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Book Review

Andy Stern's A Country That Works and the struggle in SEIU

by Joe Iosbaker and Fight Back! Editors |
March 8, 2008
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In the recent past, a fight inside the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), the second largest union in the country, has broken into the open. The leader of California’s United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) union, Sal Roselli, has resigned from SEIU’s executive board. His resignation came amid charges that SEIU’s international leadership was taking control over local negotiations with employers, leaving the workers without a voice in their contracts.

The critics in UHW charge that the president of SEIU, Andy Stern, is leading the union into becoming a business union, where the union and the bosses that they face try to work out a common approach. This is different than the way unions have made gains throughout history. Class struggle unionism is what workers need, where the union recognizes that the workers and the capitalists have different interests, fights hard for the workers’ felt and urgent needs, and negotiates the best contracts possible based on the current strength of the workers.

The following book review was written by a member of SEIU in Chicago. Joe Iosbaker is a chief steward for 1500 clerical and administrative workers at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a member of the executive board of Local 73 SEIU. As SEIU approaches its international convention this May, there will be tremendous debates about the direction the union is heading. This review is a contribution to that debate, supporting class struggle unionism in opposition to business unionism.


In 2006, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) wrote the book, A Country That Works. His ideas are worth talking about because Stern is important to the union movement. Many of the ideas in the book are good, including that unions need to be more democratic, more involving of our members and we have to grow. Some of Stern’s ideas go against the traditions of the unions in the U.S. And some of the ideas that break with old traditions are good, like being willing to talk to the world’s largest union, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). However, reading the rest of the book, especially those ideas about unions not being ‘problems’ for corporations, I found myself shaking my head in disagreement.

As president of SEIU, Stern has been among the most successful labor leaders in recent years. Under his presidency, our union has organized hundreds of thousands of new workers. Perhaps what he is best known for outside the union movement is starting the debate over the failures of the AFL-CIO. The debate didn’t go the way SEIU wanted it to, so President Stern led us out of the AFL-CIO. Together with the Teamsters, UNITE HERE (Union of Needle Industrial and Textile Employees and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and several other unions, a new union coalition, Change to Win, was formed.

The title, A Country That Works, refers to the fact that America doesn’t work for workers. Stern mentions that most people in U.S. say the economy is poor or not so good; most workers don’t have guaranteed pensions; and in three years, 25% of all workers will be in contingent jobs. The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. In response to this, he points to the importance of the Chicago home healthcare victory, the successful drive by janitors in Houston and the struggle of the janitors at the University of Miami. His message is that workers have to fight to get decent wages and benefits and unions need to be strategic in order to win.

His stories about China and the ACFTU are very interesting. Last year, Wal-Mart agreed to recognize the union for the 30,000 workers in their stores in China. His point was that U.S. unions had to engage with Chinese unions because China was impossible to ignore. There are hundreds of millions of low-wage workers in China and resisting the pressure to lower wages in the U.S. has to include unionizing the workers of the U.S. corporations there.

Stern recounts some of the approaches that have been successful for SEIU in organizing workers. In a New Jersey campaign to organize janitors, sub-contractors complained of non-union cleaning companies underbidding them. His approach was to make companies with unionized workforces competitive by organizing competitors. He couldn’t find many employers to partner with, but even getting a few employers to stop fighting a union drive would be helpful.

A useful phrase Stern employs is the option of using the “power of persuasion” or the “persuasion of power.” Talk companies into accepting the union, or organizing the workers and the union movement and its supporters to fight the company until they give in. In my opinion, persuasion in the class struggle doesn’t really work. Always underlying the substance of discussions where bosses are persuaded is the “persuasion of power.” In other words, if we couldn’t hurt them, they would never listen to a thing we say.

As the book went on, I found more and more things I disagreed with. Stern said the “class struggle mentality is a vestige of an earlier era.” I don’t see how he can argue for this, when he also said that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. If the capitalists are engaging in attacks against us, we have no choice but to respond in kind.

In another place, he refers to SEIU’s sponsored project, Wal-Mart Watch, having “sparked a national conversation” about employer-sponsored health care coverage. In 2007, the news had stories about Stern meeting with CEOs, including the head of Wal-Mart, to encourage them to be socially responsible and provide health care for their employees. Unfortunately, Stern’s biggest meeting with Wal Mart was protested by the workers from the UFCW, who are trying to organize in those stores. His ‘national conversation’ about health care coverage seems to be promoting the kind of gifts to the insurance companies that Arnold Schwarzenegger developed in California, where healthcare still won’t be affordable.

Stern talks about leveraging, where we get companies to agree to accept the union, after a majority of workers sign cards, in return for concessions from the union that will help boost company profits. Also in 2007, there were controversial articles about nursing homes in California and Washington where deals were worked out like this by SEIU, but where the workers didn’t know the deals. The International union agreed not to criticize the companies for years, and the companies got to dictate which nursing homes could be organized and which ones could not. These arrangements were brought to an end when the large United Healthcare Workers of California, the SEIU affiliate there, exposed them.

The last example I’ll mention is Stern’s suggestion that unions and employers should form “value added” relationships. “Employees and employers need organizations that solve problems, not create them.” This is missing the point - workers join unions because there is a problem: they don’t make enough money, or they’re working too hard, or they don’t have any security. Unions exist to solve the problems that are created by the employers.

In conclusion, I’m not surprised that ‘disappointingly’ only a few employers have joined him in his labor-management cooperation plans. I’m happy when he concludes with a section of the book where he warns working people not to be fooled by the corporate propaganda about the great shape the economy is in. And it’s comforting when Stern says things like, “If the going gets rough, SEIU is more than adept” at fighting management. President Stern should focus on helping to bring workers together and strategizing to get them more power on their jobs and in their lives.

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