It's easy to predict the death of the labor movement. Membership has been dwindling for decades. But I'm going to go the other way and say that Andy Stern's departure from the presidency of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is the best thing to happen to the ranks of unions in years.
True, Stern was Barack Obama's best friend among union leaders. SEIU was the very first union to endorse Obama, after he won the Iowa caucuses in early 2008. And Stern was a regular visitor to the White House as a key player in passage of the president's sweeping health-care plan, which, not coincidentally, will benefit his union by using federal revenues to hire additional hospital workers. He has some ardent fans among Democratic members of Congress. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota—who owes his election in part to the SEIU's foot soldiers, paid tribute to Stern as "an amazing asset to America." Students of labor history give Stern (a rare Ivy-educated suburbanite to have risen to the top in the movement) high marks for energy and innovative organizational strategy. Author John Judis calls his departure "another step downward in labor's descent."
But Stern was widely seen as a divisive, vindictive figure, out for himself and his SEIU members at the cost of dividing the wider union ranks politically. Claiming that the movement needed the innovation of competition, but also driven by a personal dispute with his former boss, John Sweeney, he led six major unions in a devastating walkout of the AFL-CIO, which was left to scramble for on-the-ground organizers and budget dollars. One of the six has since left the group, known as Change to Win, and others may do the same. Stern also dropped a publicity campaign against Walmart—which remains nonunion—when the company agreed to some improvements in its health-care package.
Now the Shakespearean backstabbing may end, and there's a chance for peace in the erstwhile "House of Labor."
Relations are good between Richard Trumka, the former mine-worker leader who now heads the AFL-CIO, and Stern's likely successor, his longtime No. 2, Anna Burger. "Anna's a more mature figure," says an official of a rival union, who declined to be identified because the federation has yet to speak officially on the matter. "Everyone always thought that Andy was all about Andy."
Assuming she is elevated, Burger would be the first woman to head a leading union and union coalition. And at the AFL-CIO, Trumka's two top officers are women, a first. At a time when women, for the first time, are a majority of those in the work force, the movement will, also for the first time, have women at the top of its leadership.
The movement needs to be streamlined and unified if it is going to survive, if it is going to help its members in the workplace and maintain what's left of its clout in politics. The decline of unions in working life has been dramatic. In 1945, 36 percent of workers were represented by unions; today, it's 12.3 percent and merely 7 percent in the private sector. With numbers like that, it is amazing that "labor" matters at all. But unions matter politically, in some way more than ever. All the growth in recent decades has been in the public sector: now more than a third of all government and government-paid workers (such as teachers) are in unions. These workers are dependent directly on political decisions, so they are ferociously active in politics. Industrial unions still matter in a number of swing states, such as Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. And while the new, anything-goes ruling of the Supreme Court on campaign finance will be a boon to the political influence of big business, unions will now also be able to dip directly into their treasuries to pay for "independent" election spending.
Trumka and (presumably) Burger are likely to try to work together on campaign and lobbying projects, and that could make it more difficult for elected leaders, including the president, to resist their demands by dividing the movement. Their collective clout in Democratic circles is likely to increase. Labor's voter-mobilization power is the only thing standing between the Democrats and a total rout in the midterm elections this year.
Still, the unions haven't gotten all that much out of Obama and the huge Democratic majorities in Congress. They got Craig Becker, an SEIU lawyer, a recess appointment to a seat on the National Labor Relations Board; they got a delay, but not a removal, of a new tax on "Cadillac" health-care plans that some industrial-union members enjoy (and won through tough negotiations). They got what many in the rank and file regard as a half-a-loaf health-care law.
But they haven't gotten the one thing they really, really want: changes in labor laws they think will make it much easier for them to win union representation elections. The so-called card-check provision is the holy grail of labor. Andy Stern didn't get it because of rock-solid Republican opposition on the Hill, his close ties to Obama notwithstanding. Trumka and Burger probably will not get it either in this Congress's busy remaining months. Time is running out. There will almost certainly be far fewer Democrats in Congress come next year.
In the meantime, what the AFL-CIO and others say still matters, especially in the Democratic Party. The federation has just endorsed Sen. Arlen Specter in his tough primary race against Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania. Industrial unions remain strong in Pennsylvania; in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary there, 31 percent of voters came from union households. In a lower-turnout off year, that percentage could increase, because the unions know how to get their troops to the polls, rain or shine.
In a place such as my hometown of Pittsburgh, that's Big Labor.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.