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January 31, 2005

Celebrity-Driven Labor Coverage

The Sunday NY Times Magazine gave Andy Stern the front page treatment and the result was sadly disappointing. There is some good stuff in there, but it's ultimately a pretty shallow exercise in cliches about the labor movement.

Let's start with a small touch that's ultimately telling about the perspective of the piece. The author repeatedly refers to "union bosses", the old cliche that tries to compare union leaders to corporate executives. Except a top union leader can't fire members or force them to go on strike or approve a contract. It's ultimately a phrase that is used to ignore the crucial difference in the role of workers in unions versus corporations: workers get a vote in a union.

Yet nowhere in the piece is any internal life of unions acknowledged. In fact, in a massive piece, other unions' leaders are mentioned but only one other union official in all of SEIU is mentioned, namely Anna Burger, who is described as Andy Stern's "political aide", ignoring her position as a separately elected top official of the union with a quite independent biography.

Nowhere mentioned are key local SEIU leaders like Dennis Rivera, head of New York's 200,000-member SEIU 1199, which is notoriously outside of the national office's control, or Sal Roselli, leader of California's nursing local.

When I lived out in California, no one in the local labor movement even knew who Andy Stern was, but everyone knew Sal as a key force in unionism in California. And it's people like Sal and Dennis who ultimately determine whether Andy Stern keeps his job, not visa versa. And it's their members who determine if Sal or Dennis keep their jobs-- a fact Dennis Rivera knows well, since he got his job by leading an insurgency against a previous incumbent leader.

Then there's this silly line at the beginning of the piece:

Over the years, union bosses have grown comfortable blaming everyone else -- timid politicians, corrupt C.E.O.'s, greedy shareholders -- for their inexorable decline. But last year, Andy Stern did something heretical: he started pointing the finger back at his fellow union leaders.
What a crock. Navel-gazing and blaming various union leaders for failures of the union movement is a daily parlour game among union activists. John Sweeney won election as AFL-CIO leader in 1995 centered on exactly such criticisms of business-as-usual in the union leadership.

And serious changes were made. New resources were devoted to organizing, AFL-CIO foreign relations were completely remade, and a host of other changes were made.

All Andy Stern is arguing is that not enough was done. But he's continuing an argument that's decades old, which is why other unions could easily contribute alternative proposals for change. Instead of emphasizing the substance of differences over where the labor movement needs to go, the magazine piece lazily sets up Tom Buffenbarger, leader of the Machinists union, as a stereotypical "old union" resister to change. Buffenbarger's proposal for expanded labor media is mentioned, but that's about it.

The personality-driven media around Andy Stern is to be expected from a media that prefers celebrity politics to policy discussion in politics. The piece touches on a few important organizing campaigns-- the Beverly health care organizing drive in Arkansas, organizing New Jersey janitors -- but it never really goes into the detail to connect them to the proposed SEIU reform proposals.

The most interesting part was the dilemma over global unionization and how to convince American workers to link their fates to improving the lives of workers in developing nations like China:

Sure, there was an obvious logic to unionizing foreign phone operators or machinists: American workers won't be able to compete fairly for jobs until companies have to pay higher wages in countries like China and India. But how would it look to workers in America? How would you avoid the appearance that you were more worried about the guy answering the phone in Bangalore than you were about the guy he replaced in Iowa?
I'm glad to see the Times devoting serious coverage to the labor movement. Maybe next time they can give it the depth they give to debate's on business every day on the business pages.

Posted by Nathan at January 31, 2005 07:34 AM