenbarger said that Andy Stern is wrong in his central point about the labor movement: in fact, unions have as much power as ever. The problem, as Buffenbarger sees it, is one of public relations and messaging. All the unions need to do to reverse their fortunes, Buffenbarger said, is to speak up louder. To that end, Buffenbarger has proposed that the A.F.L.-C.I.O. spend $188 million to create, among other things, a Labor News Network on cable TV. ''There is no bigger organization than the collective labor movement,'' he told me. ''Even the N.R.A. doesn't have 13 million members. But they act like they do, and I think that's where we fall down. We need to act like we do.''
In a speech earlier that morning, Buffenbarger took on Stern, portraying him as an arrogant usurper and comparing him to ''a rather small peacock.'' Buffenbarger, of course, stands to lose clout if the A.F.L.-C.I.O. meets Stern's demands, since the machinists might well be forced to merge with other unions, some of whom might not see the need for a private jet. But I sensed a reason for his resentment that went beyond simple self-interest; underneath his rhetoric, you could detect the fault line between an industrial economy and a service economy, between old labor and new. Buffenbarger sneered at Stern's Ivy League education -- Stern got his degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where he spent his freshman year studying business -- and mocked him for setting up a blog. What Buffenbarger didn't like about Stern is that he looked and sounded so much like management.
trying to corporatize the labor movement,'' Buffenbarger said. ''When you
listen to him talk, it's all about market share. It's about loss and gain. It's
about producers and consumers.'' He wrinkled his face when he
said this, as if the words themselves tasted sour in his mouth. ''I think he's
enamored of all the glitz and hype of the Wall Street types. He must be a fan
of Donald Trump. I think he wants his own TV show.''
Re-engineering the Union
Stern, it's true, is about as far from a tool-and-dye man as you can get. His father built a profitable legal practice in northern New Jersey by catering to small Jewish businesses, helping their owners make the jump from corner store to full-service retailer. After college, where, by his own account, he mostly avoided thinking about classes or the future, an aimless Stern took a job with the Pennsylvania welfare department, compiling case histories for aid recipients. The department's social-service workers had just won the right to collective bargaining, and a group of young idealists, Stern included, seized control of the local union.
Nothing in Stern's prototypically suburban background made him a natural candidate for organized labor -- for many affluent college kids of his generation, the notion of unions brought to mind images of dank social halls and cigar-chewing thugs -- but this was the early 1970's, and when you had a genuine chance to scream truth to power, you took it. Soon he went to work full time for the union. Stern and his cadre got the pay increases and better benefits they demanded -- and went on strike anyway. ''Most of us were just playing union,'' he says now, laughing. ''We'd watched enough movies so we could figure it out.''
Unlike most union bosses, who rise up through the administrative ranks, ploddingly building alliances and dispatching their enemies, Stern spent most of his career as an organizer in the field, taking on recalcitrant employers and bargaining contracts. In 1984, John Sweeney, then the president of the S.E.I.U., summoned Stern to Washington to coordinate a national organizing drive. When Sweeney ran for president of the entire A.F.L.-C.I.O. in 1995, Stern helped run his campaign; after Sweeney won, the brash and ambitious Stern maneuvered to replace him as head of the S.E.I.U. The ensuing drama was a classic of labor politics. Before an election could be held, Sweeney left the union in the hands of a top lieutenant, who wasted no time in firing Stern and having him escorted from the building. As Stern tells the story, he vowed that he wouldn't set foot back in the L Street headquarters unless he was moving into the president's fifth-floor office. Six weeks later, his reform-minded allies in the locals helped get him elected, and he became, at 45, the youngest president in the union's history.
Having grown up around his father's small-business clients, and having spent much of his adult life at bargaining tables, Stern had learned a few things about the way business works. He came to embrace a philosophy that ran counter to the most basic assumptions of the besieged labor movement: the popular image of greedy corporations that want to treat their workers like slaves, Stern believed, was in most cases just wrong. The truth was that companies in the global age, under intense pressure to lower costs, were simply doing what they thought they had to do to survive, and if you wanted them to behave better, you had to make good behavior viable for them.
