You know you’ve stepped into a different universe when you hear a major American labor leader saying matter-of-factly that employer-based health insurance and employer-based pensions are relics of a bygone industrial economy.Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which has 1.9 million members and is the fastest-growing union in the country, is not your ordinary union leader. With Labor Day approaching, he was reflecting on some of the challenges facing workers in a post-20th-century globalized economy.
“I just don’t think that as a country we’ve conceptualized that this is not our father’s or our grandfather’s economy,” Mr. Stern said in an interview. “We’re going through profound change and we have no plan.”
The feeling that seems to override all others for workers is anxiety. American families, already saddled with enormous debt, are trying to make it in an environment in which employment is becoming increasingly contingent and subject to worldwide competition. Health insurance, unaffordable for millions, is a huge problem. And guaranteed pensions are going the way of typewriter ribbons and carbon paper.
“We’re ending defined benefit pensions in front of our eyes,” said Mr. Stern. “I’d say today’s retirement plan for young workers is: ‘I’m going to work until I die.’ ”
The result of all of this — along with such problems as the mortgage and housing crisis, and a domestic economy that is doing nothing to improve living standards for ordinary Americans — is fear.
“Workers are incredibly, legitimately scared that the American dream, particularly the belief that their kids will do better, is ending,” said Mr. Stern. He is trying to get across the idea that in a period of such profound change, the old templates, the traditional ideas and policies of even the most progressive thinkers and officeholders, will not be sufficient to meet the new challenges.
“We can’t be the only country on earth that asks our employers to put the price of health care on its products when a lot of our competitors don’t,” he said. “And job security? Even if you want to stay with your employer, as in the old economic model, we’re seeing in many industries that your employer is not going to be around to stay with you.”
A comprehensive new approach is needed, but what should that approach be? Franklin Roosevelt always hoped to inject a measure of economic security into the lives of ordinary Americans. But the New Deal was seven decades ago. Workers are insecure now for a host of different reasons and Mr. Stern wants the labor movement to be part of a vast cooperative effort to develop the solutions appropriate to today’s environment.
He told me, “I’d like to say to the Democrats that we are as far today from the New Deal as the New Deal was from the Civil War.”
He wants more people to pay attention to the big issues that affect not just union workers but all working families: How do you bring health care to all? What do you do about retirement security? How will the jobs of the 21st century be created?
And what about schools, energy, global warming, the environment?
Mr. Stern tends to see the nation as a team and wants the team to pull together to develop a creative vision of what the U.S. should be about in the 21st century. A cornerstone of that vision, he said, should be adherence to the “primary value” of rewarding work.
“We’re a team in the 21st-century period of rapid change and competition,” he said. “And right now, we don’t have leadership, and we don’t have a plan. At the same time, a group of people are enriching themselves far beyond anything that’s reasonable.”
What he would like to see, he said, is a large group of thoughtful people from various walks of American life — business, labor, government, academia and so forth — convened to begin the serious work of cooperatively developing a real-world vision of a society that is fairer, healthier, better educated, better prepared to compete globally, and more economically secure.
“I think you’re already seeing the beginnings of odd formations of people who appreciate, issue by issue, that we have to do something different here,” he said.
The kind of effort Mr. Stern would like to see would logically be initiated at the highest levels of government, preferably the White House. But if that’s not in the cards, someone else should take up the challenge. And there should be a sense of urgency about it.
The fears of America’s workers are well founded. “There’s something wrong with the system right now,” said Mr. Stern, “and we can’t just say, ‘Well, it’s all going to work out.’ It’s not.”