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March 11, 2004

Andy Stern: State of the Unions

And the state is not good, according to the head of the AFL-CIO's largest union:

At 8.2 percent of the private sector workforce in unions -- down from 30 percent when I began working in the labor movement -- the fact is simple: we have become less relevant. But more importantly, when we have less strength, we cannot change our members' or all working families' lives as effectively, which is what we exist to do.

Any organizaton's failure to modernize and confront change in the face of huge shifts in the economy, in employers, and in politics is a recipe for trouble, and unions face it, big time.

The world we confront today is drastically different than it was when the AFL and CIO came together, and we must adapt and evolve in order to survive. When I began in SEIU, employers were local. Local hospitals, local real estate owners, local school bus companies, local security employers. Today, employers are regional, national, and even international, which transforms the way we we need to operate in order to be successful. The rules of the game have changed.

Given these dramatic changes in the rest of the economy, how can anyone expect the AFL-CIO structure, now fifty years old, to be relevant today? There is no organization or industry that could stay the same and thrive without major change after fifty years, and the AFL-CIO is living proof.

This is part of the emerging push by SEIU and a number of other unions for a radical restructuring of the AFL-CIO, part of what they have proposed as a New Unity Partnership.

The unions will stay unified for the election season, but internal warfare within the unions is likely to erupt next year.

Which is all to the good-- the best organizing in labor history happened as the AFL and the CIO battled it out in the 1930s over the best way to organize new workers. A bit less placid cooperation between unions and a bit more competitive conflict in the fight to organize may be what's needed.

Posted by Nathan at March 11, 2004 08:57 AM