After he became president of the Service Employees International Union in 1996, the biggest and fastest-growing union, Andy Stern began nursing an ambition to reform the AFL-CIO by restructuring it into a modernized, streamlined labor federation that would steadily grow in size and influence.
Stern's first open challenge to the stodgy AFL-CIO leadership surfaced in September 2003, when he initiated a reform group with four other like-minded international union presidents to form the New Unity Partnership (NUP). Their aim was to draft a blueprint for the drastic overhaul of the AFL-CIO's organizing methods, policies, structures and functions.
The Partnership was a tightly-knit, collegial group. No women leaders as members. No African-Americans. No Latinos. Just five white males.
Besides Stern, who acted as spokesman for the group, the other four members were: John Wilhelm of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE), Bruce Raynor of UNITE, the apparel union; Terence O'Sullivan of the Laborers and Douglas McCarron of the Carpenters, whose union had quit the AFL-CIO in 2001. They represented mostly low-wage workers: hotel employees, janitors, garment workers, office cleaners and hospital staff.
Without any official authority or outstanding credentials, the "gang of five" took on the awesome task of designing a model of a revitalized AFL-CIO that would grow and prosper in the years ahead. But the most difficult problem, as they knew, would be to convince the leaders of the then 58 international unions (especially those in telecommunications, manufacturing, public employment and service industries) to accept their reform plan, because those leaders had been frozen out of the discussion in preparing it. Stern did not appear overwhelmed by the challenge.
NUP's Bizarre Proposals Reveal Stern╣s Mind-Set
The NUP held secret meetings and finally came up with a reform plan that embodied most of Stern's views. It contained many of the basic features of a corporate model, emphasizing tight, top-down control by an elite leadership; a curtailment and possible elimination of union elections, and no recognition of the rights of union members
When NUP's 13-page internal memo about its plan was leaked to the public, it aroused a firestorm of anger and indignation among labor leaders and activists.
Among its bizarre proposals was one that called for allocating 77% of the national budget for organizing. (How they arrived at such a precise figure as 77% was not made clear.) The leaders would create (and control) a Strategic Growth Center that would assign an organizing plan to each international union and monitor its growth.
NUP also proposed to eliminate or reduce the number of AFL-ăIO's 19 departments, including those dealing with public relations, education, health and safety and international affairs that do not contribute directly to organizing. Such functions, NUP officers insisted, should be carried out by the international unions, not by the national AFL-CIO.
The Partnership would put an end to elections to leadership positions in the affiliated state federations and central labor councils. Its memo stated: "Each national union will select their representatives to State Feds and CLCs." It added that each State Fed and CLC will have a full-time Executive Vice President, appointed by the national AFL-CIO, who will be the "Chief Operating Officer." (Note the corporate style and name of job title.)
Regarding politics, the memo provided a reminder to the five NUP officers about meetings with moderate Republicans and Karl Rove, President Bush's political strategist. (Did NUP's idea of political reform mean a shift to the right, to a more friendly attitude toward Republicans?)
It soon became apparent that Stern had miscalculated. His restructuring plan, with its pro-corporate features, found few converts within the labor movement, even among those who felt reform was essential. After several months, Stern realized that his New Unity Partnership had become a mere faction within the AFL-CIO and, at best, had only marginal influence.
On Jan. 4, 2004, only a few months after it had been founded, the five union presidents met in Washington and decided to close down the New Unity Partnership, since it was clearly going nowhere.
Bruce Raynor, then president of UNITE, tried to put the best face on the NUP demise. "I think it served a purpose," he said. "The list of unions calling for reform has expanded. Hopefully, the AFL-CIO now becomes the vehicle to reform the labor movement."
What did Stern learn from the NUP experience? Not much, as we shall see.
ARTICLE 3 of the six-part series, "The Enigma of Andy Stern," will be
posted here on Monday, Nov. 20. Also, check our Web site: www.laboreducator.org