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SEIU Leader Andy Stern on “Getting America Back on Track”

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We speak with Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union–the largest and fastest-growing union in North America–about his new book, “A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track.” In it, Stern criticizes labor unions for not adapting to the current political landscape and for failing to unite more workers. [includes rush transcript]

A federal advisory panel has recommended Congress take immediate steps to guarantee that all Americans have access to affordable health care by 2012. In a draft report released last week, the panel wrote, “A national public or private program must be established to ensure protection against very high out-of-pocket medical costs for everyone.” Labor unions praised the panel findings and the Service Employees International Union urged the panel to set the 2012 goal in stone to ensure real reform.

Andy Stern is the president of the SEIU, which is the largest and fastest-growing union in North America. He has a new book out — “A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track”. In the book, Stern criticizes labor unions for not adapting to the current political landscape and for failing to unite more workers. Stern lays out a plan to overhaul the tax system, transform the health care system, fix the retirement system, and improve education.

  • Andy Stern, president of SEIU, the Service Employees International Union. His latest book is “A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Stern is president of the SEIU, which is the largest and fastest growing union in North America. He has a new book out. It’s called A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track. In it, Stern criticizes labor unions for not adapting to the current political landscape and for failing to unite more workers. Stern lays out a plan to overhaul the tax system, transform the healthcare system, fix the retirement system and improve education. Andy Stern joins us from Washington, D.C. right now. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ANDY STERN: Hey, how are you?

AMY GOODMAN: Very good.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well Andy, I’d like to ask you about more than a year ago now, the AFL-CIO went through a contentious and heart-wrenching division for many of their members, and you led the formation of the new Change to Win organization. What’s been in the past year the results? Have you been able to move forward in the way that you had hoped for in this new labor coalition?

ANDY STERN: Well, first of all, I think it’s important to understand that the reason we left was because we saw an economy that really wasn’t working for American workers. We saw a labor movement who had been walking down a road growing smaller, not stronger. We had seen all the signs of what was happening to American workers. There was more productivity, and yet five years in a row we haven’t had a wage increase. We’ve had greater corporate profits and at the same time negative savings. So, first of all, the context was the labor movement needed to be a force to change the lives of American workers, and the only way we were going to do that is to grow stronger, not smaller.

It’s a year later. We have begun to see some progress. We have had some very good results in terms of some work we’ve done to change the lives of hotel workers around this country. We’re beginning to look at the lives of independent truck drivers at our ports. And so, I think we’re beginning to see the signs of an organization focused on growth, and I think over time we’re going to see the results.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, labor leaders don’t write books too often putting out a plan for changing the nation’s economy. Could you talk about what propelled you to decide to write this book and what are some of the key changes that you think need to happen for American labor to be able to have progress in their living standards?

ANDY STERN: Well, first of all, I wrote this book for people like Marvin Parker, who’s a security guard in New York City, who has worked for nine years now, makes $7 an hour, got one raise in his lifetime on the job of 25 cents, but more importantly, Marvin has an eye infection. Marvin can’t afford to go the doctor. If he goes to the doctor, he says he can’t afford for the medicine. And then on top of all of that, he’d have to lose a day’s pay to get there. There are too many Marvin Parkers in this world.

I wrote this book, because I love this country. I think America is a gift, and the greatest gift we have has been the American dream. People have come from all over the world to America, and all they wanted to do was work hard, and all they dreamed about was their kids would lead a better life than they are. And when I hear that 52% of all Americans think that their kids are going to do worse than they do, and when I appreciate that we have an economy that’s not working for all Americans, I think we have to put America back on track. I think we need a country that works, and most importantly, I think that means change. Change is inevitable, but progress is optional, and I think America needs a plan.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Stern, what are you, what is your union, what is the whole movement doing — that broke away from AFL-CIO — doing about Wal-Mart?

ANDY STERN: Well, first of all, we just saw the most recent announcement of Wal-Mart, which is really a tragedy. It’s now saying that it will go to 40% of all of its workers will be part-time. That will result in more workers not having healthcare. They’ve told mothers that they’re going to have to be on-call 24 hours. You’re not going to even be able to plan for your child care or to take your kid to church on Sunday. And at the same time, they’re asking taxpayers, people like me and Marvin Parker, to pay for their workers’ healthcare. So we are trying to change Wal-Mart’s business model, and we’re trying to make sure they don’t expand into cities like Chicago, unless they’re willing to be good citizens, good members of the community, that they provide good jobs.

I mean, this is the richest country on earth. It is the 33rd largest economy. Its sales are greater than the GDP of Venezuela and Ireland and Singapore. It can afford to do better. Big American corporations have to understand what Henry Ford understood: you have to pay people enough to buy the products. And that’s what we’re trying to get Wal-Mart to do, to change its business model, to be a leader in America in a race to the top, not a race to the bottom.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You know, one of the reasons why SEIU has been able to grow so rapidly, in my understanding, is that you have been able to convince a lot of local political leaders and corporations to accept the card check system as a means by which unionization can occur in a workplace. But now, I understand, that in the next few days, the National Labor Relations Board, the Republican-dominated NLRB, will finally make a decision, which may actually make it possible for the card check system to operate. If that decision comes down, what is going to be the impact on the labor movement and what kind of strategies has SEIU been considering to be able to deal with it?

