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Andy Stern is the President of the 1.3 million-member Service Employees International Union, the largest union in the AFL-CIO. He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Senior Writer Aaron Bernstein about the New Unity Partnership, a group he's trying to form with four other unions -- the Carpenters, the Hotel Employees, the Laborers, and UNITE, the needle-trades union -- to help expand their memberships. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: Why are you and the other union presidents talking about forming a new organization?
A: We've made changes in our own unions, but none of us can solve the problems we face on our own. We all have a common belief in changing our institutions to grow. The question is: How do we help each other to do that? The challenge the labor movement faces today is to find new forms of organization that aren't just [union] mergers but also are something that get people to work together. We're pooling our resources for growth. That's the point.
Q: Isn't that what the AFL-CIO is supposed to be for?
A: Individual unions created [the AFL-CIO], but the leaders of it can't tell any union what to do about its own growth. We're all running our own unions, and the question is: Can we create something new to help us all grow faster? That's what we're trying to do here.
Q: Early this year you and several of your colleagues pushing the New Unity Partnership were determined to change the AFL-CIO, to focus it more on organizing. What happened to that effort?
A: We've decided that there's nothing we can do about the AFL-CIO until 2005, when there's a convention [and AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney's term is up]. Right now the AFL-CIO is going to be focused, appropriately, on the 2004 elections. It's going to be consumed by beating [President] Bush. That's its main role ight now, and it should be.
We shouldn't be having a big fight about what should happen in the AFL-CIO until after that's over. Meanwhile, those of us who want to work together on a growth strategy should do so.
Q: But haven't you all have drawn up a list of which AFL-CIO departments and functions you'd cut or refocus in order to home in on organizing and politics?
A: Yes, we're still talking about an AFL-CIO program agenda. It's something we're still working on, an early version of getting off people's chests what they'd like to see changed at the AFL-CIO. All of us, especially people like Doug [McCarron, president of the Carpenters, which quit the AFL-CIO in 2001], whine about the federation. So rather than always whining, we said, "Let's at least make a list of what we'd like to do."
Q: Why not do that on the new Executive Committee [which his group prodded the AFL-CIO to create last February]?
A: Without constitutional changes, the AFL-CIO is going to do what it's doing. We've decided since February that trying change the AFL-CIO while we're fighting Bush is a bad strategic decision, whether Sweeney is for or against it. Those days should come, and we should have that discussion about should we reform the AFL-CIO, but not until after the Presidential elections.
We need to talk about should the AFL-CIO be revolutionized, should its role be drastically increased or decreased? You could say, for example, that the federation has to review all union mergers, and run more things in the labor movement. Or you might say it should be much smaller, and let other labor groups do more.
We've decided to postpone the discussion. You can't just have the five of us talking about this, because we're not a majority [of the labor movement].
Q: Have you discussed the New Unity Partnership with Sweeney?
A: No, we haven't been talking to him about it, but we haven't gotten far enough to talk to anyone about it. It's nothing we're going to hide, and it's not exclusive, but we need more definition ourselves about what we're trying to do.
Q: What do you plan to do next?
A: The next thing is to hire people on a temporary basis to get it going. We plan to get a group of smart people who are out there doing work with different unions who are successful. We've asked our staff to get that going.
Q: Have you come up with specific ideas yet about how your unions can work together?
A: We're starting to. We're looking closely at Florida and Arizona. We're all doing a lot of [organizing] work there. My union has made a huge commitment to Florida, for example. We have a crew of people from our New York local looking at janitors and security officers in commercial buildings and apartments and condos. We're doing research now to find out who owns all this stuff. We know that there are a lot of crossovers between the owners of building in New York [where the SEIU has labor contracts] and Florida.
Q: You're creating a new labor group, but that doesn't mean you're going to pull out of the AFL-CIO, does it?
A: Obviously, all of us are radicals about [membership] growth in our own unions, and the AFL-CIO has to fall under same evaluation. Doug [McCarron] said the investment [of Carpenters dues money] in the AFL-CIO isn't worth it. The rest us think it still could be, so we're not ready to leave it yet.
Since now we're talking about a post-2004 election process that leads to the AFL-CIO convention, we're following rules and staying in the AFL-CIO. We're working with people who share our values.
Q: Does that mean you lost the battle you initiated in February, to change the AFL-CIO's priorities through a new Executive Committee?
A: We decided to put off the fight. It's a 'build it and they will come' strategy. If we can build a new institution and find new way to achieve growth by helping each other, then other unions will want to join. It has been proven that unions can work together on politics but not on membership growth. If we can run joint recruitment campaigns, then others will want to join us. Everyone wants to grow.