The Magazine

Unionsdämmerung

Despite having its best friend forever in the White House, the American labor movement is in mortal crisis

Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Third, it is readily apparent that unions influence the White House’s legislative and political strategies. Many journalists noted that the most frequent visitor to the White House in the first six months of the Obama administration was then-SEIU head Andy Stern. Fewer noted that by the end of the year, according to White House logs, he had been surpassed by Anna Burger, aka “the Queen of Labor,” who was then the SEIU’s secretary treasurer. Almost no one noticed that Obama’s political affairs director​—​the same position once held by Karl Rove​—​was Patrick Gaspard, formerly a top lobbyist for the SEIU. (Had Karl Rove been the former top lobbyist for a group that had spent $80 million electing Bush, it’s hard to imagine this fact being all but ignored.) Early this year, Gaspard moved on from the White House to run the Democratic National Committee.

Both Stern and Burger have been appointed t  o the White House fiscal commission. No doubt, having the SEIU set up shop in the West Wing helped unions garner a signifi-cant concession in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that protects unions’ generous “Cadillac” health insurance plans from being taxed until 2018. The union carve-out added about $120 billion to the bill’s cost over ten years. It’s also recently come to light that the $1.7 billion already spent for the health care law’s Early Retiree Reinsurance Program has been a stealth bailout, with 6 of the top 10 recipients being union pension funds. In all, the administration granted 1,168 waivers covering 2,934,927 individuals, of whom 48 percent are in union health care plans.

The most direct attempt to influence the labor landscape quickly, however, might be Craig Becker’s appointment to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). A former top lawyer for the AFL-CIO and SEIU, Becker was opposed vigorously by the business community, and his nomination was rejected in the Senate with bipartisan opposition. Obama placed Becker on the NLRB with a recess appointment. Within three months, the National Right to Work Foundation had filed 13 motions noting Becker’s conflicts of interest in decisions before the NLRB. Oblivious, Becker has participated in handing down rulings in at least 17 cases involving unions he represented as a lawyer. In each of those cases save one, Becker ruled in favor of the unions.

By any measure, this is a staggering display of political favoritism. Rather than causing its beneficiaries to thrive, however, all this largesse has been necessary just to keep organized labor on life support.

Unions themselves are deeply pessimistic about the future. Until last fall, when he left the SEIU, Stephen Lerner was director of the union’s high-profile campaign for reform of the banking and finance industries. He’s not just any other union official​—​according to Washington Post wunderkind Ezra Klein, Lerner is “considered one of the smartest organizers, if not the smartest organizer, working in the labor movement right now. .  .  . At a time when a lot of people in labor have become, if not resigned to their fate as a marginal force in American life, increasingly confused as to how to reverse it, Lerner has a lot of fight left in him.”

 

So how does the labor movement’s smartest organizer propose to save unions from irrelevancy?

According to audio of Lerner speaking at a recent closed session at Pace University that was leaked on the Internet, Lerner thinks the labor movement has to “destabilize” the country. There needs to be a mass strike on paying mortgages, student loans, and, bizarrely, local government debt. (How local governments are expected to continue paying the salaries and pensions of unionized employees after defaulting on their bonds is unclear.)

Lerner expressed the hope that this would force banks into insolvency. They would then have to renegotiate all their mortgages and loans. It would also “bring down the stock market,” depriving the rich of their wealth. Lerner approvingly cited the fatal and destructive riots over austerity measures in Greece and solemnly invoked the famous Cloward-Piven strategy​—​a theory cooked up decades ago by two leftist sociologists that urges forcing the government into a crisis so as to address economic injustice.

Finally, Lerner announced the first target of this campaign​—​JPMorgan Chase. Why? “So a bunch of us around the country think, ‘Who would be a really good company to hate?’ We decided that would be JPMorgan Chase.”

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