"We need a discussion in the United States on how we reward work," Andy Stern said.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Andy Stern heads a big labor union representing people most Silicon Valley business leaders rarely think about, including janitors, nursing-home aides and school-bus drivers.
Which makes Stern just about the last person you’d expect on a ballroom stage at the posh Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Hotel, addressing 420 polo-shirt-wearing members of the technology elite at the annual PC Forum conference.
PC Forum is one of those schmooze-fests where entrepreneurs, investors and journalists gather to debate technology issues and indulge in self-congratulatory talk about how the rest of the world’s problems — from failing schools to global poverty — can be solved with faster Web access.
But PC Forum organizer Esther Dyson is known for stretching beyond the usual schmooze-fest boundaries, which might explain why she invited Stern to speak at the conference’s opening session on March 20.
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Stern, president of the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union, based in Washington, D.C., cannily talked more like a tech executive pitching a business plan than a table-pounding union boss.
“We need a discussion in the United States on how we reward work,” Stern said.
He called on the technology leaders to consider how workers and management can move forward together.
“Maybe we could beta-test something different,” he declared on stage.
Stern’s timing may be good. In the past, there was too much money and fast growth in Silicon Valley for anyone to spend much time thinking about unions. But as the tech industry matures, workers are suddenly taking a second look at their quality of life.
Electronic Arts, the big video-game publisher in Redwood City, just responded to workers who complained about endless 60-hour weeks by reclassifying many of its employees as hourly workers — entitled to overtime pay.
A 60-hour week might seem tolerable when you’re 25 and hoping for a big payday from stock options, but it’s less appealing at an established company when you’re 35 or 45.
Another example is outsourcing.
Rather than taking the outmoded and futile approach of trying to stop technology jobs from moving to India or China, Stern says management and labor should unite on creating income-replacement and retraining programs that are suitable for skilled high-tech workers who need to constantly reinvent themselves.
“In this industry, more than any, a union intermediary solves the employers’ problems as well as the employees,’ ” said Stern.
Full disclosure: I’m a member and past officer of the Newspaper Guild’s Local 98, a unit of the Communications Workers of America, which represents news and advertising employees of the Mercury News. So I have an interest in the value of workers acting collectively.
You should also know that Stern, one of the few union executives with his own blog, is far from a traditional labor leader. He even mocked that image at the beginning of his speech, showing a short compilation of clips from movies such as “On the Waterfront” and “Hoffa” that portray union bosses as brutal and corrupt.
He’s also leading a controversial reform effort within the AFL-CIO.
Whatever you think of his ideas, you can’t dismiss Stern’s results. The SEIU is one of the few big AFL-CIO unions that’s growing.
In the mid-1990s, the SEIU fought a long, tough and ultimately successful campaign to simultaneously unionize almost all the janitors in Silicon Valley. The contractors who hire the janitors, mostly recent immigrants, to clean the valley’s office buildings at night were forced to accept the SEIU in part because the union staged rallies in front of some of those buildings. The rallies made it impossible for big valley companies to deny their accountability in hiring janitorial services that paid little more than minimum wage with negligible benefits.
I asked Stern what kind of feedback he received from attendees at PC Forum after giving his speech.
“I got everything from real appreciation to ‘Isn’t it cute,’ ” he said.
I hope the “isn’t it cute” crowd comes to see that even benevolent management is no substitute for workers who have their own voice and can speak forcefully for themselves.
Mike Langberg is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News