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Andy Stern on a New Direction in Labor

As president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Andy Stern led his union -- along with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and several others -- out of the AFL-CIO to start the Change to Win Federation, the first new labor movement in 50 years.

20:47

Other segments from the episode on October 5, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 5, 2006: Interview with James Baker; Interview with Andy Stern.

Transcript

DATE October 5, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Former presidential Cabinet member James Baker talks
about the Middle East, being Cabinet member under four
presidential terms and working for law offices after leaving
government
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, James Baker, is widely
regarded as one of the top diplomats and campaign strategists of his
generation. He would have led a very different life had he accepted the
advice from his grandfather, the advice which inspired the title of Baker's
new memoir, "Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out of Politics!" Baker served as
secretary of state and chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush. In
the Reagan administration, he was chief of staff and secretary of the
treasury. Under Ford he was undersecretary of commerce. Baker led
presidential campaigns for each of them. He also oversaw the Florida recount
for the Bush-Cheney campaign. Baker is now a senior partner in the law firm
Baker Botts. He's declined full-time positions in the administration of
President George W. Bush, but at the request of Congress and with the
approval of the White House, he agreed to co-chair with Lee Hamilton a
bipartisan commission to assess the situation in Iraq and recommend how to
proceed. Considering how divided Democrats and Republicans have been, I asked
Baker what the odds are of the commission members reaching a consensus.

Mr. JAMES A. BAKER III: Well, Lee Hamilton and I have discussed this on a
couple of occasions, and we have concluded, and so have the rest--the other
nine, I'm sorry, eight members of our commission that unless we can bring out
a consensus report, it's not going to have much effect. So we're going to
make every effort that we can to come with consensus recommendations. There
are--the choice really should not be one between picking up, i.e. cutting and
running, and/or just staying the course. I mean, there are other options
other than just those two. Those are the two options that you hear most
frequently now as we go into a national election because one party's staked
out the stay-the-course position, one party's staked out the redeploy or
withdraw position, but there are other options other than just those two, and
we will come with some recommendations that I hope will be consensus. I
honestly believe they will be. They will not all be recommendations that
please either one side or the other.

GROSS: Now you wrote a couple of Op-Ed pieces about Iraq. One of them was
written in The New York Times seven months before the invasion, and you argued
in that `the only realistic way to effect regime change in Iraq is through the
application of military force, including sufficient ground troops to occupy
the country, depose the current leadership and install a successor government,
but it can't be done on the cheap.' And you suggested that `the right way to
go about things was to seek a Security Council resolution requiring Iraq to
submit to intrusive inspections.' You said `if we are to change the regime in
Iraq we'll have to occupy the country militarily, the cost of doing
so--politically, economically and in terms of casualties could be great. They
will be lessened if the president brings together an international coalition
behind the effort.'

And then in January of '03, the James Baker Institute for Public Policy and
the Council on Foreign Relations produced a joint study of guiding principles
for post-conflict policy in Iraq, and in that, you recommended that the Iraq
army be preserved, not disbanded, to serve as a guarantor of peace and
stability, and the report wrote that it was `wishful thinking to suggest that
Iraqi oil revenues would be sufficient to pay for post-conflict
reconstruction.'

So the recommendations that you've made pretty consistently were not the
directions that the Bush administration headed in. I know you don't really
like to talk about conversations you've had with the president because you
want to be discreet about that, but nevertheless I'll ask, did you ever talk
with the president directly about these recommendations?

Mr. BAKER: Let me answer that question this way, Terry, by saying that every
time--the president told me early on in the administration, whenever you're in
Washington, `Please call my secretary. Don't go through the system. Just
call my secretary. Tell her you're going to be here, and if it's convenient,
if I can do it, I would very much like to see you.' And I do call and I do see
him more often than not. I'd say maybe 80 or 90 percent of the time I happen
to be in Washington, I will let his secretary, Karen, know, and I will go over
there for 30 minutes to an hour, 30, 45 minutes to an hour, and we will
discuss a whole host of things, including policy and personnel, and therefore
I have an ironclad rule that what we talk about in those sessions stays in the
Oval Office, so I really don't want to get into that. What I wrote in the
Op-Ed was valid in retrospect, and I think what the Baker Institute for Public
Policy study showed was valid in retrospect, and that's why I say in the book
that I think we made some costly mistakes by disbanding the Iraqi army.
Sometimes the administration will say, `Well, we didn't disband the Iraqi
army. They disbanded themselves.' But we did nothing, of course, to preserve
it, and so I think that was a mistake and maybe not securing weapons depots
was a mistake, and I think we've learned that if we're going to do this, we
could not do it on the cheap. And, of course, that's one of the reasons that
back in 1991 in the first Gulf War, we really never seriously entertained the
idea of taking down the regime, which would have involved going to Baghdad,
occupying that big Arab country. So I'm sorry to decline to talk to you about
what I talk to the president about but it's not something I ought to do,
otherwise I wouldn't be talking to him every time I come to Washington.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Baker, and he served as
chief of staff and secretary of the treasury under President Reagan and
secretary of state and chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush.
James Baker has written a new memoir called "Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out
of Politics!"