Stern's favorite example concerns the more than 10,000 janitors who clean the office buildings in the cities and suburbs of northern New Jersey. Five years ago, only a fraction of them were unionized, and they were making $10 less per hour than their counterparts across the river in Manhattan. Stern and his team say they were convinced from talking to employers in the fast-growing area that the employers didn't like the low wages and poor benefits much more than the union did. Cleaning companies complained that they had trouble retaining workers, and the workers they did keep were less productive. The problem was that for any one company to offer better wages would have been tantamount to an army unilaterally disarming in the middle of a war; cheaper competitors would immediately overrun its business.
The traditional way for a union to attack this problem would be to pick the most vulnerable employer in the market, pressure it to accept a union and then try to expand from there. Instead, Stern set out to organize the entire market at once, which he did by promising employers that the union contract wouldn't kick in unless more than half of them signed it. (Getting the first companies to enter into the agreement took some old-fashioned organizing tactics, including picket lines.) The S.E.I.U. ended up representing close to 70 percent of the janitors in the area, doubling their pay in many cases, from minimum wage to more than $11 an hour. Stern found that by bringing all of the main employers in an industry to the table at one time, rather than one after the other, he was able to effectively regulate an entire market.
Stern talks about giving ''added value'' to employers, some of whom have come to view him, warily, as a partner. At about the time Stern took over the union, his locals in several states were at war with Beverly Health and Rehabilitation Services, an Arkansas-based nursing-home chain. The company complained that cuts in state aid were making it all but impossible to pay workers more while operating their facilities at a profit. Stern and his team proposed an unusual alliance: if Beverly would allow its workers to organize, the S.E.I.U.'s members would use their political clout in state legislatures to deliver more money. It worked. ''I do believe Andy's a stand-up guy,'' says Beverly Health's C.O.O., Dave Devereaux.
At the same time Stern was employing inventive labor tactics to work with business, he was also using new-age business theory to remake the culture of his union. When Stern came into power, the S.E.I.U. represented a disparate coalition of local unions that identified themselves by different names and maintained separate identities. This was the way it had always been, which was fine in an era when employers and unions were confined to individual markets. To Stern, however, this was now a problem. If his members were going to go up against national and global companies, they were going to have to convey the size and stature of a national union. ''You know your employer is powerful, so you want to believe you're part of something powerful as well'' is the way he explained it to me.
Stern hired a corporate consulting firm versed in the jargon of the new economy and undertook a campaign to ''rebrand'' the union. He used financial incentives to get all the local branches of the union to begin using the S.E.I.U. name, its new logo and, of course, its new color. In some respects, the S.E.I.U. now feels very much like a Fortune 500 company. In the lobby of its headquarters, a flat-screen TV plays an endless video of smiling members along with inspirational quotes from Stern, as if he were Jack Welch or Bill Gates. The union sold more than $1 million worth of purple merchandise through its gift catalog last year, including watches, sports bras, temporary tattoos and its very own line of jeans. (The catalog itself features poetry from members and their children paying tribute to the union, along with recipes like Andy Stern's Chocolate Cake With Peanut-Butter Frosting.)
In all of this, Stern's critics in other unions see a strange little cult of personality. Another way to look at it, though, is that Stern understands the psychology of a movement; workers in the union want to feel as if someone is looking out for them. When he and I walked into the S.E.I.U. campaign office in Miami shortly before the presidential election, the union's activists greeted him with hugs or shy smiles. Stern took a moment to chat with each member. ''I got to have my picture taken with you once before, you know,'' one man told him proudly. ''You mean I got have my picture taken with you,'' Stern replied with the timing of a politician.
