The President of Service Employees International Union, the fastest growing union in the nation, talks with Bill Moyers about the growing economic gap between average families and the wealthiest Americans.
BILL MOYERS: I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was Vice President Cheney’s most trusted adviser — as you know, he’s been sentenced to 30 months in jail for lying. Perjury. Not a white lie, mind you. A killer lie. Scooter Libby deliberately poured poison into the drinking water of democracy by lying to federal investigators….for the purpose of obstructing justice.
Attempting to trash critics of the war, Libby and his pals in high places — including his boss Dick Cheney — outed a covert CIA agent. Libby then lied to cover their tracks. He kicked sand in the eyes of truth, to throw investigators off the trail. Said the Chief Prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald: “Libby lied about nearly everything that mattered.” The jury agreed and found him guilty on four felony counts. The judge, Reggie B. Walton, a no-nonsense lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key type appointed to the bench by none other than George W. Bush, called the evidence ‘overwhelming’ and threw the book at Libby. You would have thought their man had been ordered to Guantanamo, so intense was the reaction from his defenders. They flooded the judge’s chambers with letters of support for their comrade and took to the airwaves in a campaign to free Scooter Libby.
TOM DELAY (“Hardball”): This is a travesty of justice.
DAVID FRUM (“Hardball”): The punishment is just so out of line with reality!
BILL MOYERS: Vice President Cheney issued a statement praising Libby as “a man of…personal integrity” – without — of course — a hint about their collusion to browbeat the CIA into mangling intelligence about Iraq. “A patriot, a dedicated public servant, a strong family man, and a tireless, honorable, selfless human being,” said Donald Rumsfeld — the very same Rumsfeld who had claimed to know the whereabouts of weapons of mass destruction, and boasted of “bulletproof” evidence linking Saddam to 9/11. “A good person” and “decent man,” said the pentagon adviser Kenneth Adelman, who had predicted the war in Iraq would be a “cakewalk.” Paul Wolfowitz wrote a four-page letter to praise “the noblest spirit of selfless service” that he knew motivated his friend Scooter. Yes, that Paul Wolfowitz, who had claimed Iraqis would “greet us as liberators” and that Iraq would “finance its own reconstruction.” The same Paul Wolfowitz who had to resign recently as president of the World Bank for using his office to show favoritism to his girlfriend.
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: I made a mistake.
BILL MOYERS: Paul Wolfowitz turned character witness. The praise kept coming….from Douglas Feith, who ran the Pentagon factory of disinformation that Cheney and Libby used to brainwash the press… from Henry Kissinger, who whispered often into Libby’s ear…from Richard Perle, as cocksure about Libby’s “honesty, integrity, fairness and balance” as he had been about the success of the war…William Kristol, whose WEEKLY STANDARD primed the pump of the propaganda machine, now led the call for a presidential pardon:
WILLIAM KRISTOL: I think there’s a very strong case on the merits for pardon.
BILL MOYERS: One beltway insider is quoted saying the neo-cons are “weighted down by the sheer, glaring unfairness” of Libby’s sentence. And there’s the rub. None seem the least weighted down by the sheer, glaring unfairness of sentencing soldiers to repeated and longer tours of duty in a war induced by deception. It was left to the hawkish academic Fouad Ajami to state it baldly, as he pleaded on the editorial page of the WALL STREET JOURNAL for Bush to pardon Libby. For believing “in the nobility of this war,” wrote Ajami, Scooter Libby had himself become a “casualty” — a fallen soldier the president dare not leave behind on the beltway battlefield. Not a word in the entire article about the real fallen soldiers. The honest-to-god dead and dying and wounded. Not a word about the chaos or the cost. All the beltway warriors can muster is a plea of mercy for one of their own who lied to cover their tracks. There are contrarian voices.
PATRICK BUCHANAN: This is an open and shut case of perjury and obstruction of justice. And the Republican party, you know, stands for the idea that high officials should not be lying to special investigators.
BILL MOYERS: And from the former Governor of Virginia, James Gilmore, a staunch conservative, comes this verdict: “If the public believes there’s one law for a certain group of people in high places and another law for regular people, then you will destroy the law and destroy the system.” So it may well be, as the HARTFORD COURANT said editorially, that Mr. Libby is “a nice guy, a loyal and devoted patriot”…but none of that excuses perjury or obstruction of justice. If it did, truth wouldn’t matter much.”
BILL MOYERS: Labor unions and company owners have long been cast as mortal enemies. Remember Sayles’s classic film MATEWAN? Union organizers were defiant, fighting the corporate establishment.
