Growing up in North Carolina, talk of labor unions conjured of visions of New York, Michigan and other states with a rich history of pro-labor policies, not of home. One particular family member—who always struggled to make ends meet —often spoke of the prospect of moving “up North” and finding a union job with higher wages, more job security, better working conditions and earned benefits.
This rosy-but-nostalgic image of labor unions was reinforced through my studies in American history where I learned how prominent trade unions gained power throughout the 20th century and helped create the American middle class. But due to various factors (notably, the decline of manufacturing jobs in the U.S.), unions lost their momentum during the twilight years of the 20th century. At their peak in 1954, unions represented nearly 35 percent of all American workers. By contrast, that number stood at a paltry 11 percent by 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Because I grew up during an age of declining union membership (and increasing power for businesses), I assumed that American labor leaders were at least partially culpable for the decline of the labor movement because they were unwilling to change their tactics and alter their course. However, this broad generalization was debunked when I researched the career of Andy Stern, the keynote speaker for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy’s 3rd Annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast on Oct. 6 at the History Colorado Center.
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Andy Stern does not fit the typical caricature of a union man or woman. But despite his Ivy League education and privileged background, Stern has always felt an urge to fight for those in need and the American working class.
Growing up in New Jersey, he used to hold impromptu carnivals in his backyard to raise money for the area’s poor children. During college he switched majors from business to urban studies. His first job after graduating from college was as a caseworker for the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare. In 1972 he attended his first union meeting after he saw a poster for free pizza at a meeting of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) local office. The allure of free pizza worked — Stern was hooked.
By 1977, Stern was president of SEIU’s Local 668 office and by 1996 he was elected president of the entire union and its 1.4 million members. As president of SEIU, Stern quickly made a name for himself by imploring its members and other unions to look forward and adapt rather than hold onto the past.
“It’s not our fathers and grandfather’s economy,” he liked to say. After all, globalization and corporate powers had created a new environment for laborers worldwide that would not dissipate — period. Stern’s adaptive and futuristic vision for labor unions did not resonate with everyone — including leaders of the labor powerhouse AFL-CIO of which SEIU was a member until 2005 when Stern and other disaffected labor leaders defected from the coalition and formed the Change to Win Coalition.
Stern’s time at SEIU was impressive by all accounts. He oversaw growth in its ranks to a diverse group of 2.2 million workers across the U.S. and around the world and played a pivotal role in the election of President Obama. As a close confidant of the President’s, Stern was described by Modern Healthcare as “one of the key architects” in the efforts to pass the Affordable Care Act..
But by 2010, Stern realized that his time with SEIU had come to a close: “After nearly fifteen years at the helm of SEIU, I had lost my ability to predict labor’s future. To be an effective leader, you need to be able to look 20, 30, even 40 years down the road.” Stern felt he had done all he could at the helm of SEIU and, true to his philosophy of always looking forward, left to begin his latest quest—to uncover the “future of jobs, work and the American Dream.”
To help him on his latest quest, and in recognition of his ability to “bring a thoughtful perspective and a lifetime of experience” to anything he pursues, Stern was brought on in 2011 as a Senior Fellow for the Columbia Business and Law Schools to help them “pursue solutions to important problems like health care, inequality, and worker’s rights in a globally competitive environment.”
Now, with the release of his newest book, “Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream,” it would seem that Stern has uncovered the future of the American workforce he was looking for, and it isn’t pretty.
Based on numerous economic indicators and academic studies, Stern is convinced that a sizable portion of America’s workforce and industries will become automated and that our current economic system, as it stands today, is ill-prepared to deal with the consequences.
This perceived threat to American workers (and to the American Dream itself, he says), has led Stern to advocate for a Universal Basic Income (U.B.I.) of $12,000 a year for all Americans over the age of 18. Stern concedes that details for this seemingly radical idea are preliminary at best, but he is convinced the U.B.I. could end poverty and alleviate the pain felt by American workers in an age of automation while revitalizing the American Dream in the 21st century. It is his hope that members of both sides of the political spectrum will engage this idea seriously, a wish that is beginning to gain momentum.
CCLP always welcomes new and innovative ideas that seek to alleviate poverty in Colorado. Having read Stern’s books, watched a number of his lectures, and read about his glory days at SEIU, I am thrilled that Mr. Stern will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Pathways from Poverty Breakfast.
Register today for CCLP’s Third Annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast.