Andy Stern: The Man With a Plan Who Lost His Way

Stephen Franklin

The rea­sons for Stern’s res­ig­na­tion as SEIU pres­i­dent are unclear. His trou­bled lega­cy isn’t.

He could have been the Wal­ter Reuther orga­nized labor has hun­gered for as it has sput­tered and shriveled.

The leader with new ideas and the ener­gy to make them work. The leader who could link orga­nized labor with social issues with a pas­sion that would renew unions’ cre­den­tials as a move­ment not just for its own.

From his start as the head of the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) 15 years ago, Andy Stern sent the mes­sage that he was a guy with an inde­pen­dent mind and that he was going to share his thoughts.

And amid his AFL-CIO col­leagues, he did, indeed, speak more can­did­ly than most heads of large U.S. unions about labor’s down­ward spiral.

Stern was crit­i­cal of unions that poached on oth­ers’ turf to gain mem­bers in indus­tries where they had lit­tle clout or know-how, that didn’t spend enough or even any mon­ey on orga­niz­ing, that didn’t make their voic­es heard and that didn’t have the guts and flex­i­bil­i­ty to take chances.

And he was right.

He was also impa­tient with talk of union democ­ra­cy because he didn’t think orga­nized labor had the time for it. He con­sid­ered it more impor­tant to build up a union’s ranks and to gain a foothold in a poor­ly orga­nized indus­try than to make sure that every­one had a voice.

Stern’s ratio­nale was that union democ­ra­cy doesn’t always guar­an­tee you bet­ter con­tracts, which are what union mem­bers want and what unions need to take care of.

Mega­lo­cals and media makeovers

He nev­er backed down on that. And that strat­e­gy, I think, became a trag­ic hang-up as com­plaints rose about small locals cob­bled togeth­er into giant locals and top-down lead­er­ship that brushed aside the need to let work­ers know about every­thing in their contracts.

When details emerged about con­tracts that the union had agreed to keep secret and which gave incred­i­ble pow­ers to the com­pa­nies, he was not the least apolo­getic. It was bet­ter, he said, to have a foot in the door than to wait for­ev­er on the outside.

Stern believed firm­ly in labor’s need to tell its sto­ry and that is why the union pumped up its out­reach to the news media to a lev­el unri­valed by any oth­er union.

Unlike some union lead­ers who either wouldn’t sit down face to face with a jour­nal­ist or wouldn’t do it unless their han­dlers had every­thing under con­trol, Stern wasn’t that way when he took over the SEIU in 1995.

He was so acces­si­ble his voice almost became the only oth­er one avail­able when I went search­ing for union lead­ers’ com­ments as the Chica­go Tri­bunes labor reporter. He didn’t preach or recite mem­o­rized slo­gans. He was calm and thought­ful and I was impressed. But I often won­dered where he and the SEIU were headed.

As the union’s suc­cess­es grew, so did its trou­bles. Stern was still avail­able — but now there were media savvy assis­tants on hand or wait­ing near­by to man­age the message.

The trou­bled schism

Stern’s impa­tience with the AFL-CIO made sense, but the result wrought by his action has been ter­ri­bly tox­ic for orga­nized labor.

The AFL-CIO suf­fered a deep finan­cial loss and a severe cut­back in its abil­i­ty to look out for the inter­ests of work­ers and unions in Wash­ing­ton when Stern led his gang off to form their own fed­er­a­tion: Change to Win.

At the same time, the new fed­er­a­tion didn’t attempt to copy the AFL-CIO’s role as labor’s cen­tral voice on pen­sions, work­place safe­ty and a whole of oth­er issues that have only become more wor­ri­some for work­ers lately.

That left a large hole.

Nor did Stern’s fed­er­a­tion do a bet­ter job of orga­niz­ing, as it had promised.

One of the myths about the break-up was that the dis­si­dents want­ed to spend more on orga­niz­ing and less on pol­i­tics. That was a myth that some­how found a life among news reporters and union leaders.

The real­i­ty was that SEIU did spend more orga­niz­ing — but also spent even more on pol­i­tics. Some of it worked, and Stern’s close ties with the White House are proof of that. And some­times it back­fired; wit­ness the union’s sup­port for dis­graced and impeached Illi­nois Gov­er­nor Rod Blagojevich.

No oth­er unions joined the dis­si­dents in their new fed­er­a­tion, as Change to Win lead­ers had pre­dict­ed. And the new federation’s own uni­ty soon crum­bled.

What went wrong?

When the SEIU helped launch an alter­na­tive bat­tle with Wal-Mart while the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers was tak­ing on the retail giant, the UFCW was not thrilled.

But the most glar­ing break with union sol­i­dar­i­ty came when the SEIU took sides in the bat­tle between the hotel work­ers and gar­ment work­ers unions as their merg­er col­lapsed. The SEIU helped the gar­ment work­ers in their trench war­fare with the hotel work­ers. It was exact­ly the kind of com­mu­nal back­stab­bing that Stern had long com­plained about.

Buzzing with Stern’s ener­gy and imag­i­na­tion, the SEIU signed up new mem­bers, found news friends, reached out to glob­al unions and wise­ly fig­ured out ways to fight glob­al com­pa­nies. It relied, for exam­ple, on Span­ish-speak­er jan­i­tors from Chica­go instead of orga­niz­ers to win a major bat­tle with jan­i­to­r­i­al firms in Houston.

So what went wrong? What led to Stern’s res­ig­na­tion last week amid a swirl of good and bad news? Was the impa­tience to get things done in a hur­ry what brought on so many problems?

Was it the will­ing­ness to make deals for the sake of mov­ing on, such as embrac­ing the Team­sters, who had crushed sev­er­al inter­nal reform dri­ves before Stern wel­comed them into the Change to Win group?

What­ev­er it was, the fact is that Stern could have eas­i­ly been the next Wal­ter Reuther. It just didn’t work out.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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