As the S.E.I.U. was soaring in membership and strength during the late 90's, much of big labor was seeing its influence further erode. And there were those who thought the S.E.I.U. wasn't doing enough for the movement as a whole. Cecil Roberts, president of the mineworkers, personally challenged Stern to follow the example of the mineworkers' legendary leader John L. Lewis, who helped build up the entire labor movement in the 1930's. But Stern demurred. Just running the union was taking all of his time, and what was left he wanted to spend with his son, Matt, and his daughter, Cassie. There would be time later, when his children were older, to think about reshaping the future of American labor.
Then, all at once, Stern's personal world collapsed. A little more than two years ago, Cassie, 14, who was born unusually small and with poor muscle tone, became ill after returning home from a routine operation, stopped breathing in her father's arms and died. In the aftermath, Stern's 23-year marriage to Jane Perkins, a liberal advocate, unraveled. He rented an apartment in northwest Washington and shed most of his furniture, hurling himself into his work at the union. He is very close to his 18-year-old son, but his son splits his time between his parents' homes. On weeks when Stern is alone, he told me, he looks forward to stopping by the Dancing Crab, a local bar, to eat dinner alone and read the paper. ''I'm in a very transitional moment of life,'' he says.
Often, when Stern talks about his daughter, he wanders off, without really meaning to, into a story about a union member he has met somewhere who reminds him of Cassie, or whose own daughter -- ''someone else's Cassie'' -- is stuck in a failing school. The recollections bring him to the brink of tears. It is as if he can't help conflating the fate of workers with the fate of his daughter. Time has become a paradox for him; on one hand, he has more of it than ever before, and yet, he can't escape the panicky feeling that time is running out.
Cassie died,'' Stern said, ''it was like: 'I'm 52 years old. How many more
years am I really going to do this? Why am I so scared to say what I really
think?' '' If he were a religious man, Stern told me, he might think that it
was not a coincidence that he was given, through his loss, so much free time and
clarity at the very moment when organized labor was in crisis. He says it would
be comforting to believe he has been chosen for a mission. It is clear, from
the way he says this, that part of him believes it anyway.
Big Labor's Big Brawl
Stern's plan to rescue the American worker begins with restructuring the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Since the 1960's, a lot of struggling unions have chosen to merge rather than perish, to the point where there are half as many unions in the federation today as there were at its height. Stern argues that this Darwinian process, so lamented by labor leaders, is in fact healthy, and hasn't gone far enough. Unions, he says, work best when they're large enough to organize new workers at the same time as they fight battles on behalf of old ones, and when they represent a large concentration of the workers in any one industry. Smaller unions lack the muscle to organize entire markets the way that the S.E.I.U. has been able to do with janitors and home health care workers. At the same time, some unions have desperately scrambled to maintain or increase their memberships -- and thus their revenue -- by signing up workers well outside their core areas. So the United Auto Workers ends up representing graduate students, and the machinists represent park rangers. This is self-defeating, Stern argues; all it does is divide labor's strength.
Stern's 10-point plan would essentially tear down the industrial-age framework of the House of Labor and rebuild it. The A.F.L.-C.I.O., he says, would consist of 20 large unions, and each union would be devoted to a single sector of the 21st-century economy, like health care or airlines. Ever the apostle of field organizing, Stern wants these restructured unions to put more time and resources into recruiting new members in fast-growing exurban areas -- in the South and the West especially -- where a new generation of workers has never belonged to a union. His plan would slash the amount that each union pays in dues to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. by half, provided that those unions put some of the money back into local organizing. This is not a small idea; it would, essentially, take resources away from the federation's headquarters, which uses it for policy studies and training programs, and give it back to the guys who set up picket lines and rallies.
The basic strategy is to take the same principles Stern demonstrated organizing New Jersey's janitors and make them the model for the entire American labor movement. If only two or three large unions represented all the nation's health care workers, they could go into a growing market -- Reno, say, or Albuquerque -- and bargain with all the hospitals at the same time. Labor would be able to focus on setting standards for entire industries, as opposed to battling one employer at a time.