JOE KENEHAN: They got you fightin’ white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain’t but two sides in this world – them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t. That’s all you get to know about the enemy…
BILL MOYERS: The union boss you’re about to meet has set a different course. He’s still willing to strike..but he also wants employees and owners to work together. The business world isn’t sure what to make of him. And he’s been criticized by other union leaders but he remains undeterred. His name is Andy Stern and he’s the president of Service Employees International Union, the SEIU. In an era of corporate take-overs and leveraged buyouts, he’s been going into fortune 500 boardrooms, meeting with the likes of Wal-Mart, Intel and AT&T on health care and other issues. He’s also been sitting down with the powers on Wall Street – There’s Andy Stern’s website…behindthebuyouts.org – where he keeps tabs on the colossally rich private equity firms, like the Carlyle Group and the Blackstone Group, with wealth as vast as royal families.
A far cry from the people in Stern’s union, who have been called America’s “invisible” working class. Janitors, hotel maids, day care workers, and security guards, among others. They’re usually the lowest paid, and Stern is out to change that. Last October in Houston, Texas the union succeeded in organizing janitors who were getting paid just over five dollars an hour. Most had to work two or three jobs to survive, and had no health insurance. Now they’ve doubled their pay and will get health care coverage by 2009. In Chicago, SEIU took up the cause of 49,000 day care workers — largely Spanish-speaking — and convinced the state to award a 35% raise with health care. This past May, the SEIU stepped in to support pro-immigration rallies in Los Angeles, providing buses and security to the half million protesters. With all this activism, Stern and his union SEIU claim to be gaining ground — adding hundreds of thousands of new members a year — while more traditional unions have been losing members and power. You can read about Andy Stern’s goals — and his strategy for fighting inequality — in this recent book, A COUNTRY THAT WORKS. But first, he’s here to talk with me. Welcome to the JOURNAL.
ANDREW STERN: Hey Bill, how are you?
BILL MOYERS: I was just reading this morning, the economy has grown. Corporate profits are at an all time high. Average income is up. There’s lots of money. And even some new jobs are being created. And yet you write something’s wrong with America.
ANDREW STERN: Well, the good news is this isn’t Rwanda or Darfur or some impoverished country. This is the greatest country on earth with the greatest amount of wealth. The problem isn’t about the wealth. It’s about distribution.
And the truth is we are seeing America’s growing apart instead of growing together. Because for all this wealth, for the last five years according to the Census Bureau, American workers have not seen a raise, the longest period of economic stagnation in the history of our country. That is not the future. We have to figure a better way to share in the wealth of a successful society.
BILL MOYERS: Why haven’t workers been getting more money?
ANDREW STERN: Well, there’s only been three solutions about how we distributed wealth in America. The first was the market. And — and people have relied upon it. A rising tide was going to raise all boats. But we can now see in a global economy we have a very different market reality.
Two was the government. The government used try to distribute wealth more fairly, earned income tax credit, tax breaks. But now the government’s distributing wealth upwards. And the third were unions. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Chairman says 20 percent of the inequality is because employers have been successful in making individuals not have the strength through unions to change their lives. So unions are part of the solution.
From the time that unions started we had to fight our way into relevancy. No one really wanted us around. Those that have power and wealth like to keep it. That’s the American way. But unions were a way we built the middle class. Everyone shared in the wealth of a successful society. And as unions have gotten smaller, the wealth has gotten more greatly divided in not a good way for our country.
BILL MOYERS: You recently testified in the House Committee of private equities effect on workers. What’s the issue there?
ANDREW STERN: Did you ever hear of TPG?
BILL MOYERS: The company in Texas that —
ANDREW STERN: Yeah, the company in Texas, most people haven’t. They employ 500,000 workers. They employ more people than McDonald’s, than GM, than Home Depot and no one’s ever heard of them. These are the new barons of our economy.
These are the new barons of our economy. They employ five million Americans go to work everyday for private equity. No one knows there name. And the private is what it’s all about. Being a private —
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, what is a private equity firm as you see it?
ANDREW STERN: Well, what it is is really you take money and you go to the stock market. You buy the whole company out. You take it private. And then you do whatever you need to do to pull out hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. Some goes to pension funds. And some goes to a very small handful of people.
It’s just the essence of what’s wrong in America. We have individuals who will have no power in this situation. Not one worker got a raise when a private equity company took it over. Not one more worker got health care. But 20 companies have made billions and billions of dollars. And we’re just seeing the wealth is incredibly growing apart again in America.
BILL MOYERS: But how are you affected by TPG? What does TPG do that affects you?
