Andy Stern's Legacy: Right Questions, Wrong Answers

SEIU President Andy Stern walked away from his post this week, and the fight is on to define his legacy and the future of one of the country’s most important unions.

A little on the legacy. Stern started out asking a lot of the right questions.

Under his leadership, SEIU forced the rest of labor to confront its dwindling numbers. Unions needed strategies to organize entire industries, and they needed to devote the money necessary to do it seriously. They needed to roust often-sleepy and sometimes-corrupt local leaders from their complacency. And the house of labor needed friends in the academy, the embrace of community allies, and a welcome sign on the door for immigrant workers.

SEIU led by example, through high-profile organizing drives like Justice for Janitors and by ousting crooked leaders like New York City’s Gus Bevona.

But after two decades working to expand SEIU’s ranks—and reshaping the union’s structure to bolster that aim—Stern drew mostly the wrong conclusions. In his quest to reverse labor’s slide, he relied on shortcuts, trying to swell SEIU’s ranks by any means necessary—including ways that weaken unions everywhere.

There are plenty of substandard union presidents in the United States, and plenty who are more autocratic, more undemocratic, more willing to sign cheap agreements than Stern—and many that are higher paid. (Although taking a $152,000-a-year pension after musing to a reporter whether “defined benefit pensions can really exist in the long run” is pretty gross.)

But all along Stern asked to be measured by a different yardstick. Too many unions, he told Dissent magazine, “want to glorify trying and struggling and mobilizing and fighting the good fight. We want to be the union that wins.”

At the union’s 2008 convention, Stern repeatedly invoked history, referring to the union’s growth under his tenure as “the largest growth in strength in any union, in any decade in the history of the labor movement.” Claiming the union’s membership had passed the 2 million-member mark, Stern said this “is not the first time, nor do I think it’s going to be the last time, history knocks on SEIU’s door.” (Never mind that the union’s LM-2 filings pegged membership that year at 1.7 million).

And Stern claimed that his effort to change a leadership that was too pale, male, and stale had largely succeeded, producing “the most inclusive, the most diverse, and as a result the most aggressive, the most effective fighters for justice our countries have ever seen.”

At the end of Stern’s tenure, the union has come up short.


Who steps to the bully pulpit Stern created? What will remaining leaders do with this history? The fight for the presidency is between heir apparent Anna Burger, SEIU secretary-treasurer and Change to Win chair, and Mary Kay Henry, from the union’s health care division.

Burger has worked with Stern since he was president of a social workers local in Pennsylvania in the 1970s. She will take the presidency for 30 days, when the international executive board will vote on Stern’s successor.

Burger has headed the union’s ever-expanding political operation, including the tens of millions spent on Change that Works, an accountability effort that spent the better part of 2009 in an outside-the-Beltway push to hold newly elected lawmakers feet to the fire on the union’s legislative priorities: immigration reform, health care reform with a strong public option, and the Employee Free Choice Act. (How’d that work out?)

Burger has also been increasingly in charge of SEIU’s day-to-day operations for the last several years, as Stern was off promoting big ideas during his frequent trips to China, think-tank conferences, and the White House. (Stern loved being lionized as a labor statesman, the only one the intellectuals would consider inviting to their confabs, and it’s likely he’ll continue in this vein in retirement.)

Henry’s background was in health care organizing in California. She is likely to push reallocating the union’s resources to devote more to organizing than to politics. She is reportedly interested in making peace with the rest of the labor movement and ending the raids on UNITE HERE. She is not, however, any less dedicated to snuffing out the breakaway National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) than is Burger. She has been heavily involved in the trusteeship of the big California local, UHW, that led to the founding of NUHW.




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Neither Burger nor Henry is likely to up-end SEIU’s organizing philosophy. Stern seemed to lose faith, if he ever had it, in the ability of working people to lead their own locals, much less labor’s revival.

Stern reorganized the union to look more like a corporate flow-chart chart than a democratic, grassroots organization. Local leaders who challenged Stern’s plans were swept aside in trusteeships and mergers as “local unions” became conglomerates spanning multiple states and encompassing hundreds of thousands of members. Workplace representation was eased out in favor of an 800 number to call.

In the private sector, Stern's quest to organize “wholesale, not retail” turned the union’s focus from the shop floor to the boardroom.

The union started to spend energy organizing employers rather than workers, with corporate campaigns, strategic research, political deals, and industry template agreements. These tools became a substitute for strategies rooted in members’ own power on the job, and at least in the case of template agreements they actively undermined that power.

One example was SEIU’s former partnership with UNITE HERE in the food-service industry, called Service Workers United. To seal deals with multinational employers such as Sodexo, contract standards were settled before the first worker signed a card. Workers faced termination if they slowed down or picketed. The companies reserved the right to choose where the union would organize, and how many total members could join. Unsurprisingly, employers used this power to scatter “permitted to organize” sites across the country, forced the union to pull the plug on other drives, and imposed widely varying contract expiration dates.

As longtime SEIU leader Jerry Brown noted, this model of partnership with employers leaves workers “as a third party in a relationship with union brokers and employers—the very antithesis of true rank-and-file unionism.”

Only after a period of open conflict, Brown argued, can “strong unions and engaged members enter into mature, cooperative relationships” with their employers. By contrast, the arrangements Stern’s SEIU used looked more like “company unionism.”


The showers of praise Stern’s exit has prompted highlight another legacy of his time at SEIU, the triumph of spin over straight talk. No union has more self-consciously managed its public image or trumpeted its successes than SEIU. Stern was a master, along with his Change to Win colleague, James Hoffa, of “celebrity unionism.”