During the Gulf War, you spent a lot of time flying back and forth to Syria,
getting Syria on-board. Tom Friedman, when he was recently on FRESH AIR
during the war between Israel and Hezbollah, spoke about how hard you worked
to practice diplomacy with Syria and get them on-board with the Bush
administration. Now it seems the Bush administration isn't talking to Syria
about the Middle East, and I'm wondering if you think that we should be
talking to them.

Mr. BAKER: Yes, I do. I do because when we were gearing up an unprecedented
international coalition in connection with the first Gulf War, we were even
able, by talking to Syria, to get them to join the coalition to kick an Arab
neighbor out of Kuwait through the use of force. They even sent a division of
troops down to fight alongside American forces. I went to Syria 15 times and
on the 16th trip, we got President Hafez Assad to change 25 years of policy
and agree to come sit down face to face with Israel, sit down across the table
and thereby implicitly recognize Israel's right to exist, even though they
were still formally at war. And we got that done by talking to them and we
were talking to them even though they were a state that was on our list of
states that sponsored terrorism.

And, you know, my view is you don't talk just to your friends. You talk as
well to your enemies. You need to talk to your enemies in order to move
forward diplomatically toward peace. And talking to someone, in my opinion,
at least, my personal opinion, does not equate to appeasement. You have to be
firm, you've got to be strong, you've got to know what you're doing, and
you've got to be tough, but talking to someone is not a reward, it's not
appeasement, and therefore I think we should be doing that, to answer your
question.

GROSS: What role do you think Syria could play now in the Middle East
conflict?

Mr. BAKER: Well, Syria is more of a player today, perhaps, than she was even
back there when we got her to change 25 years of policy and come to the Madrid
conference, because she is the conduit by which Hezbollah is supplied, and, of
course, Iran furnishes the money and the weapons, but Syria is the transit
point. Syria also, in my opinion, has influence with Hamas, and I think Syria
can be prevailed upon to use that influence to convince Hamas to accept
Israel's right to exist in order to get the Palestinian-Israeli talks back on
track. So I think there are a number of things Syria can do. They can do
more towards sealing their border with Iraq to help us in Iraq, and my view is
that Syria is a Sunni nation that would, given the chance, prefer to be close
to the United States rather than close to Iran. Now you won't know any of
that unless you're willing to engage and to find out, and so, my view would be
that that would be a very useful thing for us to try.

GROSS: Do you think we should be talking to Iran too? You say, you know, you
talk to your enemies.

Mr. BAKER: Well, I think we are talking to Iran. We're doing it indirectly
right now. Let me say that when I was secretary of state, we offered to sit
down with Iran at the official level, at the level of secretaries of state,
but the truth of the matter is the Iranian government had done such a good job
of vilifying the United States as the great Satan that they could never get
the domestic political support necessary to sit down with us. That may still
be, to some extent, the case. But there are ways you can talk, you know. We
are talking through the Europeans right now, particularly on the nuclear
issue. There are other ways that we can talk through intermediaries. And, of
course, there's always the possibility of challenging Iran to sit down with us
at the level of secretary of state and see if--you know, who knows, you might
end up putting them on the defensive. They might come back and say, `No,
we're really not quite ready for that.' But it may be a little premature to
take that step, but we do need to find a way to have communications with them
for a host of reasons, not the least of which is their nuclear program.
They're also now big players in Iraq, very big players. You have a Shiite
government in Iraq and, of course, Iran is a Shiite country.

GROSS: Are you concerned as some critics say that America has lost a lot of
its influence internationally because of the war in Iraq and because it has
declined to practice diplomacy with countries like Syria because it didn't
take a more active role in the Middle East, certainly before the war between
Israel and Hezbollah. So, do you think that we've actually lost some of our
influence and that we have a more negative image now internationally.

Mr. BAKER: Well, I think we have a more negative image. I'm not sure that I
would agree that we've lost our influence, maybe some of our influence, but
lost--you know, we're still pretty well-feared by our adversaries. What you'd
like to be in foreign policy and foreign affairs is respected by your allies
and feared by your adversaries. I think we still are feared by our
adversaries. We have a job to do in repairing some of our historic alliances,
but I have to tell you that, in the second term, it seems to me that President
Bush and Secretary Rice are doing everything they should be doing to try and
repair those alliances, those alliances that were ruptured in the first--you
know, during the lead-up to the Iraq war.

GROSS: My guest is former secretary of state, James Baker. His new memoir is
called "Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out of Politics!"

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Baker, and he served as
chief of staff and secretary of the treasury under President Reagan, and under
President George H.W. Bush, he's served as secretary of state and chief of
staff. Baker has written a new memoir called "Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out
of Politics!"

In addition to all your work as a statesman, you're also a lawyer with a firm
co-founded by your great-grandfather, Baker Botts, and the company's clients
include many oil companies, including oil companies that have interests in the
Persian Gulf. The company has also represented the Saudi royal family.
You've also been a member of the Carlisle Group, which is an investment bank
that has bought and sold a lot of companies in the defense industry. So the
question of conflict of interest has come up in your career, you know, as
somebody who has dealt with and deals with American policy and American
foreign relations, you know, being so caught up in oil interests and the
defense industry and the Saudi family. And I wonder what your reaction is to
people who think that there have been times when there is a conflict of
interest.

Mr. BAKER: Well, if there were, then I would have been prosecuted by the
Justice Department because you can't have a conflict of interest when you
serve in government. Let me also say that when I was in government, I was not
a member of Baker Botts law firm, never had been in my life. I had worked for
another firm in Houston because Baker Botts had a anti-nepotism rule nor was I
a member of the Carlisle Group.

GROSS: But you have been affiliated with the Carlisle Group?

Mr. BAKER: After I left government.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BAKER: After I left government. Yeah.

GROSS: And haven't you also been affiliated with Baker Botts?

Mr. BAKER: No. No, ma'am, I never had been affiliated--I never worked for
Baker Botts until after I left government for the last time, back in 1993.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. OK. But after that, you were, for instance, working as
President Bush's special envoy to try to get...

Mr. BAKER: To Iraq, to...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BAKER: That is correct...

GROSS: ...to try to get other countries to...

Mr. BAKER: ...to try to solve...

GROSS: ...to forgive some of their debt to Iraq.

Mr. BAKER: To forgive Iraq debt...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BAKER: ...and what I did at that time was to waive any rights I had to
any fees that the law firm earned from any issues, countries or matters that
had anything whatsoever to do with that issue.

GROSS: I...

Mr. BAKER: ...and I just waived my right to a lot of compensation as a
consequence of doing that, and that's the way I solved the
conflict-of-interest problem. And we ran all that by the ethics people in the
White House and I assume the ethics and government people...

GROSS: I should mention The New York Times had an editorial saying that,
quote, "Mr. Baker's far too entangled in a matrix of lucrative private
business relationships that leave him looking like a potentially interested
party in any debt restructuring formula," and this pertained to being a
special envoy.

Mr. BAKER: Well, that's right. They did write that, but they also said in
the first part of that editorial, Terry, if I'm not mistaken, `There could be
no better pick for this job in terms of his experience in government' or
something like that. And then they said, `But we think there's too much here'
and so forth. Then they didn't like it, but it was legal, and they didn't
like it. Well, The New York Times disagrees, I guess, with a lot of things I
did when I was in government.

GROSS: I know that there are a lot of Americans who are concerned that there
are so many people recently who have had key positions in American government
who have a lot of oil interests. You know, Vice President Cheney had been the
head of Halliburton. You know, both President Bushes had been involved in the
oil industry. You know, Baker Botts represents a lot of oil companies with
interests in the Persian Gulf. So the question comes up, like when dealing
with foreign policy relating to oil-rich countries or when dealing with
environmental and energy issues, are key people in government motivated at all
by their own personal financial interests or by personal contacts that they've
developed through financial interests over the years? And I just wonder what
you'd want to say to those people who are concerned about that.

Mr. BAKER: Well, I don't think that that's a proper concern unless the
interest is very--is pretty direct. Let me say to you that in the two terms
of the Reagan administration--if you'll read the book you'll see this--I never
participated in any energy-related matter when I was White House chief of
staff and for the most part when I was treasury secretary, and I write about
that in there, and in fact, when the suggestion was made that I ought to
leave, instead of leaving the White House to become treasury secretary, I
ought to be secretary of the interior, even President Reagan himself said that
won't work because Jim is disqualified on dealing with energy issues. I never
participated in those.

With respect to Baker Botts, my answer is the same as it was before. When I
was in government, I had no affiliation with Baker Botts. You could say that
my former law firm Andrews Kurth also represented some oil company, but I
don't--that's a pretty darn indirect interest. I mean the fact that you
belong to a big law firm that has literally hundreds of clients and some of
them are in the energy business. And--I mean, I don't understand what you're
supposed to do when you leave government if you've been a practicing lawyer
before you came in. Just say you're only going to join a firm that doesn't
have energy clients?

Let me go back to oil for a minute, because that's a--you know, to a lot of
people, that's a dirty word, and I'm not sure that it ought to be to a country
like ours that uses so much of it and depends so much on it for energy. But
I've been in four administrations, and in every one of those
administrations--that is the Ford, the two Reagan administration and the first
Bush administration--and in every one of those administrations, we had a
written policy that we would go to war to defend secure access to the energy
reserves of the Persian Gulf. That's very important to the economic and, I
would even say, the political interests of the United States. Those were
written policies, and so when you formulate and implement foreign policy for
the United States, you have to look at principles and values, yes. But you
also have to look at national interests, and we've always had a strong
national interest in preserving secure access to the energy reserves of the
Persian Gulf.

GROSS: James Baker will be back in the second half of the show. His new
memoir is called "Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out of Politics!"

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with James Baker. He was
secretary of state and chief of staff in the administration of President
George H.W. Bush and chief of staff and secretary of the treasury under
President Reagan. Baker ran presidential campaigns for both of them and
oversaw the Florida recount for the Bush-Cheney campaign. Baker has a new
memoir called "Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out of Politics!"

In 2000 during the Florida recount, you represented the Bush-Cheney campaign
in the recount, and then after that you co-chaired an election reform
commission with President Carter. What are some of the changes you would
still like to see made in the way we go about elections in the United States?

Mr. BAKER: Well, we had 87 different suggestions in our report. Perhaps the
number one recommendation was that we should move towards some sort of a photo
ID for voting because we think the country is moving in that direction, and we
further believe, and President Carter joined me in this belief, that
minorities and the disadvantaged who are the most--who've been the most
opposed to the idea of some national ID card, they would be better off with a
photo ID because it would be hard to conceive of a voting clerk turning
someone down to vote who had a--could present a government-issued photo ID to
prove that he or she was who they said they were. But our recommendation went
further. Our recommendation said, in addition, this should be phased in, not
until 2010, and the states and the county voting authorities should couple
this with active efforts to go out and find people who are not registered and
register them, and if anyone could not afford to pay for it--the birth
certificate necessary to prove so you get your photo ID card or whatever it
might be, then they should be given those cards free. It was a good
recommendation. I think more and more states are going to move in that
direction. We're at a point today in this country, particularly because of
the security problem that we had after 9/11 that you need a photo ID now to do
almost anything--to get on an airplane, to buy liquor, to buy cigarettes, to
go into a federal building, and we think that a photo ID will do a lot to
protect those people who, in the past, have opposed that idea because they
were members of minority groups or the disadvantaged.

GROSS: One of the phenomenons that we've been seeing lately--maybe phenomenon
isn't the right word, but there are--you know, the secretary of state--the
state secretary of state that oversees the elections...

Mr. BAKER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...is often a very partisan figure, like Katherine Harris, who is the
secretary of state in the...

Mr. BAKER: Yeah, we've...

GROSS: ...2000 election in Florida--yeah, was co-chair of the Bush-Cheney
campaign...

Mr. BAKER: Yeah, we called for an end to that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BAKER: One of our recommendations was that the chief elections officers
of the state should not be chairman of partisan political campaigns--I mean,
except for their own, in states where they have to be elected. But that's
going to be up to each state, Terry, and a lot of our recommendations, by the
way--of those 87 recommendations--are dependent upon whether the states and/or
the Congress implement them.

GROSS: In Bob Woodward's new book about the Bush administration, he writes
that George H.W. Bush, according to Brent Scowcroft, that George H.W.
Bush was in agony and tormented by the war and what had happened afterwards,
and I'll quote here from Woodward's books: "In his younger years, Scowcroft
thought, George W. couldn't decide whether he was going to rebel against his
father or try to beat him at his own game. Now he had tried at the game and
it was a disaster. Scowcroft was sure that Bush 41, would never have behaved
this way, not in a million years." As someone who served in the administration
of George H.W. Bush, and I assume you're still in touch with him, does this
ring true to you?

Mr. BAKER: You need to talk to Brent Scowcroft about that. That's Brent
Scowcroft's view, and you need to talk to him about that.

GROSS: Do you share that view?

Mr. BAKER: I'm not going to get into that. I'll tell you what I've done and
I think I mentioned it in the book--I may not--but I've oftentimes mentioned
it to interviewers, because I've worked for so many presidents, four
particularly, and so many in succession--Ford, Reagan two terms and
Bush--everybody used to come to me and say, `Tell us about--compare so-and-so
to so-and-so, and I always refused to do that because anytime you say
something nice about one, you're in effect or implicitly criticizing the
other, so I stay out of that. And I stay out of stuff like that that would
put someone or what president I worked for on the couch. I'm just not going
to get into that.

GROSS: Well, James Baker, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Thank you.

Mr. BAKER: Thank you for having me, Terry.

GROSS: James Baker's new memoir is called "Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out of
Politics!"

Coming up, unions in the era of Wal-Mart and the global economy. We talk with
Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which
broke away from the AFL-CIO last year.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: President of Service Employees International Union
Andy Stern talks about starting the Change to Win federation and
its mission
TERRY GROSS, host:

Outsourcing and global companies like Wal-Mart have changed the picture for
American labor. My guest, Andy Stern, is trying to respond to that. He's
president of the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in
the US. Last year, as the AFL-CIO was celebrating its 50th anniversary, he
led his union out of the AFL, along with the teamsters and unions representing
food and commercial workers, carpenters and farm workers. Stern founded a new
federation called Change to Win. Stern also chairs Wal-Mart Watch, which
describes its mission as studying the impact of large corporations on society
and challenging Wal-Mart to become a better employer and corporate citizen.
Stern has written a new book called "A Country That Works."

Andy Stern, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let's cut right to the chase here. Why
did you break away from the AF of L?

Mr. ANDY STERN: There was a context, Terry, for the decision. I had spent
10 years of my life trying to change the AFL, see how to be a more modern 21st
century organization. And for the last 10 years and many years before, every
day of my life, I was part of an organization that was growing smaller and not
stronger. But more importantly, I was watching what was happening to American
workers. Productivity was increasing but workers' wages were not. Corporate
profits were up. People's health care and retirement were down. And we were
walking down a road and you really could tell where it ended, and the end was
not going to be good for American workers. So when you're walking down a road
and you know where it ends, you get off the road and you walk in a new
direction where there's hope. Leaving the AFL was certainly not an
accomplishment. It's simply an opportunity to do something for American
workers.

GROSS: One of the things that you've said about the AFL is that you didn't
think it acknowledged labor's complicity in its own failings. Like what?

Mr. STERN: Well, in order to grow, you have to reach out to people that are
not part of your organization. I've said at times, and this is somewhat of a
caricature but the labor movement was a little bit too male and too pale and
too stale and were not really reaching out to people in the new work force, in
the service industries, women, people of color and immigrants, and so, you
know, part of our problem was not being a welcoming organization. A second
was not spending the kind of money we needed to bring new workers into our
organizations. And, finally, we were very focused on the leaders and not the
members, you know, and therefore, we had an organization that really was not
dynamic and change-oriented but was really trying to preserve too much of the
status quo.

GROSS: So which unions left with you to form the federation Change to Win?

Mr. STERN: There are seven unions altogether. The largest is our union,
SEIU, which is mostly health care, building and property service workers, and
public workers, the Teamsters Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, who
represented a lot of the workers in the grocery stores in America, the laborer
and carpenters unions, which are construction unions, and the United Farm
Workers Union, Cesar Chavez's out in California.

GROSS: You said, `We're not going to organize employees one store at a time.
We have to organize across industries and companies.' What do you mean?

