An ambitious, impatient man with the lean frame of a regular runner, Stern has turned the SEIU into a whirlwind of activity that he thinks others could emulate -- if they're willing to change how they operate. The SEIU nearly doubled in size, to 1.1 million, during Sweeney's tenure there, in part due to Stern's role as recruitment chief (a job Sweeney tapped him for in friendlier days). Then Stern took the reins and cracked the whip even harder. At the SEIU's 2000 convention, he persuaded delegates to set a specific recruitment spending target for all locals: 20% of their budgets, totaling $80 million. And he got them to come up with $50 million more for an organizing fund.
Meanwhile, Stern funneled half of the international union's $100 million annual spending into membership growth. Overall, the SEIU and its locals devote some $180 million a year to expansion, says SEIU Executive Vice-President Tom Woodruff. That's nearly twice the AFL-CIO's entire annual budget.
It has worked -- which is one reason even labor leaders Stern rubs the wrong way still pay him heed. While most unions are shedding members, the SEIU will hit 1.8 million by the end of the year, with only about 100,000 of the growth coming from mergers with smaller unions, says Woodruff. No other union comes close to matching such a record. Stern also has succeeded with low-skilled minorities and immigrants in high-growth occupations such as janitors and hospital aides. Their unionization is a sharp departure from the white males who historically comprised the rank and file of industrial unions.
A CLEAN SWEEP
Much of Stern's vision for labor is honed from his own experience battling employers. Consider the case of janitors. The union long had strongholds in major cities such as New York, where its 50,000 office-building janitors earn up to $18.57 an hour, plus benefits. But across the Hudson River in New Jersey, some 10,000 nonunion janitors make little more than the $5.15-an-hour minimum wage -- even though they're the same largely immigrant workers cleaning similar offices.
Four years ago, as part of a nationwide janitors' campaign, the SEIU set out to sign up the New Jersey workers. The union only had about 1,000 janitors in the Newark area and had done little to keep pace as corporate flight from Manhattan led to a boom of new offices in northern New Jersey. Stern knew he couldn't run a typical recruitment drive, one janitorial contracting company at a time: In this fragmented industry, any that agreed to higher pay would be quickly undercut by nonunion rivals.
So SEIU tackled whole markets at once. In 11 New Jersey counties, it told contractors that they wouldn't have to lift pay until the SEIU got 55% of those in their area to go along. The union then mounted strikes and rallies by would-be members and took other actions to try to force contractors to go along.
The first 55% trigger point was reached in 2001, and the union contracts took effect. By the end of this year, the SEIU will represent about 70% of northern New Jersey janitors, whose pay now ranges up to $11.75 an hour, plus benefits. While that's still far short of the Manhattan wage, the SEIU is realistic enough to know that lower-priced New Jersey can't support the same pay. Nonetheless, unionization "has been beneficial to the industry because we're not undercutting each other, turnover is down, and workers are more dedicated and loyal," says Mark Blackburn, marketing vice-president at CSI International Inc., a privately held custodial-services company based in Red Bank, N.J., that employs 2,000 janitors in a dozen states and is the SEIU's largest New Jersey contractor.
The janitor campaign is helping low-wage immigrants reach the mainstream. Rita Cortes, who came to the U.S. from Honduras 17 years ago, had been cleaning New Jersey offices for the minimum wage since 1988. When the SEIU contract kicked in three years ago, she jumped immediately from $5.15 an hour to $8, plus some benefits. Today, Cortes, 54, earns $9.75 as a nighttime office cleaner in Secaucus and will go to $10.75 in October. "Now my husband and I can eat better, and I get three weeks' vacation a year, which I never had before," says Cortes.
To Stern and his NUP colleagues, the lesson is elementary: Unions can't lift workers into the middle class unless they control a significant chunk of the labor market, either geographically or by industry. Hence their focus on membership density. It's not enough, they say, to simply increase their absolute numbers. Unions must think strategically, targeting whole areas and industries and coordinating their efforts against market forces that drive companies to undercut each other.
Few labor leaders disagree in principle, but only a handful have taken any such action. Many bristle at the notion that the AFL-CIO would force them to recruit in specific industries, as Stern and the others are suggesting. But last year, in a white paper called United We Win, Stern laid out labor's uncoordinated and overlapping structure and showed how multiple unions represent workers in the same industry. He found that there are 8 unions with a significant presence in nondurable goods such as clothing, 9 in heavy manufacturing such as autos, 13 representing government workers, and 15 each in construction and transportation. If Stern had his way, there would be one or two giant unions in each industry sector.