Labor analysis -- Stern warning: labor too disorganized
As Andy Stern demands change at the AFL-CIO, the scene may be set for a major union shake-up.
Andy Stern can be as tough on colleagues as the nursing homes he'd like to unionize. In the clubby world of organized labor, he has issued a mandate for change at the AFL-CIO.
His message is blunt: the dying labor movement needs an overhaul. And if his cohorts at the AFL-CIO are not interested in more than a tune-up, he's willing to take his 1.7 million Service Employees International Union members -- which include more than 145,000 nursing home workers -- and move on.
Stern's bold plan can hardly be seen as good news for nursing home operators. He wants to force the AFL-CIO to enact constitutional changes when the federation gathers later this month. Toward that goal, he recently laid out a 10-point agenda to dramatically re-engineer and consolidate organized labor.
His plan shifts organizing priorities to help millions of additional workers join unions. Just as important, it restructures the labor movement to unite workers in specific industries, such as long-term care. For nursing home operators, the result would be union activity that is more directed, backed and unified than in the past.
"I'm totally focused on winning the fight to build a labor movement that works for workers," said Stern, who has a reputation as a maverick and strategic thinker. "It's hard to get the job done the way things are organized right now."
It's no mystery why he wants discipline and consolidation. The AFL-CIO has 65 often-overlapping unions. Among them, 40 have fewer than 100,000 members.
Most labor leaders agree that unions are in crisis after years of declining membership, and that old organizing methods have become less effective. Organized labor now represents less than 13% of all workers, compared to a third when the AFL-CIO was created half a century ago.
"The labor movement was really shaken by the [November] election and they're also badly divided," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor relations professor at Cornell University.
Unions are also feeling a sense of crisis as employers continue to cut back benefits and pensions.
Stern's proposals have set off a fierce debate. Some labor leaders have accused him of trying to assume the role of arrogant dictator. They resent a top-down approach in which the AFL-CIO would tell long-autonomous unions what to do.
For example, his plan would force unions to recruit members only in their core industries, barring them from raiding those where other unions dominate.
Richard Sloan, a spokesman for the machinists' union, criticized Stern's approach, asserting that it's part of a power play in which Stern and his allies are seeking to take over the AFL-CIO.
"It's not Andy Stern's role in life to say to 60 other international unions that you got to do it my way or the highway," Sloan said. "That's just dead wrong. There's an arrogance to that. He fails by misunderstanding the nature of the labor movement -- this isn't a set of elites that dictates to us. This is a democratic movement."
At their convention in September, the machinists' delegates authorized the union's executive council to withdraw from the AFL-CIO if its political opponents won control of the federation in 2005.
The president of the machinists' union, R. Thomas Buffenbarger, has even threatened to leave the federation if Stern gets his way.
"Stern is absolutely right that the status quo isn't acceptable, that it's a recipe for oblivion," said Paul F. Clark, a professor of labor relations at Penn State University. "But I don't see how the consolidations he's calling for will get done. You'll find resistance because a lot of union leaders don't want to give any of their power to the AFL-CIO."
Stern is unapologetic about pushing for a new labor landscape.
"We need to either change the AFL-CIO or build something stronger that could really change workers' lives," he recently said.
For now, it's an uphill battle. Heightened corporate power has helped check union growth. Unionization elections are often so lopsided that most unions have all but given up