Speaking to more than 200 business and civic leaders at a Nov. 17 lunchtime event at the Union League in Center City, the leader of one of North America’s largest and fastest-growing unions painted a grim picture of the country’s entire domestic future. He directed some of his harshest criticism at the health-care and education systems, but did not spare big business or his own sector — organized labor — for what he deemed to be the failure to come up with a road map for American success in the 21st century.
Stern heads the Service Employees International Union, representing some 1.8 million workers in the United States, Canada and Mexico who are squarely rooted in the service economy. Its members include hotel workers, home health-care aides, janitors and security guards.
The 54-year-old — who graduated in 1972 from the University of Pennsylvania and got his start representing Philadelphia-area social workers — said that as the economy has shifted from manufacturing and production to information and knowledge, those without college degrees or specialized skills can no longer count on low-skill union jobs to raise their standard of living.
Fifty years ago, there were always good blue-collar jobs to rely upon, he said, but today, there are no such guarantees.
So what are the lower-wage workers of America to do when the American dream seems so far out of reach?
‘Up for Grabs’
“Everything we have been so proud of in this country is up for grabs,” said Stern during the program, which was sponsored by the World Affairs Council.
“The simple proposition has been that if you work hard, your work will be valued and rewarded — and that children will do better than their parents,” he continued. “For the first time in American history, children will do worse than their parents. We should be ashamed.”
Over the summer, Stern orchestrated his union’s secession from the AFL-CIO umbrella labor union, claiming that the main body’s leaders retain an organizational model and policy agenda that better fit the manufacturing economy of a bygone era.
Critics charged that the move was little more than Stern’s attempt to accumulate power, and that it served to further weaken an already struggling labor federation, which comprises less than 10 percent of the American workforce.
“The world changed, jobs changed, the economy changed, and [the labor movement] tried to stay the same,” he told his audience.
Rather than discuss how labor can adjust to the times — Stern predicted that in 20 years, unions will evolve into entities nearly unrecognizable to their present state, though did not offer any advice to the labor movement — he directed his comments toward American society at large. In his view, the current health-care system has to go.
“We have a catastrophic system,” he declared. “In the global economy, health care cannot be a cost on employers.”
He also said that politicians in Washington have to fight to make college tuition more affordable for that sector of Americans who are either priced out of the market or leave school with crippling debts.
“America is stuck,” Stern declared. “We have not yet grasped that this is not our parents’ and grandparents’ economy.”