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Gaffes and the Future of the Labor Movement
Progressive Populist
by Nathan Newman
September 15, 2004

Pundit Michael Kinsley once defined a gaffe as a leader accidentally telling the truth at an inconvenient time. 

When Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), was quoted in the Washington Post on the eve of the Democratic Convention saying that electing John Kerry as President would not solve the problems ailing the labor movement and, in fact, might make some leaders complacent and slow down needed reforms, he committed a classic gaffe.

Some journalists interpreted the comment as somehow a criticism of Kerry, an unlikely meaning given that Stern has committed more funds and volunteer effort to the Kerry campaign than probably any organization out there. 

Why a Kerry Win Isn’t Enough: But the reality is that Kerry will be facing a hostile Republican Congress that will block and filibuster any serious labor law reform he might propose.   Kerry can improve the membership of the National Labor Relations Board, pass some useful executive orders, and block any pernicious bills the GOP might try to ram through, but he won’t be able to change the fundamentally bad laws that undermine unions’ ability to organize.

Which means come the day after the inauguration, whoever wins, union leaders and, even more importantly, union members will have to struggle with the reforms within the labor movement needed to take on corporate power more effectively.  Stern, along with a number of other labor leaders—notably John Wilhelm and Bruce Raynor of the newly merged UNITE HERE—have been promoting the idea of a New Unity Partnership (NUP), a sharp reorganization of organizing jurisdictions between unions and major internal shakeups within them.  

The NUP ideas range from putting more resources into coordinated industry organizing campaigns, an effort supported by most progressive unionists, to redrawing the map of which unions organize in what industries, an idea that creates lots of resistance by many union leaders.   And possibly most controversially, Stern thinks that unions need to centralize power and decrease autonomy for union locals, not always a popular message among “small is beautiful” activists, but arguably needed if unions are going to have a fighting chance against even more centralized multinational corporations. 

Debating the Future:  Now, there are a lot of criticisms of Stern’s proposals for reform by other union leaders, some quite reasonable, some self-interested and, yes, based on complacency.  But the biggest objection to Stern’s comments seems to have been his timing and that he was allowing the discussion to happen publicly on the front pages of major newspapers.

The problem is that people have been shutting up publicly about problems in the labor movement for decades.  As Bruce Raynor said in reaction to the whole controversy:

The labor movement needs to confront these issues, but not in a backroom.  We’re not the Kremlin.  It’s not like people don’t know that our ability to protect American workers has been weakened.  We have to turn that around, and to some degree that debate has to be done publicly.

The sad fact is that it’s so hard to get anyone in the public excited enough to talk about core labor issues.   Once upon a time, internal union debates were the bread and butter of the larger left and liberal milieu of political discussion.   What Walter Reuther was doing—or not doing—at the United Auto Workers galvanized vigorous debates beyond the shop floor of General Motors.  And what John L. Lewis and the Mineworkers were planning was a fixture of mainstream news.

Forcing the Issue:  That a bit of this needed debate appeared in national newspapers for the first time in a long while by itself justifies Stern’s “gaffe,” since the newspapers probably wouldn’t touch such issues except in the context of an election story.

I don’t have to agree with everything Stern says to be damn glad he’s saying it, since he’s forcing people to actually engage the question of how unions need to change in order to not only tread water, but to organize the tens of millions of people needed to make a real challenge to corporate power in the workplace and in the economy.

For anyone who objects to Stern’s timing in bring the debate up when he did, I have to ask, if he hadn’t done it then, would most folks have paid attention later?  This debate needs to happen, not just for the sake of the labor movement, but for the sake of the whole progressive movement of which labor is a key part.  And it’s a debate that members of the broader movement needs to be involved in, since they will have to be a part of those plans if labor is going to succeed in reviving its fortunes. 

We will need a lot more gaffes and other inconvenient truths spoken before this process within the labor movement is finished.

Nathan Newman is a labor lawyer and longtime community activist. Email or see

Posted by Nathan at September 15, 2004 09:39 PM