Lam: In the beginning of your book, you wrote that the American dream that had motivated unions, like SEIU, was replaced by “a paralyzing anxiety” around 2010. Can you talk more about that?
Stern: I'd spent my life believing that there was a way to continue what had been an enduring dream in this country that every generation of children did better than its parents. I lived that as a welfare worker—watching the sons and daughters of coal miners and autoworkers go to college and get white-collar jobs.
By 2010 though, the labor movement that I loved had gone from representing one in three or four American workers to one in 16 in the private sector. I could not figure out anymore how a shrinking labor movement, a changing economy, a changing structure of work could accomplish what I had spent 28 years trying to do—which is have the American dream continue.
So, out of ideas and realizing that something different was going on in the economy, I found it very hard to keep doing what I was doing and expecting that I'd get a different result. Unexpectedly to many, but very logically to me, if you can't figure out where you're leading an organization, it's pretty hard to get up everyday and go to work. So I resigned.
Lam: What were you trying to accomplish and what felt so impossible about that?
Stern: Our union had grown over a million members. We've seen the lives of many home-care, childcare, security officers, and other low wageworkers' lives change because of the union. But for all the time we were growing, the rest of the labor movement was shrinking. Inequality was rising. Wages overall were flat.
Today, we know that less than half of Americans believe that the American Dream is possible anymore. It's very hard to keep doing the job you're doing when you don't think it has the potential to produce results.
Lam: One of your arguments in your book is that unionizing is, in some ways, no longer enough.
Stern: Unfortunately, labor unions now play a particularly boutique role in the economy. When they represented one in three workers and were able to, as economists say, take wages out of competition for autoworkers or steelworkers so that companies competed based on quality and efficiency, not who could pay the least, they served a very economy-wide function.
Now, in certain labor markets—like New York or Chicago—unions play important roles, but they clearly are not in the position, other than in professional sports, to really create a level playing field amongst companies to add value on a large enough scale. So for the workers that are in them, they're an incredible opportunity. But, many people sort of don't understand how you get in one—it seems like a secret society at times. The unions have become more and more involved in the public sector rather than the private sector. It's hard to see in the private sector how traditional unions are willing and able to scale up like an Uber or AirBnB.