Basic Income

'Labor Unions Now Play a Particularly Boutique Role in the Economy'

The future economy is going to be self-managed, says former SEIU leader Andy Stern. Get out of its way-but give us a universal basic income.



As president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from 1996-2010, Andy Stern was called "the nation's most politically influential union president." Now Stern believes that labor unions are increasingly irrelevant. "Labor unions now play a particularly boutique role in the economy," he told The Atlantic in an interview about his new book, Raising the Floor, which advocates for a universal basic income (UBI).

A UBI-type system, in which traditional welfare programs would be abolished and each citizen would get a certain yearly handout (regardless of personal income or worth), has been supported by libertarians, liberals, and conservatives alike over the past few decades. As automation, globalization, and the information economy make many jobs obsolete, advocating for a UBI—also known as a "basic income guarantee" (BIG)—has been coming back in intellectual vogue. 

"I believe that this is not our father's or our grandfather's economy, that the 21st century will not be employer-managed," Stern said. "It's going to be self-managed, because the growth in alternative work relationships—contingent, freelance, gig, whatever you want to call it—is clearly going to increase. Although the economy can grow in terms of GDP and productivity, it no longer means there will be wage growth or job growth, as opposed to the 20th century."

Stern left traditional labor organizing because he "could not figure out anymore how a shrinking labor movement, a changing economy, a changing structure of work" could lead to economic security for Americans. "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," he told The Atlantic. And it wasn't just SEIU resistant to change, of course. "I would say that unions are not generally oriented towards thinking too far into the future," Stern said.

We spend most of our time chasing the future and trying to understand it rather than finding ideas that put us where the future was heading and have it come towards us. We are spending, appropriately, a large amount of energy on $15 an hour wages, getting governments to promote paid family and sick leave. In the absence of unions being able to make changes in workers' lives, people are turning to the government as a solution to do that on a broad scale.

But unions have rarely thought 10 or 20 years ahead, and universal basic income requires that kind of thinking. What I'm hopeful, somewhat from this book, is that unions can look up from the defensive crouch they're in, look into the future, and understand that so many of the things they're doing now that are enormously important could be very insufficient. And that they'll begin to think of universal basic income as they think of minimum wage, as an idea that becomes essential if we're going to end inequality, provide stability, and keep the American dream alive.

It's interesting that while mainstream liberals and Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, push plans to shoehorn new on-demand-economy work into traditional employment and labor-union structures, someone straight out of the belly of the beast is saying no, no, no, that's the exact opposite of what we should do. Read the whole Atlantic interview with Stern here. For more on basic income proposals, see: