Andy Stern: Restoring the promise of the American dream

From Huffington Post, SEIU President Andy Stern's Labor Day message:

The promise of America is that if you work hard, you will be rewarded. You will be able to provide for your family, own a decent home, afford quality health care, and enjoy a secure retirement. It is that promise that built a thriving middle class. It is the American Dream, and it has inspired generations of women and men who helped make this country great.

Today we are living through a period of profound economic change. We have new ways of communicating, new methods of production, new means of generating wealth, new global competition. And while many of the ways we used to do business have changed, the American Dream has not.

Today, in 2007, that dream is at risk. We stand at a moment of unprecedented economic opportunity, but that opportunity is not being extended to all. Tens of millions of Americans are working harder than ever just to stay afloat. The latest Census Bureau report shows that wages are dropping and more people lack health insurance.

On the other hand, a handful of incredibly wealthy people are prospering beyond all comprehension. Private equity CEOs are making on average more than $650 million -- or more than 22,000 times what the average American worker brings in. Put another way, it takes the average American worker one full year to make what a wealthy buyout CEO makes in only ten minutes.

The buyout industry and the big banks are cutting the heart out of the American economy. Global buyout corporation the Carlyle Group is taking over one of the nation's largest nursing home chains, ManorCare. As part of the deal, ManorCare's CEO Paul Ormond will personally profit up to $186 million dollars, money that could have gone to hire more nursing home aides to care for our loved ones. Even worse, ManorCare will pay no corporate taxes while it is owned by Carlyle. The lost federal, state and local tax revenues over the next five years? More than $600 million. There's a credit crunch on, and massive lenders like Bank of America are using their size and market dominance to run up fees and credit card rates, deny loans to working families and minority communities, and lay off workers.

This Labor Day, a greater percentage of the economy is going to profits than to wages, and a majority of parents believe their children will be worse off economically. Tens of millions of people in the U.S. are working harder than ever before, but they're still falling behind.

We are at a crucial moment, a moment that makes us ask what kind of country we want to be.

The answer to that question must include more workers uniting in unions -- the labor movement. Unions have always been the best anti-poverty, best pro-health care, best pro-family program around. Unions have done more to help working people experience economic success than any other program.

This week, a new report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Inclusion showed that workers in the lowest-paying jobs make about 16 percent more when they are members of a union, and they are 25 percent more likely to have health insurance or a pension plan.

Now, more than ever, as new technologies and new ways of thinking about efficiency have reduced workers to a line item on a balance sheet, unions are not only relevant -- we are indispensable.

As the economic landscape has shifted, the labor movement has needed to adapt to these new realities. I am proud to report that the 1.9 million workers united in SEIU stand at the forefront of the evolving labor movement. In recent years we have pioneered new models of organizing, like uniting workers in nontraditional employment situations. Since 1999, 400,000 home care workers have changed state laws throughout the country to give them the freedom to unite in a union.

We have established new relationships with employers who are willing to reward work, while continuing to hold accountable those who are not. We are acting on new ways to secure health care and retirement security that reflect rather than deny the new economic reality.

The bottom line is this: the American economy is not a zero-sum game. There is no good moral or economic reason why all workers cannot or should not share in the success and prosperity they helped create. We need to restore the promise of the American Dream. And that means choosing what kind of country we want to be.

Discuss.

Comments

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    Try to sell this message to the tens of thousands of USW workers out of jobs because their union continuously jacked up the wage/benefits package of US steel workers. Increased employment costs w/out corresponding increases in productivity led to the death of the Big 3 Steel makers here in the U.S. Read the book by Pittsburgh Press labor writer.

  • Robert G. Gourley (unverified)
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    Read the book by Pittsburgh Press labor writer. What book?

    You mean Steel and Steelworkers: Race and Class Struggle in Twentieth-Century Pittsburgh By John H. Hinshaw?

    You don't have to read far to get the idea, there are folks who are capable of applying some amazing arithmetic - like imagining one can pay less and get more in a for profit system. Thus our health care system that profits from the misery of our families, friend, and neighbors.

    The only thing that's limited is the intelligence of the anti-labor folks.

  • Bill R. (unverified)
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    The myth of the "American Dream" is simply that, a story that isn't true for most Americans. It isn't empirically true and it has the effect of denying the very real barriers to upward mobility and denying the need to eliminate those barriers through policy changes. It denies the "race to the bottom" in wages that international corporate globalism has had on workers throughout the world. It denies the real need for union organization that gives the individual worker strength. It may be politic to talk about the American Dream as though it were real, but it's never been real for most Americans. Truth is, the post-war " economic expansion that created the middle class in America was largely the result of government policies like the G.I. Bill, the massive expansion of educational opportunity through the National Defense Education Act, and the expansion of the union movement, made possible by the pro-labor policies of the Roosevelt New Deal before the war.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)
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    There are many issues raised here that don't have satisfactory answers in either the the pro-worker or pro-owner camp.

    • It's abundantly clear that wealth has been directed away from the many and toward the already rich few. This is the Republican version of the American Dream.

    • The labor union model has failed. It has failed because the interests of owners have prevailed at the international level [with the support of Democrats] as well as at the national level. Labor never does well when a huge pool of desperate job-seekers exists. Free trade agreements have kept that pool growing.

    • The end of cheap energy may mean that we have a less-than-zero-sum game. Unions have been just as guilty as business boosters in selling the myth of infinite growth. We need reality based economics for the expensive energy world. The pie cannot continue to "get higher". Accepting reality actually makes reducing economic polarization more important, but reality is harder to organize around than is fantasy. It's time for the labor movement to stop taking the easy - no win - path.

  • Rick hickey (unverified)
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    Amazing, again no mention of the impact of millions of grateful to make anything, 3rd world workers and Unions, such as SEIU, working hard with your dues to increase that trend. Read the new Univ. of South Carolina report or the older Harvard report. Immigrant workers will and are working for less wages and the Union policy of supporting Amnesty only gives encouragement for more to sneak in for Amensty, Border Patrol records prove this. FYI; U.S.C. new study shows Construction workers earning LESS since 2000 not more, and Carpenters Union in Portland was just caught using an Illegal Alien to recruit more Illegals.

    Basic supply & demand logic, unlimited supply of workers equals Companies paying whatever they hell they can get away with. LIMITED supply of workers forces companies to pay more to find & retain these employess.

    With 54 Million working age workers NOT working(U.S. Dept. of Labor-July 2007), I question an unlimited supply of foreign workers, so did Cesar Chavez, Union Farmworker organizer in California. He understood this many years ago, why don't our Union leaders?

  • TerrY Parker (unverified)
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    The two biggest threats to the American Dream are corporate greed and government social engineering. Together they have succeeded in creating an economic environment where the average worker looses to the power of inflation and is increasingly taxed each and every year. While big business does everything possible to minimize employee earnings for the working class, socialistic politicians want to control the lifestyles of the general public - everything from housing choices, mobility choices to choosing the food we eat. That makes corporate America get rich quick schemes and power hungry political forces that use the tax code to dictate the standards of living partners in crime.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    Sorry, the book is "And the Wolf Finally Came" (The decline and fall of the American Steel Industry) by John P. Hoerr, 1988 former labor reporter for the Pittsburg Press.

  • MCT (unverified)
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    I also read the blog (attached to the original piece by Stern at the bottom of his Huff Post page) by a janitor who organized a union that has negotiated to double his current $6.85 per hour wages in 5 years. The guy feels that gives him hope for the future. I think it's no more than a crumb from the feast. Look how the cost of living (and housing) has escalated in past decades. In five years he's gonna need that doubled income just to stay where he are now....not making ends meet through no fault of his own. It would not even be enough money here and now. Especially factoring in that we are all supposed to save for retirement.

    I pray for us all caught in the big squeeze, but fear it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. There is always the threat for many workers that their jobs will simply be taken out of the country. Thankfully Craig the janitor does not have that risk. But though the elite who skim the wealth of our country for themselves will pat themselves on the back for making donations (and taking the tax write-offs) to charities, they are blind to the plight of the workers who create their wealth for them. The irony never registers with them. And the upper classes revile the working poor, as they prey on them for their last nickel.

    It's going to take a miracle, or decades of deprevations, to get workers in the US to unionize. Unless workers DO get up from in front of their TVs and unite, and yes there will be sacrifices to be made....we are doomed to stay the course. That probably doesn't bother a lot of folks who make a living wage, but it should. Because we are a nation of consumers, and people who can barely pay rent food and utilities are not buying goods, no new cars, dining out, or vacationing. They have no disposable income. And that will eventually impact the entire economy, as more and more workers fall short of the rising cost of living.