Stern's plan has incited fury within a lot of smaller unions, whose members don't seem to think the movement needs a self-appointed savior. The proposed reorganization would sweep away a lot of small unions as if they were debris on the factory floor. ''Andy is impatient, and he sprang this on his peers without any discussion,'' says John Sweeney, Stern's former mentor. ''I think he needs to stand still for a minute and listen to what other people think, and learn from other experiences as well.''
You would imagine, given how often Stern's critics have called him arrogant, that he'd be used to it by now, but clearly the word still stings him. He is a man who prides himself on his emotional connection with janitors and nursing aides, and he almost cannot bear the suggestion that he thinks he's smarter than everyone else. Stern prefers to see himself as a man who gets along with all kinds of people, whether they drive the limousine or ride in the back. (''I actually was the most popular person in my high-school class,'' he once told me.)
During an airport layover, I saw him open his laptop and peruse the Unite to Win blog. (Stern actually contributes from time to time to three separate blogs, including Purpleocean.org, an S.E.I.U. site designed for like-minded people who aren't even in a union.) Stern established the online forum so that everyone in the labor movement -- whether supportive of his plan or opposed to it -- could tell him exactly what they thought of his ideas. They haven't held back. ''Sometimes I really hate this,'' he said in the airport lounge, wincing slightly. ''I don't like seeing my name there and people calling me an arrogant idiot.''
Even Stern's allies admit that his ultimatum to big labor is a little high-handed. John Wilhelm, co-president of the union that represents hotel, restaurant and garment workers, is supportive of Stern, and Wilhelm is said to be considering a challenge to Sweeney when he runs for another term as A.F.L.-C.I.O. president this year. But he said he disagrees with Stern's idea of merging unions against their will. Because Stern's union is so powerful, Wilhelm told me, Stern doesn't always feel the need to tread as softly as he might. ''Frankly, he doesn't have to be as diplomatic as others do,'' Wilhelm said. ''There's a thin and perhaps indiscernible line between a person who comes across as arrogant and a person who tries to tell the truth even when it's unpleasant. And the truth about our labor movement is unpleasant.''
When I first started talking to Stern about his controversial plan last summer, he seemed to regard it more as a provocation to big labor than as a proposal that might actually be adopted. He talked as if he were resigned to the idea that the S.E.I.U. would ultimately break from the federation. But as the next meeting of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. executive board in March draws near, there seems to be in union headquarters around the nation the faintest stirrings of a revolt. Stern's ideas have become the basis for an entirely new debate about the future of labor, and now several unions have offered their own, more modest versions of a reform plan in response. The biggest surprise came in December, when James P. Hoffa, president of the famously old-school Teamsters, weighed in with a set of recommendations quite similar to Stern's.
the question for Stern is not whether he is prepared to leave the
A.F.L.-C.I.O., but how much of his plan has to be enacted in order for the
S.E.I.U. to stay. It is a question he evades. ''What I won't do,'' he said,
''is pretend we made change. It's not worth having this fight or discussion if,
in the end, you can't look people in the eye and say we really have taken a big
Workers of the World, Globalize?
Even if big labor eventually does come to be made up of bigger unions, Stern sees a larger challenge: can you build a multinational labor movement to counter the leverage of multinational giants whose tentacles reach across oceans and continents? The emblem of this new kind of behemoth, of course, is Wal-Mart, the nation's largest employer. Wal-Mart has, in a sense, turned the American retail model inside out. It used to be that a manufacturer made, say, a clock radio, determined its price and the wages of the employees who made it and then sold the radio to a retail outlet at a profit. Wal-Mart's power is such that the process now works in reverse: in practice, Wal-Mart sets the price for that clock radio, and the manufacturer, very likely located overseas, figures out how low wages will have to be in order to make it profitable to produce it. In this way, Wal-Mart not only resists unions in its stores with unwavering ferocity but also drives down the wages of its manufacturers -- all in the service of bringing consumers the lowest possible price.
