NEAL CONAN, host:
The SEIU, the Service Employees International, is one of the largest and most powerful unions in the country. For the past 14 years, its 2.2 million members have been led by perhaps the most recognizable and influential labor leader in the country, Andy Stern.
Now, two weeks after he watched comprehensive health care signed into law - a cause he championed for years, he announced last night that he plans to retire. He'll be with us today, so union members, tell how Andy Stern affected you. Did he make a difference? Our phone number: 800-9898255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Andy Stern joins us now on the phone from his office here in Washington, D.C. It's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. ANDY STERN (President, SEIU): Hey, thank you so much for the invitation.
CONAN: And why have you decided to quit now?
Mr. STERN: Well, for 38 years, I've had the incredible opportunity to be a member and leader of the union, the last 14 as president. You know, the union has gained the strength of, you know, 1.2 million members. We've changed the lives the people like Verdia Daniels(ph), who's homecare worker, or Rosa Ayala(ph), who's a janitor, you know, all from coast to coast and border to border, passed health care, you know, have a great president that we helped elect. And it's time for renewal in our union, and part of that is me leading the change by allowing the space for new people to step up and speak out and build on what we've done today.
CONAN: Still have two years left on your contract, though.
Mr. STERN: Well, I was elected by the members for a four-year term, and it's not unusual in our union for transitions to occur at different times. But, the good news is, you know, that we have a democratic process that will allow, you know, the members of our union and their leaders, you know, to make a choice about who succeeds me. And I'm just really pleased that, you know, an ordinary person like me, who was a just a rank-and-file public worker, you know, got the chance to be the voice for so many, you know, wonderful hard working people who, you know, who make this country what really is today.
CONAN: There are some who would say you've worked incredibly hard. Your membership also has worked very hard. To have somebody who' become incredibly influential, who has the ear of the president of the United States - this is not the time to leave.
Mr. STERN: Well, you know, the union is much more than me. You know, when you think that the union is you and its not about who you represent, but its about who you are, I think you've sort of lost your morals and focus and the purpose, you know, of your leadership.
This union was built by 2.2 million people and it's is not my particular extraordinary good looks or particularly, you know, great verbosity that is why people listen to us. It's because 100,000 people go out and volunteer every year for progressive candidates who stand up for our issues because we hold politicians accountable who, you know, don't stand up for the things that are important to people that work. So, you know, the union has become a huge voice for change and fairness for people that work in this country and it will continue well past my voice.
CONAN: You mentioned 2.2 million members of the SEIU. That was not the membership when you took the presidency. And indeed, the SEIU has grown as the labor membership overall has declined. Some of that is attributable to changes in the American job market, but to what do you attribute your success?
Mr. STERN: I think our members understand they're not going to grow stronger if their numbers grow smaller. But we don't organize for the strength of the numbers. You know, we organize for the strength for our members, on their job, in their communities, able to hold politicians accountable, and most importantly to build a partnership with their employer around quality public services or quality health care, you know, so that we can be, you know, a value added to some of the hardest jobs in America like the workers in Sodexho, where I'll be tomorrow with Danny Glover getting arrested, you know, who are part of global corporations who make $8 an hour with no benefits.
And because the nature of work has changed that they can be working in a school district one day and a hospital the next day, and a university on the third day, you know, that the labor movement has to adapt to the changes of the 21st century and be relevant to workers. And, you know, I think our union has been remarkable in its willingness of its members to embrace change, to stand up for quality, to be willing to build partnerships with their employers. And the results have been not just growth in numbers but growth in the ability of people to live a better life.
CONAN: We have a lot of listeners who want to talk to you, but we will ask -just before we let them have at you - what do you plan to do after you start to contribute to the unemployment statistics?
Mr. STERN: Well, first of all, I have been very honored to be nominated and accepted the nomination of President Obama to the fiscal commission, which has a pretty extraordinarily important group of issues in front of it in terms of the future of our country and people's health and retirement security. So that's going to be a big challenge. And I think I'll find a way to make myself useful in terms of trying to deal with some of the issues that are(ph) always been important to me and our members: immigration reform, you know, how does the labor movement continue to change and be viable in the 21st century. And I'm sure I'll find something.
CONAN: Am I hearing the word consultant in there?
Mr. STERN: No. I - I'm not sure - you know, I decided when I left I was going to follow the advice of a good friend of mine who said whatever you do, don't jump to the next thing; give yourself some time and space to think. And I feel confident I'll find something that makes a difference for me, and equally important fulfills my passion, which is about changing people's lives at work.