ANDREW STERN: Well, TPG and these private equity companies, they own the largest company of janitors in America which was Equity Office Properties. They own the largest health care company in America, HCA. If you go down to Times Square, in case people don’t know, you can go to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum owned by private equity. You go to the AMC Theater, owned by private equity. You go to Dunkin’ Donuts, owned by private equity. Duane Reade, owned by private equity.
Private equity is a new form of ownership in America. And the question is — it’s an opportunity. I’m not against private equity. The question is are only a small group of people going to make money? Or are those janitors and those workers at Dunkin’ Donuts get a chance at the American dream?
BILL MOYERS: Who are your members?
ANDREW STERN: We have about two million members. Significantly, they’re people who are janitors and security officers. They’re childcare workers and home care workers, nurses, doctors, hospital, nursing home workers and public employees. They’re people in the service industry, the new part of the economy. They’re not — jobs aren’t going overseas. And just like steel workers and auto workers were the jobs we needed to make sure-paid enough money to raise a family, the service sector jobs are now the new jobs in America. You need to own a home and raise a family, have that kind of income if we’re going to have an America with a middle class again.
BILL MOYERS: So, what kind of leverage do they have against these huge private equity firms?
ANDREW STERN: Well, when people organize their voices, it’s amazing that, you know, the private equity firms are paying attention to what we have to say. You know, they have — we’ve met with many of them. We’ve talked to them about, you know, “Why don’t you adopt a policy that all your workers have health care? Why don’t you do something about how we create wealth for some of the people that work there, not just for a handful of individuals.”
We’re trying to use the power of persuasion. And if that doesn’t work we’re going to use the persuasion of power. Because there are governments and there are opportunities to change laws that affect these companies. I’m not naïve. We’re ready to strike. We’re ready to talk. We’re saying America is going to work better when everyone shares in the success.
BILL MOYERS: The top two guys at Blackstone, the big equity firm downtown that’s going public before long, the top two guys, when that firm goes public will receive over $2.3 billion. One of them who’s been on this show — takes out $1.8 billion from going public. What the devil — why does they pay any attention to you?
ANDREW STERN: Well, the good news is because we have an issue in America about the question of should everybody who does business pay the same kind of taxes. Or should private equity now get the special tax break that other businesses don’t. We’ve raised the moral question of whether or not it’s right to do these things. And people who get their money from public pension funds which is where a lot of these private equity guys get their money is from our members. And we said, “Why are we investing in people who think that they should make all the money and that the workers should be left without health insurance?”
And so, I think as we organize our voices as workers, all of a sudden, people are paying a lot more attention to us. Because we’re not just talking about our members. We’re talking about what’s happening to every American and whether the American dream is going to endure.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve been trying to get a meeting with the CEO of Bank of America. Has he answered your phone call yet?
ANDREW STERN: Not yet but there will be ways we’ll get his attention very shortly.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah?
ANDREW STERN: Yeah, I mean, they want to buy LaSalle Bank in Chicago. They’re going to lay off 5,000 workers. They have a security company that has now been held in disrepute by Amnesty International and other human rights groups around the world. You know, we are trying to talk to people. But when people don’t want to talk, you know, we are going to have the power of people to try to get their attention and use moral suasion and economic power and political power to try to change their behavior.
BILL MOYERS: I also read that you’ve been taking on the student loan fight. What’s that all about? How are your members affected by that?
ANDREW STERN: Well, most of our members have kids who want to go to college or went to college themselves. And Sallie Mae, you know, was the person that gave them the loan. Now we have Sal-
BILL MOYERS: Sallie Mae is?
ANDREW STERN: Is the federally subsidized loan agency that gives out students loans, the largest provider of student loans in America. They are now merging with their two largest competitors and a private equity firm. Now, if anyone wants to tell me that my 20 year old son’s going to do better now when all the competitors merge together and go private in terms of the loan rate he’s going to get that he did before, I think they’re crazy. And I think this is exactly what’s wrong in America when we have monopolies gaining power and individuals not having the power to make change.
BILL MOYERS: So, how can you influence that? Are you going to petition Sallie Mae? Or are you going to punch Sallie Mae?
ANDREW STERN: We’re going to petition and punch until we can have a conversation about how are we going to make sure that if Sallie Mae is purchased it is not done at the expense of students who are getting loans particularly when the government’s involved. I mean, this isn’t some completely independent private sector entity. The government’s involved. Shouldn’t the government be involved in making sure that our kids can go to college without having excessive loans at excessive collection? So, I think there’s a lot of political power. I think there’s a lot of scandals in Sallie Mae. We’ve seen that they’ve been, you know, black-lining, redlining — traditionally black colleges where they haven’t been giving the same loans, rates and other opportunities that they do for the Ivy League kids. I mean, there are a lot of scandals out there. And it’s time that — people start holding entities accountable.
