Online Extra: "We Need to Refocus the Labor Movement"

Steelworkers President Leo Gerard on the need to work harder on membership growth and to take back America from the corporations

Leo Gerard, President of the United Steelworkers, has worked hard to redirect his union and get it to focus more on membership growth. However, for a variety of reasons those efforts haven't yet begun to pay off. Like other industrial unions, the steelworkers have complained for several years that their issues get short shrift from the AFL-CIO.

However, Gerard says he realizes how difficult it is for AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to change the whole labor movement. He also has been a strong supporter of federation Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka, who comes from another industrial union, the mineworkers. Gerard recently spoke with BusinessWeek Senior Editor Aaron Bernstein. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q: What do you think about the things Andy Stern and the New Unity Partnership (NUP) have been saying in recent months?


I'm not interested in distractions before the Presidential elections, but we do need to look not just at the U.S. labor movement but at labor globally. The pendulum has been swinging the other way during the past 25 years of globalization, which have strengthened the hands of global companies.

The first step we need to take is to rebalance these policies, which hurt workers. In the U.S., we need to refocus the labor movement on the grass-roots to make an effort to take back America from the corporations.

Q: Stern and others say unions need to focus on specific industries, merge into larger unions, and have industrywide bargaining.


That's a whole lot easier to say when you're in industries that can't move overseas like he is. You can't really move a hospital or store to China. In terms of mergers, unions do need to be more powerful, but you also can't have shotgun weddings in labor. There has to be a discussion.

Q: What about industrywide bargaining, is that a good idea?


Yes, of course, but it's difficult to do. Take our union. We have 7,000 local bargaining units and maybe 5,000 separate contracts. You can't just tear them up and make then into a few contracts, the companies won't go along. But it's a good thing to pursue. That's how it's done in parts of Europe. For example, IG Metall [the German metalworkers union], has maybe 25 to 30 large master contracts.

Q: So do you believe Stern is making some good suggestions about what labor should do?


I agree that no one would design the labor movement like the way it is if you were starting from scratch today. There's a lot we need to do, and a degree of debate on it has to transpire to move us forward.

Q: But hasn't Sweeney been saying a lot of the same things over the years, about unions' need to refocus on membership growth?


Yes, Sweeney came in with a strong message on organizing, but it didn't work. Not enough unions have changed. Although I think John has done a good job of building a new structure in the AFL-CIO. He and Rich [Trumka] and Linda [Chavez-Thompson, the AFL-CIO's executive vice-president] have created massive changes.

Q: Does more need to be done?


Yes, we need a serious discussion about how to change labor. Change takes time, and there's not just one thing we can do.

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