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SEIU's Stern Leads Move Away From AFL-CIO


Joining us from Chicago, one of the union presidents who announced that his union is quitting the AFL-CIO. Andrew Stern is president of the Service Employees International Union.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. ANDREW STERN (President, Service Employees International Union): Thank you.

SIEGEL: Are we witnessing a split between some unions, like yours, and a particular AFL-CIO administration, a dispute that could be patched up given some different individuals or policies, or are these serious structural or philosophical differences that divide you?

Mr. STERN: Well, I think it's clear that American workers are walking down a road and it's not going in the right direction. The AFL-CIO has made a series of decisions about its future which we don't think really solves American workers' problems. And today, we chose to get off that road and walk in a new direction where we think there's hope, and that is to have a labor movement that grows stronger, not smaller.

SIEGEL: This is not a trial separation; this is a divorce, you're saying here.

Mr. STERN: Yeah. I would say that our group of unions intend to formalize our relationship to build a new organization that really tries to change American workers' lives

SIEGEL: In at least the short run, doesn't it weaken organized labor not to have a single labor federation that speaks for millions of union members around the country?

Mr. STERN: Well, right now there are a lot of unions already that are not part of the AFL-CIO, the largest union; the NEA, the Carpenters union, just for to name two. But the truth is we're not trying to divide the labor movement; we're trying to rebuild it. And that's why we've offered to participate in communities at the Central Labor Council level and to continue to pay and be part of them. We offered to continue to work together with the AFL-CIO on electoral candidates when--electoral practices when we share the same candidates. So we're trying to keep what works best together and yet pursue the strategies where we fundamentally disagree.

SIEGEL: Who are the people whom these unions will now try to organize, generally speaking?

Mr. STERN: Well, clearly, we're organizing, you know, 35 million workers in jobs that are remaining in this country in construction, in child care, in the hospitality industry. We're going to organize people who otherwise don't have much of a chance. I mean, if you think back to what made America great 50 years ago, it was because a job at GM, a union job on construction or driving a truck was a job you could own a home, raise a family, have a bridge to the middle class. Today, jobs at the most lucrative company in the world, Wal-Mart--it takes two, three, four Wal-Mart jobs to raise a family, you don't get health care and a Wal-Mart job is a bridge to nowhere. We got to bring back the GM economy, where work is rewarded and where everyone shares in the proceeds of hard work, not just the executives.

SIEGEL: 'Cause there are people who say, `That was the 20th century. That was then; this is now. This is a globalized economy you work in, and GM isn't going to come back to what GM used to be.'

Mr. STERN: No, but Wal-Mart is not going away, nor are the jobs in child care, nor are the jobs in nursing homes or home care or on construction sites. We recognize we can't turn back the clock, but those are jobs that should pay enough to be able to raise a family, that should allow people to have health care and security in terms of their futures. We want to make sure those American jobs are good jobs, and we're going to fight to make that true.

SIEGEL: Are you reinventing the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, that organized by industry rather than by trade?

Mr. STERN: Yeah. I mean, this is a very different time in terms of our country than the time of the great industrial era. But the strategy that was used--the CIO did not organize one Ford plant; they organized Ford. They didn't organize one US Steel plant; they organized US Steel. The only way to rebuild this labor movement is to organize wholesale, not retail; to organize all of a company at one time, not one plant, one shop, one work site at a time. And that's the strategy we're going to pursue.

SIEGEL: Should there still be an AFL-CIO and a competing labor federation, or should all of organized labor go over to your tent?

Mr. STERN: I think someday we should build something new that includes all the unions that are currently in the AFL, some of us who've just left and others that have been out for a long time. I think there really is a need in America today for a new modern, dynamic, innovative, flexible organization. And right now we intend to pursue our course, but someday it would be great if we all could find a common ground to build something new and stronger.

SIEGEL: Andrew Stern, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

Mr. STERN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Andrew Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, a union that has disaffiliated from the AF of L-CIO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.