Mr. STERN: Well, what I mean is I think sometimes we forgot as a union
movement that our employers live in a competitive environment, and somehow we
thought we could show up at one store and raise wages or for one company and
raise wages, and yet, then that makes those employers less competitive. So
what we realize is the way that we can provide a more positive relationship
with our employers is to organize, you know, whole markets or whole
industries.

You know, for example, if you go to New York City or Philadelphia, all the
janitors in all the buildings make the same amount of money and have the same
benefits, which means the employers aren't competing about who can pay the
less, but they're competing about who can be more efficient and who can manage
better and who can introduce new technology. So what the union has done has
sort of leveled the playing fields, stabilized the work force and allowed
employers to be successful on the right kind of values. And when you only
represent one building, you know, what you would find is you would raise the
wages of those janitors very high and then someone would come in and undercut
by bidding that job at a lower wage and benefit level. And so to be good
partners with our employers, we have a role to play, which is to make
competition fair, and that's what a new and modern labor movement needs to do.

GROSS: So give me an example of a field that you think could be organized in
this way.

Mr. STERN: Well, I think right now we're trying to organize security
officers in America.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STERN: There are two million security officers. It's actually the
largest organizing drive for African Americans and particularly
African-American men in urban areas in the United States. They work in office
buildings, sometimes the same office buildings as janitors who work for the
same companies and the same owners and yet the security officers are actually
making less wages and benefits than the janitors, even though clearly they
have more responsibility, and that's because they don't have a union.

But rather than going to one company--Securitas or Wackenhut asking that they
raise wages and benefits, you know, we're going to a market like Los Angeles
or Philadelphia or Washington, DC, and talking to all the owners about how in
a post-9/11 world we can professionalize the industry, we can stabilize the
turnover, we can work with the police departments to integrate security. So
we're trying to be much more modern, much more thoughtful, much more
value-added, and at the same time make sure that workers who are guarding
these, you know, multimillion and sometimes billion-dollar buildings, you
know, share in the success of what has been a prosperous industry.

GROSS: So how much success are you having?

Mr. STERN: Well, so far, we've seen a lot of good results. We're seeing in
cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, people forming unions and
bargaining contracts that are changing their lives, and cities like Los
Angeles, we're very close to having a first citywide agreement. In New York
City, there are 5,000 more security officers who will be in a union this year.
But more importantly what we're seeing is people change their lives.

You know, Marvin Parker is one of the reasons I wrote this book. You know, he
is a security officer who has been guarding buildings and diamond stores, in
fact, in New York City. He's worked as a security officer for nine years and
he makes $7 an hour. In the nine years, he's gotten one raise of 25 cents an
hour. And Marvin right now, sadly, has an eye infection. He can't afford to
go to the doctor to get it treated because he can't afford the cost of a
doctor because he has no health care. He says, `Even if I went to the doctor,
then I'd have to get medication. I don't have enough money to buy the
medication,' and to add insult to injury, he has no sick leave so in order to
get to the doctor, he'd have to take a day off from work, so he's
self-medicating.

This is the richest country on earth and he works in a very responsible job
and he's done it for nine years to the best of his ability, and yet, he is now
risking his health because his employer isn't paying the kind of wages that he
needs to take care of himself and he doesn't have health care. That's not the
America we want or we need, and that's why this security organizing, and all
of the work we're trying to do, is to make sure everyone shares in the success
of a growing economy, not just the shareholders and the executives.

GROSS: One of the issues that workers are dealing with now is that a lot of
jobs have been outsourced to other countries, including a lot of service
positions, and one of the things you want to do is organize global unions.
Can you give us a sense of what kind of model you'd like to see?

Mr. STERN: Well, I think, just like the first companies who tried to create,
you know, multinational corporations, you know, we're sort of trying to
stagger forward, you know, make progress. You know, what we know is very
simple. It used to be, `Workers of the world, unite!' was somewhat of an
ideological question, and we had this great struggle between communism and
socialism and capitalism. You know, now what we have is instead of those kind
of conflicts, we see that workers in the United States and workers in Canada
and Mexico, South Africa and Indonesia, Korea, who get up every day and who
work for Wal-Mart actually have the same employer, and, all of a sudden, we're
finding not a struggle ideologically but an opportunity in terms of workers of
the world working for the same employers, trying to come together and be able
to change their lives. And we now have done a series of efforts around the
world with other unions, particularly in the security and the cleaning and
food service industry where people that work for the same companies are
beginning to approach their employers in a common fashion.