''What was good for G.M. ended up being good for the country,'' Stern says. ''What's good for Wal-Mart ends up being good for five families'' -- the heirs to the Walton fortune. Stern's reform plan for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. includes a $25 million fund to organize Wal-Mart's workers. But as a retail outlet, Wal-Mart doesn't really fall within the S.E.I.U.'s purview. What Stern says he is deeply worried about is what he sees as the next generation of Wal-Marts, which are on his turf: French, British and Scandinavian companies whose entry into the American market threatens to drive down wages in service industries, which are often less visible than retail. ''While we were invading Iraq, the Europeans invaded us,'' Stern says. Most of these companies have no objection to unionizing in Europe, where organized labor is the norm. But when they come to the United States, they immediately follow the Wal-Mart model, undercutting their competitors by shutting out unions and squeezing paychecks.
Take, for instance, the case of Sodexho, a French company that provides all the services necessary to operate corporate buildings, from catering the food to guarding the lobby. In Europe, Sodexho is considered a responsible employer that works with unions and compensates its employees fairly. In the United States and Canada, where the company employs more than 100,000 workers, Sodexho's policy is to discourage its employees from joining unions. As a maneuver to get Sodexho to the bargaining table, last year the S.E.I.U. resorted to taking out ads in French newspapers, shaming the company's executives in their own country, where the idea of scorning unions is considerably less chic. Stern says Sodexho has started negotiating.
Stern's big idea for coping with this new kind of multinational nemesis is to build a federation of unions, similar to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. except that its member unions would come from all over the world. As Stern explained it, a French company might not be so brazen about bullying American workers if it had to worry about a French union protesting back home. The point, he said, is to force companies like Sodexho to adhere to the same business standards in New York and Chicago as it does in Paris, by building a labor alliance that is every bit as global as modern capital.
At first, this global vision sounded a little dreamy to me, as if Stern might have been watching too many ''Superfriends'' reruns. Then he invited me, just before Christmas, on a one-day trip to Birmingham, England. The occasion was a meeting of Britain's reform-minded transportation union. Tony Woodley, the union's general secretary, flashed a broad smile and threw his arm around Stern when Stern arrived, after flying all night, to give the keynote address. Two S.E.I.U. employees were already on hand; it turned out that Stern had dispatched them to London temporarily to help Woodley set up an organizing program.
As we drank coffee backstage, Stern and Woodley told me about the case of First Student, a company that in the last few years had become the largest, most aggressive private school-bus company in the United States. The company had become a target of S.E.I.U. locals in several cities because it wouldn't let its drivers unionize. ''We keep seeing these things about them in the union newsletter,'' Stern said. ''And it starts nibbling at your brain. I said: 'Who are these people, First Student? What's going on here?' And then we do a little research, and we find out what idiots we are. This is a major multinational company. They're 80 percent unionized in the United Kingdom. So we write a letter to the union here, and we say, 'Can you help us?' ''
Woodley sent British bus drivers to Chicago to meet with their American counterparts. Then the American bus drivers went to London, and lobbyists for the British union took them to see members of Parliament. They also held a joint demonstration outside the company's annual meeting. Woodley told me that First Student -- known as First Group in Britain -- was now making a bid for rail contracts there, and his union intended to lobby against it unless the company sat down with its American counterparts in Florida and Illinois.
I asked Woodley, who looks like Rudy Giuliani with more hair, why he would use his own union's political capital to help the S.E.I.U. He nodded quickly, in a way that suggested that there were a lot of people who didn't yet understand this. He explained that it worked both ways; his union was suffering at the hands of multinationals, too, and Stern would be able to return the favor by pressuring American companies doing business in Britain. Moreover, Woodley went on to say, if European companies get used to operating without unions in America, it might be only a matter of time before they tried to export that same mentality back to Europe. ''I don't expect miracles,'' Woodley said. ''I don't expect international solidarity to bring huge companies to their knees overnight. But we've got to do a damn sight more than we're doing.''
