Andy Stern C’71 takes the microphone. He’s standing in the upstairs room of Fergie’s Pub in Center City Philadelphia, wearing a purple shirt and an expression of relaxed intensity. Watching him over mugs of beer are 60 or 70 men and women, some young, some middle-aged, some union-jacketed.

Given his stature these days, it’s a slightly surprising venue. Stern, the icon-smashing leader of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is the closest thing to a rock star the labor movement has, and his unpredictable brand of brainy populism is reaching audiences far past places like Fergie’s. Earlier in the day he was interviewed by Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, and earlier in the week he was bantering with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report. He’s been profiled by 60 Minutes and The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and as soon as he finishes talking tonight he’ll start signing copies of his new book—A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track (Free Press)—piles of which are stacked on the table behind him.

Stern warms up the crowd by talking about how much the city means to him—how, after he had been “sort of run out of the University of Pennsylvania” (a wry exaggeration that endears him to his audience), he became a unionized social worker here and stumbled onto his life’s mission because he heard there would be free pizza at a union meeting. He lets the crowd know his heart is still in the right place by telling them that he wrote the book for Marvin Parker, a security guard who’s worked at the same office building for nine years and still only makes $7 an hour and can’t get sick leave for an infected eye; for all the women who have been forced to declare bankruptcy because they can’t make ends meet; and for all the college kids who did everything they were supposed to and whose real earnings still dropped by 5 percent in recent years.

But just when it looks like he’s setting up to do the predictable Democratic Debbie Downer routine, he pivots. “I wrote this book because I love America,” he says, and he manages to say it without sounding schmaltzy. “I happen to think America is a gift. And its greatest gift is that for generation after generation, people came to its shores from all over the world. And all they wanted was to work hard, and all they hoped for was that their work would be valued and rewarded. But what they dreamed about was that their kid was going to do better than they did.”

He pauses for a micro-second and pivots again. For the first time in American history, a majority of parents now believe that their kids are going to be worse off, he warns. Wealth is no longer distributed equitably by the market or the government, and he fires off quotes from the likes of Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin and Warren Buffett to back up the assertion. Then he hits the power chord that sparks a throaty cheer:

“The only other way America has effectively distributed wealth has been through unions. No matter what you think about unions, they work. They’ve actually been the best getting-out-of-poverty program, best health-care program, pension program, Affirmative Action program, health-and-safety program America’s ever had. And here’s the good news: It didn’t cost the government a dime.”

Then, just as he has the crowd in the palm of his hand, he turns on the reality house-lights.

“Unions, unfortunately, forgot to change when the world changed,” he says, and that change is the “most profound, the most transformative, the most significant economic revolution in the history of the world. Now we’re trying to catch up with what we need to do. We need to be modern, dynamic, 21st-century unions.”

And once again, he’s off and running.

Workers of the World, Adapt! By Samuel Hughes
Photograph by Addison Geary

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/10/06