The Association of U S West Retirees



Union boss pops off on economy
By Al Lewis, Staff Columnist 
Denver Post
Wednesday, January 23, 2007

Last week, I made this silly bet with Andy Stern, president of the nation's fastest-growing union.

He thinks his Service Employees International Union can get the Pepsi Center to let its stagehands organize a union.

I say, no way. The Pepsi Center is owned by Stan Kroenke, a GOP supporter who married into the Wal-Mart family and made a fortune developing Wal-Mart centers. I'm sure Kroenke would rather shop Target than listen to Stern.

"We're going to take a stab at seeing what we can do," said Stern on Friday.

Since taking over the SEIU in 1996, Stern has doubled his union's ranks to more than 1.8 million. In 2005, he got 6 million workers from various unions to part ways with the AFL-CIO and join a new federation called Change To Win.

He says industrial-age labor unions are going the way of the Rust Belt. Thanks to the digital revolution, even white-collar jobs - in accounting, architecture, engineering and technology - are going to China and India.

Stern tries to organize what's left - janitors, health-care workers, retailers and public employees - but he must often battle sour perceptions about unions.

He speaks boldly about helping companies manage their workforces and even their health-care and pension costs.

"The union movement became rather male, pale and stale," said Stern, 56, a fit man with thinning white hair. "We did not appreciate the competitive environment our employers were in."

Stern does not care who he offends.

A few years ago, he lost his 13-year-old daughter, Cassie. Nothing hurts him more than that. So he speaks out energetically. In a professorial stream of consciousness, he detailed all that is wrong with the labor movement, U.S. companies and the global economy.

"The agricultural revolution took 3,000 years," he said. "The industrial revolution took 300 years. This revolution that we're all living in ... could take 30 years. No generation of people has seen so much change. ... And America doesn't get it. It doesn't have a plan. We are watching ourselves being overtaken by forces around the world."

In an age of efficiencies and vanishing borders, Wal-Mart is the world's largest employer. "China ought to buy Wal-Mart," jokes Stern. "It's really just a distribution chain for Chinese goods."

In 2008, when Beijing hosts the Summer Olympics, the world will fully recognize the threat China poses to U.S. economic dominance, Stern predicts.

"I'm incredibly impressed with what China has done," he said. "And I'm incredibly frightened of the implications."

U.S. consumers borrow money - often against their homes - to buy Chinese goods. China then invests the money in U.S. securities, keeping interest rates low. Stern said he fears it's all a great Ponzi scheme that will slowly degrade America into a Third World economy.

"The winners are going to be incredibly wealthy, and everybody else is going to be working for them," he said.

Stern said he wants to help build a global economy that works for everybody - not just CEOs with an outsourcing strategy. He has taken his union global to do it.

"I never thought that I'd have SEIU staff working in Australia, New Zealand, Poland, London, Geneva and South America," he said. "But companies, not countries, are making rules. And you can only deal with them on a global level."

In Colorado, the SEIU is a small but growing force, representing a few thousand workers. Stern did not detail his plan to help stagehands at the Pepsi Center.

The stagehands have opposed the selection of Kroenke's venue for the 2008 Democratic National Convention. They nearly dashed Denver's hopes of landing the confab. But the Dems have nowhere else to go but the Pepsi Center.

I told Stern the stagehands' issues were irresolvable. Dems can't tell Kroenke what to do. So there is simply not going to be a stagehand contract at the Pepsi Center by August 2008.

Stern just laughed: "Make a promise that if it happens, you're going to roll a peanut across the arena with your nose."

I cheerfully took Stern's one-sided bet. The chances of the Pepsi Center going union are infinitesimal. And if I lose, at least I live in America, where I can always find a nice, round Chinese peanut.

Al Lewis' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Respond to him at, 303-954-1967 or