Stern invited the top executives of about a dozen unions from Europe and Australia to a meeting in London this April, which will be the maiden gathering of what he says he hopes will become a formalized global federation. He recently met with union leaders in Beijing too. Most labor experts assume that the Chinese unions are tools of the business-friendly government, but Stern says he came away believing that they are as jolted by the global economy as workers in America. ''You have to understand, they're just seeing something new,'' he says. ''These are public unions that are used to health benefits and real discussions, and suddenly they're meeting these huge corporations -- like Wal-Mart -- that, because the executives can make a phone call to someone in the local government, won't even talk to them. It's all new.''
There are, however, painful questions inherent in globalizing the labor movement. At a recent meeting with his executive board, Stern mused out loud about the possibility of conducting a fact-finding mission to India, along with executives from one of the companies outsourcing its jobs there. Perhaps that could be a first step, he thought, toward raising the pay of Indian workers who have inherited American jobs.
Then Stern stopped himself and considered a problem. Sure, there was an obvious logic to unionizing foreign phone operators or machinists: American workers won't be able to compete fairly for jobs until companies have to pay higher wages in countries like China and India. But how would it look to workers in America? How would you avoid the appearance that you were more worried about the guy answering the phone in Bangalore than you were about the guy he replaced in Iowa? John Kerry and other Democrats had been railing against the C.E.O.'s who outsourced American jobs -- and here was Andy Stern, considering joining forces with those very same C.E.O.'s to make sure their Indian workers were making enough money.
''The truth is that as the living standard in China goes up, the living standard in Ohio goes down,'' Stern said. ''What do you do about that? Are we a global union or an American union? This is a hard question for me to answer. Because I'm not comfortable with the living standard here going down. This is a question I think we need to think about going forward, but I don't think that means we should be scared.''
idea of a global union isn't entirely new. But the concept has never been
translated into a formal alliance, and experts who study labor think Stern may
be onto something important. I realized during our brief time in Birmingham why
Stern seemed ambivalent about whether the A.F.L.-C.I.O. approved his reform
plan, or whether his union even stayed in the federation. In a sense, no matter
how the conversation is resolved, it is bound to lag a full generation behind
the reality of the problem; it is as if the unions are arguing against
upgrading from LP's to compact discs while the rest of the world has moved on
to digital downloads. Even if the leaders of big labor do kill off half their
unions and reorganize the rest, all they will have done, at long last, is
create a truly national labor movement -- at exactly the moment that capital
has become a more sprawling and more obstinate force than any one nation could
hope to contain.
Re-engineering the Party
The more Andy Stern looks at organized labor and the Democratic Party, the more he sees the parallels between them. Like big labor, the modern Democratic Party was brought into being by imaginative liberal thinkers in the 1930's and reached its apex during the prosperity of the postwar industrial boom. Like the union bosses, Democratic leaders grew complacent in their success; they failed to keep pace with changing circumstances in American life and didn't notice that their numbers were steadily eroding. Now, Stern says, Democrats and the unions both find themselves mired in the mind-set of a bygone moment, lacking the will or perhaps the capacity to innovate or adapt. What you see in both cases, Stern told me, borrowing from the new-age language of business theory, is ''the change pattern of a dying institution.''
The big conversation going on in Democratic Washington at the moment, at dinner parties and luncheons and think-tank symposia, revolves around how to save the party. The participants generally fall into two camps of unequal size. On one side, there is the majority of Democrats, who believe that the party's failure has primarily been one of communication and tactics. By this thinking, the Democratic agenda itself (no to tax cuts and school vouchers and Social Security privatization; yes to national health care and affirmative action) remains as relevant as ever to modern workers. The real problem, goes this line of thinking, is that the party has allowed ruthless Republicans to control the debate and has failed to sufficiently mobilize its voters. A much smaller group of prominent Democrats argues that the party's problems run deeper -- that it suffers, in fact, from a lack of imagination, and that its core ideas are more an echo of government as it was than government as it ought to be.
