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Commentary: Unions have a leader who may be their future

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Commentary: Unions have a leader who may be their future
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WASHINGTON -- In one of the biggest successes in the history of organized labor in the South, the 4,700 janitors working for Houston's four largest cleaning companies recently joined the Service Employees International Union. The janitors, mostly immigrants, currently earn an average of $5.30 an hour -- 15 cents over the minimum wage -- without health care benefits. The mobilization of the janitors is one sign of why Andy Stern, head of SEIU, is today's most important -- perhaps the only really important -- labor leader.

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Stern was an Ivy League graduate when he went to his first union meeting. He went, he says, because pizza was being served. The class struggle, like God, moves in mysterious ways.

He -- Stern, not God -- has come a long way. Last year he was the principal architect of the secession of the SEIU and six other unions from the AFL-CIO. The seven, now called the Change to Win Federation, were primarily motivated by the AFL-CIO's sluggish recruitment of new members. The seven have more than 5.4 million members, making the group a credible rival to the more than 9-million-member AFL-CIO.

But to what end? In the 1930s, organized labor's function was, Stern says, "rounding off the rough edges of industrialism." In 1939, the year war erupted in Europe and America's rearmament started to end the Depression, there were 1,350,000 American college students, but there were more people than that in just two blue-collar industries, railroading (988,000) and mining soft coal (388,300). By 1968, railway workers and coal miners combined totaled only 715,900, but college students numbered 6,900,000.

Today only 12.5 percent of the work force is unionized, down from the peak of 35.5 in 1945. With 36.4 percent of the public sector unionized, and only 7.9 percent of the private sector, soon -- perhaps next year -- a majority of union members will be government employees. Given Americans' skepticism about government, Stern understands the perils of labor becoming perceived as government organized as an interest group that lobbies itself. "The public sector," he says, sounding almost like a crypto-conservative, "is not the wealth-generating part of our economy."

But he is no conservative. "The economy," he says, "on an aggregated basis, is doing fine -- the problem is distribution." Hence the solution is not just, or even primarily, government, which, Stern says, "does a really bad job of distribution over the long run."

He aims to convince nonunion workers "that Ronald Reagan was wrong -- that wealth does not trickle down." And that "Bill Clinton also was wrong" in saying high-tech employment is the wave of the future. A large (19 percent) and growing portion of the work force is in services and, Stern says, "When you're involved with customers, you can't have a class struggle." Instead, unions, such as those that train employees for some Las Vegas hotels, have to rethink the way they add value to the economy.

In 1972, when liberalism hitched its wagon to George McGovern's presidential candidacy, George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, made his preference clear by not endorsing McGovern and by playing golf with President Nixon. The next year, Stern, then 23, fresh from the University of Pennsylvania and overflowing with enthusiasm for liberal causes, became a unionized social worker and soon was head of a SEIU local.

Today Stern thinks globally. He has been to China five times and believes few Americans comprehend the scale of that nation's potential challenge to America's economic supremacy. Intel Corp., he says, sponsors science fairs around the world for students heading to college. Last year 66,000 young Americans participated in the local fairs that select finalists. In China, 6 million participated.

A world with global flows of trade and capital, and with global employers, needs, Stern says, global unions. If Stern could organize China, that nation's comparative trade advantages would be reduced. The National Association of Manufacturers might want to pay his way to go there.

Stern would, of course, rather bury Republicans than praise them, but his Democratic allies cannot do the former until they pay attention to him doing the latter, which he does, if only up to a point. This point:

Democrats, he says, think presidential elections are like the quiz show "College Bowl." They think it is important to put forward someone like Al Gore or John Kerry who can demonstrate mastery of minutia. Republicans understand that presidential elections are like "American Idol": It is best to put forward someone people actually like.

Stern has the theory right, but his application of it needs some work. In 2003, he endorsed Howard Dean.

George Will's e-mail address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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