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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Andy Stern May Be a Little Bit Crazy, But Sometimes Crazy Is What You Need

I’d be the first to admit that not everything Andy Stern says is correct or even makes sense. He frequently overstates his case and is even more frequently impolitic in how he states that case.
But, on some level, my reaction to these problems is: so what? As Matt Bai’s fascinating portrait of Stern in the New York Times magazine demonstrates, he is indisputably the labor leader least afraid to confront the crisis of the union movement in the US and the stark necessity for American unions to either change or die. It is equally indisputable that John Sweeney, whatever his other merits, shares much of the fundamental conservatism of the traditional union movement and, left to his own devices, would move only sluggishly to confront these challenges.
That’s what makes Andy Stern and what he’s trying to do so great. Right or wrong, his proposals (vastly increase the resources devoted to organizing by redirecting AFL-CIO dues and consolidate the existing 58 AFL-CIO unions down to about 15 to increase bargaining power are the chief ones–more detail can be found on the SEIU website) to reform the labor movement are on the scale needed to start to deal with labor’s problems. Smaller scale proposals just aren’t adequate to deal with the structural forces labor needs to overcome and the longterm trends they have to reverse. Like many, I have been very afraid that labor would simply fiddle at the margins of its longterm decline and therefore continue to sink slowly into the sunset. But Stern’s willingness to rock the boat gives me hope.
As fine as Bai’s article is, one thing it fails to do is give you a very good guide to somewhat confusing pattern of shifting alliances within the labor movement as the debates Stern and others have initiated have come to the fore. Fortunately, Chris Hayes provides a crisp guide to these shifting alliances and what they actually mean in this useful article in Q&A format in In These Times. Check it out and by all means follow the debate within the labor movement closely, if you aren’t already. Something important is going on here. It deserves our full attention.