Virtually everyone in the upper echelons of organized labor belongs solidly to the first camp. Stern has his feet firmly planted in the second. The economic policy of the Democratic Party, he says, ''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.'' Like big labor, Stern says, the party needs to challenge its orthodoxy -- and its interest groups -- if it wants to put forward a program that makes sense for new-economy workers. Could it be that the Social Security system devised in the 1930's isn't, in fact, the only good national retirement program for today's wage earner? Is it possible that competition is the best way to rescue an imperiled public-school system?
''I'm not convinced that you can do this from the inside,'' Stern told me at one point. Just as he is willing to strike out from the A.F.L.-C.I.O., he doesn't rule out a split from the Democratic Party. ''I feel like we have to do everything we can within our power to get both the labor movement and the parties in this country to represent workers the way they should,'' he said. ''And if we can't, then we have to decide what our strategy is. Do we spend all our money running ballot initiatives and forget about candidates? Do we look for people to create an independent worker party? I don't know.''
Stern isn't the only Democrat in Washington making this case -- but he may be the most powerful and connected. Among his friends and allies he counts at least two billionaires: the financier George Soros and the philanthropist Eli Broad, who is talking with Stern about ideas to reform Los Angeles schools. Stern was one of the founding members of America Coming Together, the largest private get-out-the-vote effort ever assembled. His top political aide, Anna Burger, who is the S.E.I.U.'s secretary treasurer, recently took a seat on the board of the Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy liberal donors. How Stern wields this influence -- and his union's money -- can have a real impact on the direction of the party.
Other union leaders can spend their money on Buffenbarger's news network if they want, but Stern seems bent on leveraging his money against the party establishment. Last year, while he campaigned as many as six days a week for Kerry and other Democrats, Stern nevertheless undertook a series of actions that infuriated party leaders. First, with his encouragement, the S.E.I.U.'s locals voted to endorse Howard Dean before the primaries. Then Stern gave more than $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association because, he said, some of the G.O.P.'s gubernatorial candidates had better positions for workers. As if that wasn't provocative enough a signal, Stern chose the moment of the Democratic convention in Boston to remark publicly, in an interview with The Washington Post, that it might be better for the party and the unions if John Kerry lost the election.
Stern told me he had been partly inspired, oddly enough, by the example of Stephen Moore, the arch-conservative ideologue who, until recently, ran the Club for Growth. The club, which is anathema to both Democrats and moderate Republicans in Washington, raises millions from corporate anti-tax crusaders, then spends it not only against Democrats (Tom Daschle was a prime target) but also against Republican incumbents who aren't deemed sufficiently conservative. Moore has infuriated some Republican leaders, who say he divides the party, but the Club for Growth has helped push the party to the right, putting moderates on the defensive and making Republicans think twice before they cast a vote against a tax cut.
Stern invited Moore to speak at an S.E.I.U. meeting in Chicago a few years ago -- which is roughly the equivalent of Michael Moore being asked over to the National Rifle Association for lunch. Now Stern has begun to emulate the club's model; last year, the S.E.I.U. ran its own candidate, a union ally, against the Democratic House speaker in Washington State, because the speaker voted against a health-benefits package for home health care workers. The union's challenger lost -- but only by about 500 votes. ''I think we need to spend more time running candidates against Democrats,'' Stern says matter-of-factly.