Some day, you would hope that that would lead to global unions, that it
wouldn't be a coalition or a confederation. There would actually be real
integration so that those workers belong to the same organization, not to deal
with issues about their country's politics or cultural issues but issues about
work, and I think that's the direction we're going. People who work in the
same companies, people who work in the same industry, need to belong to the
same organization, and now that capital has gone global, trade has gone global
and companies have gone global, unions have to go global as well.

GROSS: Boy, it seems like there would be a lot of obstacles to organizing
that because a lot of the countries that the jobs have migrated to don't have
the kind of democracies in which unions are likely to thrive. Take China, for
instance, in which a lot of jobs--you know, a lot of companies have moved
there, a lot of jobs have moved there. What are the odds of forming active
labor unions in an authoritarian country like China?

Mr. STERN: Well, first of all, if America keeps moving in the direction it
has recently and some of the Bush NLRB rulings which are taking more and more
rights away from people like nurses to be able to have their own organization,
you begin to wonder what kind of democracy we're going to have. In China, the
truth is, they actually have better labor laws than they do in the United
States, on paper. The truth is also that they are a part of a government, the
unions, historically. But as the market economy is beginning to come into
place, the Chinese unions are faced with a problem, that the government is not
their employer anymore as it once was when everything was owned by the party
and run by the party. Now we have huge multinational corporations. Almost
every Fortune 500 country is now in China, and these workers are saying,
`Well, I can't go and complain to the government. I actually have to go to
deal with these multinational companies.' And it's been pretty frustrating,
and we were involved with the Chinese unions trying to work with them to
organize Wal-Mart, and it's somewhat ironic that the first unionized Wal-Mart
store I ever went into is in Shenzhen China and not anywhere in the United
States, so I think it is a problem in terms of the history of China.
Certainly, it has not changed significantly. But you can see the seeds of
change as multinational companies come in and workers of the world confront
the fact, you know, they can't raise their wages, you know, simply on their
own. They need organizations, and at times they're going to need a global
organization as well.

GROSS: So what was the union that the Wal-Mart workers were organized in?

Mr. STERN: Well, there's only one union in China. It's called the ACFTU.
It's been there written into the constitution since 1925. It really was as
it's called itself for a long time, a transmission belt between the party and
the workers, but that was in the, you know, communist-dominated state-owned
enterprise era, and now we have a different era, and I think what happens to
the Chinese union are enormously important. They have 140 million members in
their organization that pays dues. It is not the kind of union, I'd say, yet,
you know, that any of us think is the right level of activity, but the point
is it's changing and it's important that it changes in a way that it becomes
an independent force for the workers in dealing with those employers, because
multinational companies are rushing to China and it's a race to the bottom,
and they are at least a force that could raise wages and benefits.

GROSS: My guest is Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees
International Union and a founder of the new labor federation Change to Win.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andy Stern. He's the president
of the Service Employees International Union and a founder of Change to Win,
which is a new labor federation of seven unions. He's written a new book
called "A Country That Works."

Wal-Mart is the world's largest private employer, and you chair a group called
Wal-Mart Watch. What's the purpose of this group?

Mr. STERN: Of the hundred largest economies in the world, 52 are companies,
48 are countries, Wal-Mart is the 31st, which means that the sales of Wal-Mart
are greater than the gross domestic product of Ireland or Singapore or
Venezuela. This is a huge corporation, $300 billion, and yet it's business
model is not only low prices, but really now, more and more part-time workers,
low wages and very little benefits. In fact, it's hard to believe but
Wal-Mart just came out with a new policy that caps the wages of its long-term
workers, all of which is just trying to force them out so they can hire
lower-wage workers. It requires about 40 percent of its workers now to be not
only part-time but be available to work any shift, which means, if you're a
mother with day-care needs, it's impossible to be able to do that, or if you
want to make a plan to go to church on Sunday with your family, you're at
Wal-Mart's disposal if they decide they need to change the shifts. And what
they're looking for is the most flexible and disposal work force.