    And even if they do unionize they are then at risk from their own union officials skimming and raiding pension funds, diminishing the health care coverage, and other nefarious deeds. Something of a moral crisis overall, isn't it?

    And for every minute that goes by that our elected officials do not make moves to eliminate the road blocks to every American making a livable wage (And $7.80 isn't livable! Double that might nearly be there, for now.)....well I just consider that taxation without representation.

  • Robert G. Gourley (unverified)
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    It's going to take a miracle, or decades of deprevations, to get workers in the US to unionize.

    It's going to take more than more hard times to get workers to effectively unionize. As Horace Mann, the father of public education once put it, "It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion."

    The widespread ignorance of how to govern a democracy leaves workers powerless and only capable of sitting around bellyaching, in spite of the fact that rarely changes anything for the good. So until leaders take on the problem of the governing incompetence of the governed nothing's going to change for a very long time - except for the worse.

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    Tom, there's no single "labor union model." The formation of the C.I.O. industrial unions in the 1930s and 1940s on bases differing from the older craft union models is and historical example of new models to address new conditions. One problem with the U.S. labor movement today is need for new think to address parts of the service sector that even SEIU isn't reaching outside of government, e.g. office and retail workers in relatively small entities.

    The expansion of the capitalist economy on the global scale doesn't end the story. A key piece of trade issues is fighting for strong protections for labor organizing in countries party to trade agreements, along with international worker cooperation in struggles with global corporations.

    I think an argument can be made that two other specific things have failed in the U.S. One is the National Labor Relations Act model, as amended by the Taft-Hartley Act. It is fundamentally flawed at root by allowing employers to interfere in workers' freedom of association in choosing whether to form a union. And, even within its own terms, it has failed to enforce labor laws and representation standards with either timely resolutions or significant punishments for employers who violate workers' rights in obstructing unionization with illegal tactics, refusing to bargain first contracts in good faith, or both. The current push for card check-off unionization is one potential answer to election obstruction -- but it will only go part way if laws requiring good-faith bargaining by employers aren't enforced. Likewise phony redefinitions of jobs as exlcuded "management" positions need redefinition, as do exclusions of farm and domestic workers from some or all protections (originally in significant measure a racial discrimination measure that still has disparate racial effects).

    The second thing that has failed is broad institutional compromise or settlement negotiated in between the managements and unions of the then large industrial enterprises in the mid-1950s. That was the peak of union density (about 34% of workers unionized), a level that meant union standards significantly affected what non-union employers had to offer to compete for workers.
    Also,corporate management culture had a sense of community responsibility that has been displaced since the 1980s by almost exclusive focus return to investors (except as modified by managerial self-dealiing for legal but corrupt executive compensation packages).

    Key elements of the terms of that "settlement" were inclusion of what were then called "fringe" benefits as items for collective bargaining, to be provided at the company level. These are the things that are unravelling today, especially hollowed out and increasingly worker-paid health insurance, and pensions. (It is appalling that bankruptcy courts are allowing companies to renege on pensions, which should have a separate degree of legal protection from other contracts.)

    It is not an accident that it is the older industrial unions, like the UAW and USW, that are calling most strongly for a strong public health insurance system. What is interesting is that increasingly corportations are coming to see a logic for them too -- to see that the "social wages" provided equitably by various mechanisms in other industrial countries give other high-tech countries a competitive advantage. Constructed the right way (i.e. not requiring double contributions as both employer and employee a la FICA and Medicare) such a system could I believe also be sold to people who operate as independent contractors and small entrepreneurs and could enable people who otherwise might start their own businesses but fear losing insurance for their families to take the chance.

    It may well be that a "new model" unionism for the changed U.S. economy needs to include an even stronger social and political advocacy role (this is not so new in Europe) than unions play now, though obviously they are key progressive forces in the U.S. even now.

    Unionization, when it means cohesive organization for solidarity and mutual benefit that engages workers in acting for themselves, remains the best tool for workers to advance their interests and society's generally.

    <h2>P.S. Blaming the collapse of the U.S. steel industry solely on unions is ridiculous. Management has to bear most of the blame for all corporate or industrial failures, especially since one of the parts of the "settlement" of the 1950s was unions backing off aims they had in the later '40s to "open the books" (as the phrase went in one big UAW strike) to negotiate things that management chose to regard as its prerogatives. (I know that wasn't you, Tom).</h2>
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