ANDY STERN: Well, first of all, one strategy we’re considering is actually to work with our employers to try to see if we can have a different kind of relationship, you know, where we don’t start off assuming we’re going to create problems, but we try to solve problems, and we’re seeing a lot of good new results by trying to think about how do we help workers and how do we help companies at the same time.

Two, no matter what happens in America, people are going to join organizations, and whether the National Labor Relations Board wants to protect all the wealth of corporate America, you know, that’s their right. But in the end, you know, people also have rights, and there are lots of ways for people to gain the kind of economic security they’re looking for. You know, we’ve seen nurse alliances forming, which are not really unions, but efforts of people to come together, nurses at the bedside, to fight for legislation, to file lawsuits against employers who have been fixing wages illegally. So, that’s one type of organization. And in New York, we have the Freelancers Union, an effort of freelancers to come together and try to find ways to change their life.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But Andy, are you concerned about this NLRB decision?

ANDY STERN: Of course, I’m concerned. You know, I am so concerned about a country where people spend time trying to hurt people that go to work every day. I mean, that’s not the America we want and need, and what’s really happening now is the gap between the rich and the rest of the population — and Alan Greenspan is saying this — is growing so wide and so fast it threatens democratic capitalism. More women are going bankrupt than graduating college. The share of national income that’s going to profits is higher — is a record high, and the share that are going to wages are at a record low. So, yes, I’m very worried that the gap is growing. Unions are a way that everyone shares in the wealth of a growing economy, and this NLRB is doing everything it can to preserve an America I don’t think that works for everyone. That’s why I wrote this book, to put America back on track, to make it a country that works.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Andy Stern, president of the SEIU. When it comes to healthcare, Andy Stern, what are you saying should happen in this country today?

ANDY STERN: Well, first of all, I’m just saying this country is going through profound transformative economic changes. This is not our fathers’ and grandfathers’ economy, and the employer-based healthcare system served us well, but it’s a relic of the industrial era. We need a new universal 21st century healthcare system, because in the end, our employers just can’t compete in a global economy when they are putting the price of healthcare on the cost of their products and their competitors aren’t. It’s just not good economics. And at the same time, we have the greatest healthcare system in the world, and now 46 million people don’t have access to it.

The answers are all around us. America needs a plan. We need an American system, not necessarily a Canadian or a Scandinavian, but a system where everyone has a basic plan, everyone has a choice of doctors, everyone has a choice, an access to the greatest healthcare system in the world. The employer-based system is dead. It’s not about incremental change. It’s about fundamental change right now.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re talking about universal healthcare.

ANDY STERN: Absolutely.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Andy, your book rarely mentions — in fact, I think there’s one mention of the war in Iraq, yet the war, obviously, in terms of the amount of money it is draining from the U.S. economy and the militarization of our economy that’s involved in pursuing this war is a huge issue. What is the position of the SEIU in terms of the war in Iraq and Change to Win, and how has the labor movement been dealing with the war?

ANDY STERN: Well, one is, we took a position very early on, in fact, before the invasion, that there were a series of principles that any country should adopt before it takes preemptive or aggressive actions in terms of going to war. And honestly, we said right from the beginning we didn’t think this war met those criteria. And I think it’s now been proven true. You know, we were misled about going to war. We are creating more problems in Iraq. Even the Iraqi people now say it. We don’t have a plan to, quote, “win this war.” And several thousand Americans and 25,000 Iraqis have now died. It’s time to get out of Iraq and to find a way to bring our soldiers home and fight terrorism where it really needs to be fought, and that’s not in Iraq.

So, we are part of the U.S. Labor Against the War. Our members speak out all the time about trying to have a way that we can get our troops home in safety and at the same time give the Iraqi people some real choices and internationalize the situation. What we find is Americans are not great peacekeepers. We need to bring other factors and forces around the world into Iraq to stabilize the country and let the Iraqis decide their future.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Andy Stern, on the issue of universal healthcare, if Democrats were in power, or if there is a change in Washington in November, there is not overall support for universal healthcare among the Democrats, let alone the Republicans.

ANDY STERN: Well, I’m so encouraged that we may see a change in Washington, but yet I’m so concerned that Democrats don’t understand. Most people get up every day, and they don’t think about whether they are in a red state or a blue state. They think about how they’re going to get their kids to work, how they’re going to be able to take care of their aging mother, and how are they going to pay their healthcare bills. Half of the bankruptcies in the United States are due to unpaid healthcare bills. CAP and SEIU just released a report about how middle-income people can’t afford one medical emergency. How can Democrats say we don’t need a new universal healthcare system? I mean, it is so basic and so important to America’s competitiveness. If the Democrats want to be the leaders in the House and the leaders in the Senate, which I hope they soon will be, then they need to lead, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Stern, thanks for joining us, president of the Service Employees International Union. His new book is called A Country That Works: Getting America Back On Track: Something’s Wrong With a Country that Helps the Rich Get Richer While Most Americans Get the Squeeze.

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