Monday, February 14, 2005

Andy Stern, head of the SEIU,is creating controversy within the labor movement because his ideas are different from the old school and because he has threatened that if the AFL-CIO doesn't reform by merging its 58 unions into 20 larger unions, he will take his 1.8 SEIU members and leave the federation, effectively destroying it. The New York Times recently published a lengthy article about Stern, from which I'll be excerpting segments the next couple of days. I recommend reading the whole piece, but at least take a look at Stern's take on how to get corporate cooperation:
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.


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