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Los Angeles Times Interview

Andrew Stern

Jumping Into the Health-Care Fray as the Voice of the Medical Classes

July 04, 1999|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is director of the JSM+ New Media Lab

This month's announcement by the American Medical Assn. supporting collective bargaining for physicians made headlines and caused a lot of talk-show lip flap. But the drive to organize doctors was underway well before the AMA's sanction. In May, 800 physicians employed by Los Angeles County voted to unionize, and estimates indicate as many as 15% of the nation's 300,000 salaried doctors carry union cards. The majority of union physicians are affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, a group best known for its innovative and often highly confrontational Justice for Janitors campaign.

Starting in 1985, the SEIU staged public demonstrations around large office buildings in major U.S. cities, demanding better wages and benefits for workers who cleaned and maintained those buildings. At times they blocked traffic; in Washington, Justice for Janitors staged a series of bridge closures that clogged traffic up and down the Potomac. While controversial, these tactics helped win labor agreements with real-estate-management firms in cities throughout the country.

The union then focused its attention on the health-care industry, which employs more than 12 million. Early this year, in what was the largest union organizing victory in decades, 74,000 Los Angeles County home-care workers voted to join the SEIU. These workers, many of whom earn $5.75 an hour, feed and bathe the county's elderly and disabled. They would seem to have little in common with highly educated and highly paid physicians, but each group is caught up in the changes created by the nation's move toward managed medical care. The idea of a union that organizes health-care workers to take on giant medical organizations has wide appeal among all levels of health-care employees, and it motivated the L.A. County doctors who joined the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. It's also the chief goal of the Service Employees International Union.

Leading the charge is 48-year-old Andrew L. Stern. As the union's organizing director, he orchestrated the Justice for Janitors campaign and the decade-long struggle to unionize L.A. County home-care providers. Since becoming president three years ago, he has seen his union, already the largest in California, become the nation's fastest-growing labor group. He has also earned respect for his efforts to root out union corruption, placing several locals into receivership and forcing the ouster of the union's flamboyant New York local president, Gus Bevona. His forward thinking and embrace of innovative tactics has made him an often-mentioned successor to current AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney, who led the SEIU for 15 years.

Stern is a New Jersey native who was a social worker when he joined the union in 1973. He sees himself as part of a new generation of labor leaders who are determined to rethink, retool and revitalize the labor movement. In a conversation from his Washington office, he talked about the challenges of organizing workers in today's service economy, the ways the labor movement can become more relevant to workers and his personal philosophy as a labor leader.

Question: What's the difference between organizing traditional industrial workers and the service workers that your union represents?

Answer: I think everyone's aware that there are more and more workers in the service sector. Much of that growth has been centered within the health-care industry, which now ranks just below government as the largest employer in the country. Historically, this is not an area that has been unionized, and only about 10% of health-care providers are members of unions. But now we're seeing a new wave of organizing in the sector, with everyone from doctors to home-care workers becoming interested in unionizing. This is spurred on by the changes in the way medicine is practiced in this country. Much of the drive to organize is being fueled by nurses and doctors who are concerned about patient-care issues. What we are seeing now is that changes in the way health care is being delivered are powering today's labor movement much as changes in the industrial sector fueled organizing in the factories of the 1930s.

Q: But unlike factory workers, home-health-care workers are spread out all over. How do you organize such a dispersed work force?

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