He may not have been entirely happy about it, but on Monday, Andy Stern had his John L. Lewis moment.
Addressing roughly 3,000 delegates at the quadrennial convention of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Stern, who's been the SEIU's president since 1996, certainly had plenty to be happy about. While the vast majority of American unions have been shrinking or barely holding their own, the SEIU on Stern's watch has nearly doubled in size, to 1.6 million members, which makes it much the largest on the continent. In the Northeast, the Midwest, and on the Pacific Coast, it has won decent wages and health care benefits not just for public employees but for janitors, hospital orderlies, and nursing home workers who would otherwise be making the minimum wage and seeing doctors only in emergency rooms. With the rate of private-sector unionization having dwindled to a minuscule 8 percent, however, the SEIU is really no more than a unionized island in a non-union sea. And the tides, as they are for all American unions, are threatening.
So the SEIU is also going global -- for the simple reason that it has to.
With two like-minded unions, the clothing-and-laundry UNITE and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (soon to become one union, UNITE-HERE, next month), the SEIU is embarking on a campaign to organize such multi-service global companies as Sodexho, Aramark, and Compass Group -- corporations that provide food, laundry, and janitorial services in ballparks, schools, and hospital cafeterias, as well as in Iraq. Combined, the three companies employ 1.1 million people globally and 330,000 in the United States. Sodexho has 110,000 workers in the United States, and the three unions are putting up $10 million and 80 organizers and researchers to unionize it. But the battle won't only be fought stateside. In conjunction with unions in Europe, says the SEIU's Tom Woodruff, who is running the campaign, "We are working for agreements in more than one country." The U.S. unions seek company-wide recognition, while unions in, say, Britain, want access to Sodexho's list of workers.
This level of global union cooperation is new, but much about this campaign takes a leaf out of John L. Lewis's 70-year-old book on industrial organizing. Like Lewis, whose United Mine Workers funded the rise of such new unions as the United Auto Workers, the SEIU and UNITE-HERE envision a new union rising for the workers in these three companies. Like Lewis, who signed the first company-wide contracts with General Motors and U.S. Steel, Stern and UNITE-HERE's leaders, Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm, believe the only way to build back union strength is to organize entire companies at a time, rather than go facility by facility.
And like Lewis, whose frustration at the American Federation of Labor's opposition to industrial organizing led him to break away and found the CIO in 1935, Stern called on Monday for the AFL-CIO (the two groups got back together in 1955) to radically change its structure. Currently, the AFL-CIO has 65 member unions, the vast majority too small to fund organizing campaigns, though some -- or their locals -- have been known to pick up new members when employers, facing the prospect of real unionization by the likes of the SEIU, have cut sweetheart deals with them. Stern would like to see the unions consolidated into about 15, with clear sectoral responsibilities and enough resources to organize. On Monday Stern told his delegates that it was time either to "change the AFL-CIO or build something stronger." At that, the floor erupted; delegates stood and whooped for a full minute.
Stern hadn't wanted to raise this now, when all labor is working together to depose George W. Bush, but since the SEIU's next convention isn't until 2008, he had little choice. Moreover, the most likely way to raise these issues would be to run a candidate for the AFL-CIO presidency next year -- Wilhelm's name is the one most commonly mentioned -- and the AFL-CIO already has a president, former SEIU president and Stern mentor John Sweeney.
Stern made clear on Monday that the problem was the AFL-CIO's structure, not Sweeney. Unlike Lewis in days of yore, he has not said anything about storming out. But the logic of what Stern, Wilhelm, and Raynor are asking is for many of their fellow union presidents to put themselves out of a job, albeit in the necessary cause of rebuilding their rickety movement. If Stern and company don't prevail, the same door John L. Lewis left through is always gapingly there.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. This story originally appeared in The Washington Post.