This approach holds some risk for a union boss. Most of Stern's members, after all, are lifelong Democrats. Will they be O.K. with a leader who's willing to entertain an overhaul of Social Security? Would they support Stern if he crossed the teachers' unions and came out for school vouchers? Stern seems convinced that his members want new solutions to these problems, not dogmatic answers, and he is betting that they're more loyal to him and the union than they are to the party. He seems poised to fill a space -- between the world of organized labor and the world of social and economic policy -- that hasn't been filled since Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers, advised the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson on civil rights. ''There's been no analog to Andy in the last 30 or 40 years in America,'' says Simon Rosenberg, who heads the New Democrat Network and is running for Democratic Party chairman. ''There's been no labor leader who has emerged as a thought leader as well.''
spring, Stern plans to convene an eclectic group of Democrats to begin
outlining a new economic agenda. ''We don't want it to be the same old people,''
Stern told me. ''We want people who might say, for example, 'Maybe
privatization isn't such a terrible thing for people,' even if that's not what
the Democratic Party thinks. Or, for example, 'Wal-Mart isn't the worst thing
for the economy after all.' '' He laughed heartily at that one. ''We need to
shock people out of their comfort zone and make them think.''
The Big Questions
Stern is not the first giant of the labor movement to talk about breaking up big labor or the Democratic Party. Reuther and the United Auto Workers stormed out of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in 1968 and formed a new alliance with the Teamsters. A few labor leaders, furious at Harry Truman's treatment of workers, followed Henry Wallace out of the Democratic Party in 1948. Neither venture lasted long enough for anyone to remember much about it. Reuther died suddenly in 1970, and the new alliance barely outlived him; Wallace's Progressive Party finished fourth in the 1948 election, behind the Dixiecrats, and faded away. Arguably, the lesson of these and other rebellions is that the threat of building new workers' institutions usually proves more potent than the reality.
The question that Stern's detractors ask is this: What is Andy Stern really after? Does he long to be the Reuther of his day, phoning presidents and holding forth to rooms full of reporters?
''I don't like politics,'' Stern said more than once. ''After the last election, a lot of people called me and said everything from 'You should run for president' to 'You should be chairman of the D.N.C.' And neither of them had the slightest bit of reality or held any interest for me.'' That Stern can mention this casually -- that someone suggested he not merely phone a president, but run for president -- would indicate that he is as susceptible to self-glorification as the next guy, and maybe more so. But if what Stern really wanted was to run the world, he could surely spend his nights in more powerful company than that of the bartender at the Dancing Crab. When I asked what he envisioned himself doing in his 60's, Stern said, ''I hope I find someone to fall in love with and travel with and watch my son have grandkids.''
His adversaries will say this is disingenuous, but, as so often happens in public life, they may be misunderstanding the human factor that compels Andy Stern. Everyone who knows him well will tell you that he is driven by an authentic passion for workers. And yet, at the same time, it doesn't take a psychology degree to see that he lives these days in a state of suspended agony. Stern gives the impression of having been shaken loose from conformity by the death of his daughter and the end of his marriage; nothing can hurt him more than he has already been hurt, which breeds in him the kind of abandon that can be dangerous to the status quo.
This is how history often changes; it's the people who are running from something worse who are willing to hurl themselves into walls that others won't scale. The facts of our time are clear enough: a ruthless kind of globalized economy is upon us, and it is not going away. Many American industries are bound to be surpassed by leaner competitors, and the workers left behind by this tectonic shift have little power to influence the decisions of corporate barons whose interests know no national boundaries. More Americans now hold stock -- often in a 401k -- than are members of a union. And the institutions that have, for the last century, protected the ideal of the American worker -- organized labor and the Democratic Party -- are clinging mightily to structures and programs born in the era of coal and steel, perhaps out of fear that innovation would somehow discredit the things they have worked for all these years, or perhaps for the simple reason that no one knows what to do next.
The visionary men who built big labor and the modern Democratic Party met the challenges specific to their moment. What Andy Stern is doing, in his own way, is provoking an argument more relevant to our moment. Can American workers ever be secure in a global market? Can a service economy sustain the nation's middle class? And are we brave enough to have the conversation?
Matt Bai, a contributing writer, covers national politics for the magazine.