And then on top of that, if their employees get sick--now, Terry, you and I
are going to end up paying for their health care because Wal-Mart has the
largest number of people on tax-funded health-care plans state by state. I
mean, the five members of the Walton family, and I'm sure they're decent
people, they have $19 billion each. They get $500 million each from George
Bush from his dividend tax cut. I mean, this is not going to build a great
American economy, you know, when five people, you know, make a fortune, and
the people that work there are now being told, `You have to pay $13 for your
new khaki pants that are going to be part of your new uniform at Wal-Mart that
we're not even going to provide you with that.' I mean, this is going to make
America the kind of country that really becomes two-tier. And I think it's
wrong, and I'm working with other people to try to change it.

GROSS: So, are you trying to unionize Wal-Mart?

Mr. STERN: We're not. You know, the purpose of our group, which combines
unions and community organizations, women's and civil rights is really about
changing Wal-Mart's business model. Unions would be a way to do it, but there
are many other ways in the 21st century to get a company's attention and to
try to have them act in a much more responsible fashion.

GROSS: I was reading a book about how politics have changed and are changing,
and one of the observations in the book is that, you know, it used to be that
if you're running for office, you wanted to win the labor vote because it's a
big voting block. And now it's about values. People vote their values, and I
wonder what your reaction to that is and if you think that there is--that the
way some people cast the whole idea of like winning the labor vote seems
outdated.

Mr. STERN: I think that every voter in their minds is weighing a number of
factors, you know, whether it's your feelings about the particular candidate,
whether it's economic issues that are troubling you, whether it's social
issues, war, terrorism. I think we're all complicated people. You know, what
we find, for union members, when we talk to them about the issues of work and
where candidates stand on health care or retirement, you know, people make
their own decisions, and they tend to vote for people that serve their
interests.

GROSS: You're a union organizer who, as you point out in your own book, does
not have stories about growing up in a union family. You grew up in a family
of lawyers?

Mr. STERN: My dad's a lawyer, my mom, as was custom of her time, raised her
kids before she went back to work, and I have two brothers and a sister who
are lawyers.

GROSS: So how did you get into a union?

Mr. STERN: Well, it's a--I wish it was an important story. The truth was I
had been doing a lot of part-time work, and I finally got what was then a very
good job working for the state of Pennsylvania as a social service worker, and
I noticed on the bulletin board that they were having a union meeting to
discuss the first contract. And what really interested me, because I didn't
have a lot of money at the time, was they were serving pizza, so my union
career begins with going to eat pizza and then being the last one in the room
when the final issue on the agenda was the election of the assistant shop
steward of the...(unintelligible)...District Welfare Office and, in a trick
that I used many times after that, I was the last one in the room, and the
shop steward nominated me and elected me by acclamation, and that's how I
began my union career.

GROSS: This is a kind of personal question, but one of the things that you
write about in your book "A Country That Works" is the fact that your
daughter, when she was, I think, 13, died, in part because she had scoliosis,
which is a curvature of the spine and she'd had some surgery to relieve that,
and her death was related to the surgery and to another medical problem that
she had. In your job as a labor organizer, you know, and the head of a union,
you're not working 9 to 5. You're working night and day and weekends,
probably, and I'm wondering how that kind of personal tragedy affected your
sense of, you know, work vs. family.

Mr. STERN: Well, you know, the one thing I'm really glad for, you know, is
that I don't look back and say, you know, I didn't spend enough time with my
daughter or my son. You know, I write in the book about how, you know, we
traveled together to Africa and to Italy and to places around the country. We
spend an incredible amount of time together and you know, in the end, I don't
know what I'd do if I felt like I had sacrificed my family for my job, and I
just think it's enormously important we create a country, you know, where
people, you know, aren't sort of passing their partners like ships in the
night or in the driveway. You know, tag you're it, no, tag you're it, in
terms of child care and other responsibilities. So, I was glad I got that
opportunity, and I, you know, miss her desperately, and she is, as I say in my
book, you know, the courage that I have now to be much more fearless about
fighting for what I think is right because I've faced the greatest tragedy,
most horrible nightmare I could have imagined. I barely made it through it.
You know, my union family and my own family, thank God were there, you know,
for me, and now I feel like I have a responsibility to her and to her memory
to, you know, live with a kind of courage about doing what's right so that
other people can get time with their kids and at least have the opportunity to
do the best they can to raise their family and live the American Dream.

GROSS: Well, Andy Stern, thanks you very much for talking with us.

Mr. STERN: Thank you.

GROSS: Andy Stern is the president of the Service Employees International
Union and a founder of the new labor federation Change to Win. His new book
is called "A Country That Works."

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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