On the record with new senior research fellow Andy Stern

August 27, 2010

On Wednesday morning, the Voice sat down with Andy Stern, the former president of Service Employees International Union and a new senior research fellow at Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute. Stern, who led one of the largest unions in the United States from 1996 to 2010, began his fellowship at Georgetown earlier this week.

Interview conducted and transcribed by Cole Stangler.

What made you decide to come to Georgetown to pursue this fellowship?

I was impressed by the work that Georgetown was doing around the formation of the Kalmonovitz Institute for Labor and the Working Poor.

I feel like President [John] DeGioia has a new emphasis on trying to make the University more relevant in the community of Washington as well as [globally], and I feel like the Public Policy Institute is ready to really take off here at Georgetown.

What have you been doing so far and what do you aim to accomplish here?

So far, I’ve found my office. Got my e-mail. I’m currently involved with President [Obama]’s fiscal commission, which will report December 1 on ways to deal with the long-term deficit, Social Security, and Medicare.

I’ve been thinking about how the University can be helpful to me to learn more about what people have been doing here—and then how I can share with people at the University some of what I think is happening and what I think it means for students as well as what it means to faculty.

How would you rate Obama’s performances so far on labor issues? Would you say you’re satisfied?

I’d say the biggest labor issue, which was an American issue really, was whether we’d have health care for 30 million people, many of whom were working people, some of whom were former members of [SEIU’s]—homecare, childcare, and low-wage service workers. I think he’s done really well on the [Equal Pay for Equal Work Bill] and made some great appointments to boards and commissions.

But I think everybody appreciates that right now we have an incredible amount of joblessness and wage inequality, and so far, [he] may not have had the success they hoped for.

So are you disappointed with the strength of the health care reform bill, or are you of the position that any reform is good at this point?

I knew many people who were worried about what they were going to do if their kid got sick, who went bankrupt, and in some cases, died because they didn’t have health care. I think it’s an enormous achievement to have 30 million new people covered. I think there’s an incredible focus now on preventive care and trying to stop people from being sick, and I think in the long-run, it’s a big step forward. But there’s another step or two that’s going to have to get done.

You said earlier that there’s widespread unemployment. There’s also a lot of dissatisfaction with government. Why do you think unions haven’t been able to capitalize on some of this popular discontent?

One is because unions were really strong in the sectors of the economy that have now gone global. There’s now wage competition between the U.S. and China. It’s very hard for employers in a global economy to pay union wages and benefits in general. Two is the union movement didn’t really adjust to the 21st century. We’re better historians than futurists.

And I think, in this century, you’re going to need a new model to think about what unions’ jobs are. I’m hoping that around here at Georgetown, at the Public Policy Institute, that there can be a discussion about unions. But more importantly, how do people that go to work everyday actually get ahead, how do they make a decent salary, how do they retire with dignity? All those things are major problems in our country right now.

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