CONAN: Andy Stern of the SEIU. 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let's start with Kathleen(ph), Kathleen with us from Athens, Ohio.
KATHLEEN (Caller): Hi, Andrew Stern. I grew up in a hardcore union family. You are one of my family's big heroes, so thank you so much for your work and your dedication. But I'm wondering if you can explain the split between the AFL-CIU(ph) and the SEIU.
Mr. STERN: Sure.
KATHLEEN: And could you also I've spent the last three years in nursing homes and assisted living places with my father, moving in and out of several, and I have talked to literally hundreds of nurse's aides, and they are paid just absolutely pathetic wages and they do the bulk of the work. You know all this.
Mr. STERN: Sure.
KATHLEEN: And the profit margin at these places is made off their backs. How can laypeople who aren't union members, how can we help move our legislators or move these workers more towards to SEIU?
Mr. STERN: First, in terms of, you know, the labor movement and sort of how it's structured, you know, I've looked at the labor movement all over the world and there are plenty of places where there's one labor federation. You go to places like India, there's 15 labor federations. And, you know, what really matters is what do the leaders of organizations do about changing the lives of the people, you know, who are - get up every day and help build the organization.
You know, I always like to say, you know, across the street from SEIU is a janitor, and every two weeks, you know, he sends or she sends some of their hard-earned money to this union. And when we forget sometimes that the institution is about changing her life, not making my life better, we kind of lose our moral compass.
So yeah, the labor movement has different ideas. The truth is if it all came back together or was even divided up, more really isn't the question. The question is what's our mission, how are we relevant to that nurse's aide you talked about in Ohio. And the issue for people is, you know, that in Ohio, for instance, we've spent a lot of time, you know, dealing with the fact that a private company, you know, bought a lot of those nursing homes in Ohio, ManorCare. It was owned by a private equity company. It took $100 million out for the CEO as part of that purchase. And you see how difficult it is then for the people who are taking care of your family members to survive.
So there are always moments, you know, when these issues arise, you know, where funding at the legislature or specific bad behaviors on the part of companies like ManorCare, you know, are clear. And you know, we keep in touch, keep advised. You know, and when they come, you know, your voice is really important because the voice of the parents and the patients and the fathers and mothers and kids, you know, become much more important than simply voices of workers who they would like to disregard and think aren't important.
CONAN: Kathleen, thanks very much.
Now let's go next to Hugh, Hugh with us from Philadelphia.
HUGH (Caller): Hello, how are you?
CONAN: Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
HUGH: Thank you. Mr. Stern, how are you doing? My name is Hugh. I'm an organizer for the UFCW, the local out of Jersey, but I live in Philadelphia. And the one thing as a young organizer I like to seeing more of - and I know you spoke about it in the past - was unions getting behind third-party candidates. I - I'm a big supporter of the Green Party. I'm actually running for office as a Green Party candidate, and I like guys like Ralph Nader who are very pro-labor and don't take money from corporations.
Do you think unions should start going towards that way in supporting parties like the Green Party who are very pro-labor and unlike Democrats don't take corporate money? I mean, do you think that that's the way to go?
Mr. STERN: Here's what I - I think we need a political system that holds politicians accountable, and I think it's fair to say, you know, there are lots of instances - we saw it in the health care bill - where people are more, you know, interested in their re-election, they're interested in corporate contributions than they may be about their constituents, their families, their patients.
So I totally believe this system is corrupted by money, that politicians at times, you know, aren't paying attention to people that go to work every day. And there are moments, as our union is very actively involved in now, in states like Arkansas, you know, where Senator Lincoln, who we found did not stand up for the issues of the workers in Arkansas, we've been helping our members working every day, going door-to-door to defeat her and elect a Democratic candidate for the state - U.S. Senate who supports our issues.
In North Carolina, we actually just are in the process of collecting petitions to start a new party called North Carolina First. In New York State, the Working Families Party, which is a third party, you know, which is able to cross-endorse this thinking about what they want to do to some of the New York legislators who promised them their vote the day before the election and then went after their throats the day after the election.
So I think political accountability is important. You know, I think there are lots of different ways it can be done. And I wish you the best in your own election.
HUGH: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
We're talking with Andy Stern, the head of the Service Employees International Union, announced last night he plans to step down after 19 years as the head of that - 14 years, is it?
Mr. STERN: Fourteen years.
CONAN: Fourteen years, five more - I give you five more years.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. STERN: Sounds tiring.
CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to - this is Jason, Jason with us from Sacramento.