BILL MOYERS: So, why would Sallie Mae listen to you?
ANDREW STERN: Because I think Sallie Mae needs help from the FDIC which means they’re going to have to get some help from members of Congress. Sallie Mae-needs some legislation passed to get things done. That’s going to require some members of Congress to do some things. And I think Congress has every right to ask, “Why am I doing this for you so a handful of people can get rich? Are we doing this so that our kids can all go to college?” Those are very different choices.
BILL MOYERS: This leaped out at me, page 130. The Republicans are not confused. They made their choice a long time ago. But the Democratic Party is stymied. Will it protect the interest of Main Street or Wall Street? Will it fight for the electrician or the elite, the outsiders or the owners? The Democratic Party’s fear of getting caught in an economic crossfire between its base and its financially endowed allies traps them in a perpetually losing posture.
ANDREW STERN: Yeah, I think the Democratic Party needs counseling. You know, it needs to figure out who it really is. Because most people in America go to work everyday. You know, they earn their living through a paycheck. And they’re finding more and more they’re insecure. They don’t have health care. They’re one illness away.
And the Democratic Party, at the same time, is appealing to those people on Wall Street.
BILL MOYERS: You suggest very strongly in here that the problem is that government is more responsive to big money, organized money than it is to organized workers. How are you going to change that?
ANDREW STERN: Well, I think more people are going to have to come together and through unions and be an organized voice. We’ve seen what the Christian Conservatives did with a small minority of very organized people. We’ve seen even now with unions as a small minority of organized people.
The truth is organizing works. And people coming together works. Change doesn’t happen in Washington D.C. They didn’t pass a law to say we’re going to have a civil rights movement or environmental movement or Earth Day. It was people, Americans, coming together.
We need that more than ever before. Because Americans are paying the price. Individuals don’t have power in a multi-national corporation all on their own. And we’re seeing the results today.
I think the question really is is how do we return to a day when individuals form organizations whether they be unions or in communities that really make a difference? And I think that possibility is here. Because the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing so wide and so fast.
No one begrudges people from having money. You know, there were a lot of people with money in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. But we still had a steel worker and an auto worker that could live the American dream. And the American dream is what this country’s all about.
BILL MOYERS: You describe a system that is actually failing, a system that is working for only the rich people. And I think you’re right about that. But if that is true, can piecemeal action, can two million poor members of a union, can a little improvement here and a little improvement there make the kind of difference it takes to, as you say, turn America around?
ANDREW STERN: Well, I always listen to Margaret Mead. It says never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has. You know, we have seen incredible acts of courage and heroism by very small groups of people like in the civil rights movement. Two million people joining forces with other people, I think can make a difference. But we don’t want small answers anymore. We don’t want little changes.
America is living through the most profound transformative economic revolution in the history of the world. No single generation has ever seen much change. We need a new American economic plan. And it’s not about going back to the New Deal. We’re as far today from the New Deal as the New Deal was from the Civil War.
We need new ideas and new plans. I wrote a book. They’re all around us. Now we need political courage and will to get it done.
BILL MOYERS: But you know even as we talk, here’s the story in yesterday’s WALL STREET JOURNAL, “Detroit’s Big Three facing their worst crisis in decades are seeking unprecedented concessions from the United Auto Workers Union in a bid to narrow what they say is a $30 an hour labor cost disadvantage against Asian rivals. And these big auto companies say that they will go abroad if they can’t bring down U.S. wage and benefit costs.”
ANDREW STERN: Well, I also see the workers who are home care workers in New York or Washington State for the first time having health care and benefits building the kind of jobs that the auto workers have. I see janitors in New York City who can own a home and raise a family. So, there’s a different story of a new economy coming. And the question is whether the jobs in the new economy are going to blight — be like the steel worker and auto worker jobs, jobs that can’t be sent overseas where we’re not —
BILL MOYERS: Service jobs?
ANDREW STERN: — compete — service jobs where not —
BILL MOYERS: Janitors.
ANDREW STERN: — yeah, where we’re not competing, logistic jobs, warehouse jobs, truck driver jobs, food service jobs, you know, what are —
BILL MOYERS: Journalists?
ANDREW STERN: Yeah journalists. You know, where are the jobs that create the middle class. I mean, we all appreciate working on an assembly line was not a high skilled job. It was a union job. And it allowed you to live a successful life.
