WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - The Democratic Party is a "stale party of ideas." That surprising assessment comes not from a conservative critic but from one of the Democrats' most stalwart supporters: Andrew L. Stern, president of the largest union in the AFL-CIO, the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Mr. Stern set off a huge controversy when he spoke to the Washington Post's David Broder and Thomas Edsall on the first day of the Democratic convention, and he has since been backtracking on his statements - with some difficulty, since they were caught on tape and are readily available on the Post's Web site.
But what Mr. Stern said should come as a big surprise not just to the Democratic Party but to union members, given the huge amount of their dues that will be directed toward electing Democrats this election.
Unions will spend an estimated $800 million to defeat President Bush and other Republicans in 2004 - $60 million of which will come from Mr. Stern's own SEIU and at least another $35 million from one local in that union, Local 1199, in New York City.
Mr. Stern, who has been speaking out for weeks now about what he seems to believe is a sclerotic labor movement, hit some raw nerves in his comments.
He said, for example, "We can't talk about education. ... We can't discuss when it is failing our members in public schools in urban areas. You know, we're the experiment. Maybe vouchers aren't the only answer, but then, what is? I'm tired of hearing if we just pay teachers more, you know life will be terrific. It's a huge problem."
Of course he's right. Just as he is when he describes the inability of the government to regulate the U.S. economy, which he admits is "too big. You can't regulate an American economy without markets." He accurately describes his fellow Democrats' understanding of the economy: "We don't understand markets, we don't understand employers, we don't understand competition, we don't understand globalization, we don't understand how wages are set in an economy."
Mr. Stern's solution is a bigger role for unions, which he describes as "a market force" in regulating wages.
The problem is, unions have virtually given up their original mission of organizing new members and representing them at the bargaining table. Even though unions have taken in more than $17 billion every year in members' dues, they spend the lion's share of that treasury on bloated bureaucracies and political action. Union membership has declined precipitously in recent years, from a high of 35 percent of the work force in the mid-1950s to just 13 percent today, and only 8.2 percent of private sector workers.
Mr. Stern's union is one of the few in the AFL-CIO that is growing. Although it represents both public and private sector members, the SEIU has actually gained members among janitors and other low-wage workers in recent years - making it a rarity in organized labor circles. But nearly half of all union members today works for government at some level: local, state or federal.
Private sector union members are paying higher taxes to fund big government, which may benefit public sector unions but does little to help working men and women who don't work for government. Janitors in Mr. Stern's unions are paying more out of their paychecks so that already well-paid, college-educated government workers can get even more in theirs. Worse, the services these government workers provide are declining in quality - as Mr. Stern suggests when he talks about American education.
Mr. Stern has let the cat out of the bag. Big Labor's ties to the Democratic Party aren't exactly helping working men and women. So why do Mr. Stern and his fellow union presidents insist on taking union members' dues to fund the Democrats? I wish he would answer that question.
Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.