He seemed to think that being on the cover of the New York Times magazine made him powerful, not just visible. Stern forgot that it’s more important for a union to be in the news because it’s fighting the boss than because its staff is good at spinning stories to reporters. The bully pulpit loses its value without something behind it, the picket line, the slowdown.

SEIU's vaunted growth, meanwhile, has been mostly in the easier-to-organize public sector. In the Stern era 75 percent of new members came from the public sector and among publicly funded homecare and childcare workers, according to the union’s own numbers.

Among other labor leaders, it’s unclear whether Stern was most unpopular for splitting the AFL-CIO and founding the Change to Win federation, for his raids on UNITE HERE, for his grandstanding partnerships with employers, or for being anointed by both the media and the Democratic establishment as the labor leader of the times.

He often functioned as if SEIU’s grand vision were the only one that mattered. He announced a partnership with Wal-Mart, labor’s least-favorite employer, to work for health care reform—without informing the UFCW, the union trying to organize the company. SEIU staffers actively tried to suppress health care activists in and outside labor pushing for a more sweeping version of health care reform than SEIU deemed politically feasible.


Stern’s departure may provoke some serious reflection about SEIU’s current direction. The union badly needs it, and so does the rest of the labor movement. But a bold new direction from SEIU’s upper echelons is unlikely.

Most top leaders don’t come from the ranks, and they got where they are by impressing people in HQ. Besides, these are the same leaders who’ve lined up behind Stern—whatever their personal misgivings—as he smashed one of SEIU’s most vibrant locals and squandered tens of millions on an ill-fated raid on UNITE HERE. A new president is unlikely to temper the union’s current modus operandi—unity at all costs.

Despite everything, SEIU does have members, leaders, and staffers who are among the best in the movement. Hopes for reform from above are always fleeting. The question now is whether the union’s top-down internal culture is too far gone to allow the ranks to step up and chart a new course.


retiredSEIU (not verified) | 05/11/10

It is unfortunate that SEIU's focus has changed so much. Years ago I was a member in PSSU in the early 1970's, when unionization of public employees first started. The energy and dedication of those involved in those days was exciting to experience. When Andy arrived on the scene, he helped harness that energy and involved member leaders and staff members in organizing both internally and externally.

I learned alot about being an advocate for the interests of labor from those days and specifically from Andy.
That spark led me to leave the safe cacoon of public employment and work for social change and justice.

I have watched SEIU from afar and have been upset and angry seeing how that dedication changed and devolved over the years. Mostly it has made me sad. What has been forgotten is that it is people that we are organizing for a cause and that people matter.

I agree that Andy has asked the right questions but he came up with so many wrong answers. I hope, perhaps in vain, that SEIU will return to the right questions, analyze what went wrong and arrive at a different path.

Chico David RN | 04/18/10

The far right would attack any large and successful union as a bunch of "thugs" but under Stern there was enough real thuggery - see the disruption of, and attack on the Labor Notes conference a couple of years ago - to make it all to easy for them to make that stick.
The growth at any cost model that treats members as little more than dues units is not a recipe for a re-born labor movement.

MClayton (not verified) | 04/17/10

Great piece, but you forgot to mention that close to half a million of Stern's "2 million members" are day care and child care workers who were "organized" through political slight of hand. And those members could disappear across the country overnight with a court decision or simply fall away state by state under conservative political scrutiny and pressure.

The net gain from all other organizing under Stern was negligible, especially if you also subtract membership gains from forced mergers and hostile takeovers of smaller unions. Looking over his tenure, it's clear Stern only cared about the magic number and it never mattered how he got to it. I'd bet he's claiming 2 million members now because he insists he can count the entire membership of UNITE HERE and every SEIU members' unborn child. And everyone can stop speculating, that's the real reason he's retiring -- he's aware those numbers are about to turn south in a hurry and how.

Stern did more for Communications majors and purple dye manufacturers than he ever did for a low wage worker. I do worry now for all the non-traditional print models who were building careers playing SEIU members.

Stayed tuned, because I bet we'll soon hear that SEIU is dead broke and no longer able to hold the empire together now that Caesar is washing his hands of it all.

justfacts (not verified) | 05/02/10

Andy Stern may have reduced union corruption in New York but he also created it in Southern California with his hand picked appointee, Tyrone Freeman.

Stern, like most traditional democrats, supported illegal immigrant workers, seeing them as potential new democrat voters and as union members that would be very easy to please -- just having a job would be enough. The problem is the immutable economic law of supply and demand. The more workers that show up for a job, the lower the wages and working conditions will be, in other words, disaster for the rest of the union.

Stern's battle with Sal Roselli was an unmitigated disaster for all union members in California. It was the grandest exercise of putting his ego above the needs of union members, of dividing the union, of misuse of union funds, and of dirtying the word union for anyone that witnessed and has to live with the consequences of his actions. It would be difficult to imagine an employer or corporate scheme that could have more effectively brought harm to union members than Stern's war with Roselli.

His movement into the political arena with union money and support for Pres. Obama and others has not translated into more jobs or bailouts for working people, and for anyone who fully understands the new health care bill, it has not provided the change that was needed in health care. We will see if Stern's political dealings result in a political payout for him in the future. If so, it will have been funded by union member's dues.

Right questions, wrong answers is probably accurate. On a test - that is called failing. And union members deserve and should expect more than a failure. He should have been fired.