There is no reason why a truck driver today at the ports in Los Angeles, you know, should be making half the wage that they were making 20 years ago. There are opportunities in America to share better in the wealth, to rebalance the power. And unions and government are part of the solution. But we need big answers not small ones.
BILL MOYERS: But capital can go anywhere it wants to. That’s what you’re up against when you say, “Look, we’re in globalization.” Capital is global. Union can’t be. You can’t have global unions.
ANDREW STERN: Of course, you can. I mean, we’re in the process of building the global union. Trade went global. Capital went global as you said. Companies went global. How are unions going to be local and national?
And we are beginning. We have offices now in Australia and in Switzerland and London, in South America and Africa. We’ve been working with unions around the world. And what we’re working towards is building a global organization. Because, you know, workers of the world unite, it’s not just a slogan anymore. It’s the way we’re going to have to do our work.
BILL MOYERS: But when you split from the AFL-CIO you said you — one reason you were doing so is because they were too concerned with politics and politics is not the only answer. Here you’re saying politics is the answer.
ANDREW STERN: Well, I’d say I think sometimes people are a lap dog for a political party instead of a watchdog to their members and people’s interest. And I think we were too tied as a labor movement to the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party is very conflicted. You know, I think we needed a new independent kind of politics based on one simple thing, what was in the best interest of our members and all people who went to work in America.
And I think as we’ve held Democrats accountable — we’ve created a new organization called They Work for Us. And they are running ads against Democrats who don’t live up to the economic values the Democratic Party should have. And we’re beginning to have some success.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about the hang test.
ANDREW STERN: Well, what we’ve said is, you know, Democrats somehow think that presidential elections are like College Bowl or Jeopardy. We nominate the person who gets all the answers right. And Republicans understand it’s American Idol. You know, candidates are valued not just because they’re smart but — can they relate to average working Americans.
So, we had the hang test. We asked candidates to spend time with our members. And now we’re asking the walk a day in my shoes and do a job of our members and see can they understand what’s going on with average Americans? Can they really have a sense of purpose and values and morality that really cares about people that work.
BILL MOYERS: You had the Democrats down in Las Vegas for a debate or a discussion that your union sponsored? Can they? Did they — have they gotten the message? Can they walk in the shoes of that janitor or that restaurant worker?
ANDREW STERN: Well, we’re beginning to see that. And we’re going to be actually give a report — we have 2,000 of our members coming to an endorsement conference in September. We’ll hear them talk about what it was like.
But what’s interesting about Las Vegas, that was the first presidential debate about issues. It wasn’t about a free flowing, you know, what are you going to do for unions. It was about what were you going to do for America when it came to health care. It was a one issue debate about the most critical economic issue that every American faces. And we’re going to force these candidates, at least, the Democrats and Republicans, as many as we can to have a health care plan and tell every single American how they’re going to pay for it, how they’re going to control costs and how people are not going to be going bankrupt anymore.
BILL MOYERS: So seriously, how are we going to turn this around as you say with a political system that’s bought and sold on the market, highest bidder gets the Democrats and the Republicans with unions that are falling in membership not growing membership with people who are feeling frustrated and left out. How are we going to do this?
ANDREW STERN: Well, I think you’re starting to see the seeds of rebirth. You see a labor movement that made a choice to go in different directions to find a new path to go forward. Just remember what the Religious Right was able to do with a small group of committed people. They really changed the country. And I think we’re seeing the formation of some very dedicated and not small, very significant organizations now that are coming together. It’s going to take some time. But I think you see the seeds of resurgence.
BILL MOYERS: I’ll tell you what I think you’re talking about as I read your book and hear you, a new political movement —
ANDREW STERN: I think —
BILL MOYERS: beyond Democrats, beyond Republicans?
ANDREW STERN: Yeah, I think it really is going to be an issue-based movement that really holds people accountable. I think people are so tired of politicians who were after their vote the day before the election and after their throat the day after election. For our members it’s not about Democrats and Republicans or left and right. It’s about right and wrong.
It’s not just about electing people. It’s about what you do after they’re elected. And I think there’s lots of opportunities with the internet and new technology and new ways for citizens to organize to really hold people accountable, not just a vote and go home and hope they do the right thing. Because they’re not.
BILL MOYERS: A new party?
ANDREW STERN: Maybe, maybe.
BILL MOYERS: The book is A COUNTRY THAT WORKS, GETTING AMERICA BACK ON TRACK. It’s a good read. Andy Stern, thank you very much.
ANDREW STERN: Thank you very much, Bill.
This transcript was entered on May 20, 2015.