Cornell University

March 4 2010

Labor Leader describes "Third Revolution"

Unions can help Americans through economic crisis, Stern says

Lack of planning by the United States is putting China in charge of global wages and other world issues, the president of North America’s biggest union told an Ives Hall audience Wednesday.

“Our jobs have all gone to China ... we really have an issue this country needs to come to grips with,” said Andy Stern, president of Service Employees International Union and ILR’s Alice B. Grant Labor Leader in Residence.

China, he said, has an economic plan aimed at the future.  It dominates manufacturing, has been able to lift more than 800 million people out of poverty and is poised to take more control of the world economy.

Meanwhile, America is directionless and increasingly burdened by its deficit, said Stern, who leads a union of 2.2-million janitors, health care workers, child care providers and others.

“Team USA has had a bad year ... China has had a really good year.  We don’t seem to have a plan,” he told 150 students, faculty, staff and community members.  Video of the event can be seen here.

A corrupt political system has blocked President Barack Obama from implementing reform, Stern said.

“What is our way out of here?  All the economic dislocation that we will continue to face ... unions still can be a viable way to rebuild the American economy,” Stern said.

“Unions, in fact, have been the best long-term anti-poverty, the best jobs, best welfare, best health and safety, best on-the-job training program that America has ever had – when bargained by a strategic, pro-quality and competitive, sensitive union.”

“And, more importantly -– particularly right now, it does not cost the government a dime.”

Political antics during the health care reform debate squandered an opportunity for change and underscored the nation’s lack of planning during the “Third Revolution,” Stern said.

The most profound economic changes in world history are occurring now, he said.

And, the changes are happening swiftly, Stern said.

“We are the first generation to live through an entire economic revolution from start to finish ... it is a breathtaking moment of history.”

Within a 30-year-period –- an astoundingly short window compared to the 3,000-year Agricultural Revolution and the 300-year Industrial Revolution – nation-driven economies have been absorbed by a corporate-driven, globally interdependent economy.

The American dream of leaving the next generation better off has been upended, he said.

Job tenure is a remnant of the past -- most Americans will have nine to 12 jobs by the time they are 35, Stern said.  In 25 years, two thirds of today’s employers will no longer exist.

Stern met with students, faculty and local union members Tuesday and Wednesday as ILR’s Labor Leader in Residence program.

The program is named after Alice Grant, a founder of ILR's Extension division and a leader of the school’s early efforts to build an outreach and educational program for trade unionists.