Mr. JASON TESHER(ph) (Caller): Hi, there. My name is Jason Tesher, and I am a longtime listener and first time caller...
CONAN: Thank you.
Mr. TESHER: ...so thank you very much. I am also a former member in northern California of the United Healthcare Workers West, and I'm really glad that you have Andy on the show. And while Andy has talked a lot about democracy, he has, in fact, contributed significantly to the rise of corporate unionism, where members' wishes are not are not are not taken into account in strategy. As a matter of fact, SEIU's strategy really has been to expand membership while sacrificing wages and benefits.
CONAN: Are you talking about the partnerships with management?
Mr. TESHER: Yes.
Mr. TESHER: Well, I'm not necessarily talking about the partnerships with management so much as - here in California, for example, United Healthcare Workers West was very successful in creating a democratic union that was - that both expanded membership and...
CONAN: And Jason, I'm sure you know all of this in great detail. If you could get - we want to give some other people a chance.
Mr. TESHER: Sure. And my comment really is that the rise of corporate unions actually is - has been helped by Andy's tenure at SEIU...
CONAN: I think we...
Mr. TESHER: ...we can begin to talk a little bit more about how members should be making choices rather than the brass at the top. I'll take my comment...
CONAN: Andy Stern?
Mr. STERN: Yeah. I absolutely fundamentally believe - and I think the union has been really consistent about trying to make this a union where the members, not the leaders, come first. So when union leaders, for instance, in that particular local union, you know, have elections for delegates to our convention and they only let the shop stewards run for office, which was against the law, I don't think that's democratic, and we took action.
A jury in San Francisco just recently found 24 members of this union guilty of money laundering, of destroying records, of not bargaining contracts simply so they could get some personal advantage. And they've all been fined now at a million and a half dollars. I think it is the responsibility of union leaders to protect the members' rights. And I think a jury of their peers - and Ray Marshall, former secretary of labor, have already ruled on this. And you know, this is not about corporate unionism, this is about democratic unionism, which says members not leaders come first.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Richard, Richard with us from Philadelphia, another caller from Philly.
Richard (Caller): Yes, hi there. Thank you for taking my call, first term caller, long-term listener.
CONAN: Well, thank you.
RICHARD: Mr. Stern, I'd like to thank you for the services that you have done in the past for the Pennsylvania Social Services Union way back...
Mr. STERN: Way back when, yup.
RICHARD: Is that where you got your start, Mr. Stern?
Mr. STERN: Yes, it was. It's Andy, and I was a member of that local union, and I began in 1972 in the Vine District Welfare Office at Broad and Spring Garden Street.
RICHARD: We started of in the Tioga District in 1977, and I'd just like to say that not only did our good contracts get us a good and fair salaray but it also brought in a lot better caliber of worker. We have a lot more college graduates working here now because of the stability and the, you know, adequate recompense that we get for working. And I think you've done the union and the citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania quite a service, Andy.
Mr. STERN: Thank you very much. You know, I think we sometimes forget that when people have good jobs, you know, they tend to stay, they tend to get trained and, you know, patients, clients, citizens get the advantage, you know, of a higher quality workforce and, you know, rather than a high turnover workforce, and I'm proud to say in lots of jobs.
RICHARD: Absolutely, Andy. Thank you again.
Mr. STERN: Okay.
CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for - what job were you doing back there in Philly?
Mr. STERN: I was a social service worker. I was working with people who are aged or blind or disabled, as they were defined at the time, and we were trying to get them into the Social Security program for Social Security disability, which had just been started, in fact, in 1972.
CONAN: And belie your own words - the talented person moved on to another job.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. STERN: We just have a few seconds left with you. There's so many issues that you've worked on that have not come to fruition as health care did just as a couple of weeks ago. What would you tell your members, union members in general listening to you, to prioritize right now?
Mr. STERN: I would say that the most important thing we need to do now is to provide a country where hard work pays, where we have wage growth but also we have - I mean, we have job growth but we also have wage growth. And I think I would say to people, you know, the union movement has been the best middle class job-creating program that America has ever had and it doesn't cost the government a dime, and that when workers, as we see in the public sector, get to make a free choice, you know, they build their own organizations, build partnerships with their employers, and we need an America where people again have that kind of free choice so they can change their own lives and not count on their government to do it for them.
CONAN: Andy Stern, congratulations and good luck to you.
Mr. STERN: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Andy Stern, now the president of the SEIU, the Services Employees Union, with 2.2 million work members. He announced yesterday his plans to retire.
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