A Union Chief's Bold New Tack

Even as SEIU President Andrew Stern heads a massive effort to put a Democrat in the White House, he admits the party needs fixing

With 1.6 million members, the Service Employees International Union is the nation's fastest-growing labor group. Much of the credit goes to SEIU President Andrew L. Stern, who has added 800,000 members since taking the helm in 1996. Now, while Stern throws its muscle behind Big Labor's efforts to get John Kerry elected, he's also pushing for changes at the AFL-CIO, of which the SEIU is a part.

At the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Stern sat down with BusinessWeek's Lorraine Woellert and Paula Dwyer to discuss labor's strategy for the Presidential campaign and the future of his union. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: The Presidential race remains neck and neck. How can Kerry pull this off?

A:

In the end, the election is going to be won by turning out new voters who aren't necessarily swing or independent. They just have been previously unregistered or previously not voting.... It's a very thin margin. For example, in Missouri, [pollsters] assume an 8% African-American turnout. [Yet], in 2000 there was a 12% African-American turnout. When you ask [pollsters] why, they say 2000 was an aberration, because [traditionally] only 8% [have] voted. But the reason 12% voted in 2000 was because [Democrats] worked to get the vote out.

Q: Republicans are doing things like collecting and using church directories for canvassing. You're saying this type of tactic is new?

A:

People used to go to the churches and give out the voter guide to everyone. That's a lot different than getting the church list and talking to those people as a target audience, identifying them, registering them, and turning out the vote. [It's gone from being] a swing voter, independent strategy to being a new voter, new target strategy.

Q: Do you have numerical targets in the key states?

A:

[Iowa Governor Tom] Vilsack says Iowa is collecting 1,200 absentee ballots a day. In Missouri we've registered over 50,000 [voters]. We did a hundred-and-something-thousand in Philadelphia, 70,000 of which ended up voting in the mayor's race.

Q: How have the new McCain-Feingold rules limiting campaign donations affected the game?

A:

McCain-Feingold has liberated independent groups to do what they thought they could do better than the party, which is do grassroots, registration, and mobilization.... In the past, if you had [unlimited] soft money and you were [a big donor like] Haim Saban or Steve Bing, you gave it to Bill Clinton and got a night in the Lincoln Bedroom or a flight on Air Force One.

But since they've limited soft money...you can't do that anymore. If you're someone like George Soros, who is a businessman, you want to have a high-performing organization. You're almost like a venture capitalist trying to figure out where to invest your money. [The new system] gives donors the advantage of figuring out how to get credit and how to get effectiveness at the same time.

When the parties were in charge, all you could do was get credit, because the parties determined effectiveness. It really is like a market where people compete to convince George Soros or Haim Saban or Steve Bing or unions or whomever that you have the best product on the market, not just the largest product.

Q: Is there a risk that the message might get muddled? That you get a multitude of conflicting messages?

A:

Perfect capitalists would say the market would resolve that problem.

Q: The GOP made great progress in turning out the vote in 2000, when they basically stole the unions' playbook. They're building on that effort this year. How do the get-out-the-vote efforts on each side stack up?

A:

The Republican Party is a dictatorship right now. All the money is in the party.... You have a single line of control. It's very top-down, as when Bill Clinton ran the [Democratic] party. The party was really Bill Clinton's consulting firm, Bill Clinton's media firm. If you want to know the worthlessness of parties, in some people's minds, ask Bill Clinton why, when he left office as the greatest fund-raiser in the history of the Democratic Party, [he] left it [in debt] in an old building with no voter file. It must mean you don't think much of an institution if, after eight years in office, you don't think it needs to live on beyond you.

The Republicans are a party controlled by the President and [GOP political operatives] Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman. There are advantages. They know what they want to do. But there are disadvantages. They're very inflexible.

Q: What's SEIU's relationship to the liberal activist 527 groups such as America Coming Together (ACT) or the Media Fund? Both have vowed to raise millions in uregulated dollars -- including union money -- to defeat President Bush (see BW Online, 7/28/04, "Why 527 Is the Dems' Lucky Number").

A:

We have full-time workers that will be in 16 battleground states by September [for ACT]. We will be ACT's largest contributor.

Q: How much are you spending, and where will the money go?

A:

We're going to spend about $65 million on the effort. We asked all our members to add a $20 special assessment this year. About half a million have done that. Our money comes from that assessment, voluntary contributions, and the regular dues-paying members. About $40 million will be spent on taking members off the job to go to battleground states, to house them, and pay for salary and health care.

They'll spend full-time talking about issues, registering people to vote, and turning them out to vote. We'll spend another $20 million or so talking to our own members at their workplaces about the issues that are important to them, mailing and phone calls, and we'll spend the rest of the money giving to candidates.

Q: Tell us a little more about your work inside the AFL-CIO. You've been trying to expand and rejuvenate the union, take it in a new direction?

A:

If you look at the union movement and you look at the Democratic Party...I think they're both in incredible need of reform. The labor movement is no longer organized in the way that our employers are organized, the way our economy is organized. We are localized, the economy is globalized.

Q: So what are you doing? Expanding into new industries? Solidifying your hold?

A:

A majority of our employers, probably by the end of the next decade, will be foreign corporations. Our kids are being driven to school by bus drivers in the private sector that are owned by three multinational companies [Sodhexo, Aramark (RMK ), and Compass (CMPGY )], two of them based in the United Kingdom. We've been talking with other unions about creating the fist global union in the country. We also have launched the first open-source virtual union in America, called Purple Ocean.

Q: What's an open-source union?

A:

It means anybody can join. You can join, our family members can join.... We want to make people members of our union and mobilize them into the campaigns that we do everyday.

Q: In the past you've expressed dissatisfaction that the Democratic Party hasn't had a a full debate on economic issues?

A:

Hopefully, we're going to model the Republican Party, where a large group of ideas exists, and then there's a decision-making process. The Republicans have a much healthier, full-throttled debate about where they stand.

The Democrats run from [an] issue because it's divisive, and I think we're hurt by that. People keep looking for the populist message, or whatever we call it, every year, because people are hungry for elected officials to talk about what might change their lives. In the absence of an economic message, we have had a candidate-driven model of politics.

If John Kerry and John Edwards win the election, I think it would be great for the country, but it's not going to change people's lives unless we really have a discussion of what we stand for. And we're ready to fight for what we stand for.

For more on the Democratic National Convention, see BusinessWeek Online's continuing coverage at www.businessweek.com/election2004.htm

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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