The SEIU Andy Stern Leaves Behind
By the time Andy Stern resigned from his post as president of the country's second-largest union, in May, he had established himself as the most influential and controversial labor leader of his generation. When he took over the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 1996, with the labor movement still mired in a decades-long decline, Stern quickly made renewing labor's commitment to growth the refrain of his presidency. He called on the rest of the labor movement to abandon a status quo that was no longer working, and he insisted that unless unions figured out new ways to organize the tens of millions of nonunion workers and create a "modern, pro-growth, dynamic, progressive, problem-solving labor movement," they were doomed to obsolescence.
"When our leadership team came into office," Stern reflected in early May, "we took over a good union and made it into the largest voice for workers in the country. We became the most effective grassroots political organization around." As SEIU's stock rose, so did Stern's. Prominent liberals from Howard Dean to George Soros hailed his "bold vision for reform," while the Wall Street Journal and the Chamber of Commerce praised him as a "new" kind of labor leader that business could work with. And after SEIU moved mountains to elect Barack Obama in 2008, Stern became one of Obama's closest confidants outside government—a throwback to the days when union presidents doubled as labor statesmen on the national stage.
Much ink has been spilled, including in this magazine, on the internal disputes that racked the union under Stern's tenure [see Peter Dreier, "Divorce—Union Style," August 31, 2009, and Esther Kaplan, "Labor's Growing Pains," June 16, 2008, among others]. And surely the rancor he leaves behind is part of his legacy—as one senior union official bluntly put it, "Andy Stern leaves pretty much without a friend in the labor movement." But for Stern, who dismisses his critics as zealots and traditionalists, the more important question is whether he has realized his early promises of revitalizing the union's organizing mission.
On the face of it, the numbers are impressive: between 1996 and today, SEIU added more than 1 million members, "the largest growth of strength in any union, in any decade in the history of the labor movement," as Stern boasted at the union's most recent convention. But SEIU's recent accomplishments are far more ambiguous than they would initially seem. As growth became his all-consuming passion, Stern came to rely heavily on back-room deals with employers and other shortcuts, perpetuating an illusion of robust growth that has obscured SEIU's failure to devise a viable long-term strategy for reversing labor's decline. Along the way, Stern's go-it-alone leadership style alienated rank-and-file members and isolated the union from former allies. "Stern understood that labor had to grow or die, that union density is a vital part of making the trade union movement an effective economic and political bargainer," says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "But density is not the only thing, because unions today are essentially political organizations which succeed by mobilizing their membership and animating their allies. Numbers are less important than élan. Andy Stern lost sight of that."
No moment better signified the polarizing effects of Stern's single-minded pursuit of growth than when he and SEIU led a group of five unions out of the AFL-CIO in 2005 and into a new federation, Change to Win, full of promises to substantially increase the resources the labor movement was devoting to organizing new workers. The split, Stern says, was about creating "a federation that was focused on using every weapon at its disposal to grow larger, not smaller." As it turned out, the break did not produce any such explosion of new organizing, and in retrospect, to his critics, it was just the kind of uncompromising and ill-considered move that typified his tenure at SEIU.
Drawn to unorthodox ideas—like collaborating with the notoriously antiunion Wal-Mart to push for healthcare reform—Stern frequently forged tactical partnerships with corporate America that made other unionists uneasy. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the union began to embrace new strategies to meet Stern's bold growth targets, seeking deals with large employers in which they would agree to remain neutral in unionization drives in exchange for a quid pro quo from the union. In some cases, this involved the union's collaborating with nursing home operators to improve patient care or lobby statehouses for increased Medicare payments. In others it meant ceding the union's ability to strike; or providing national hospital chains with economic relief in the form of substandard wages and benefits; or agreeing to organize certain subcontractor facilities but not others, even if workers there wanted to join SEIU. In a number of instances the more debatable aspects of these agreements were hammered out at the highest levels of the union, with little or no direct involvement on the part of the workers.
Cornell University's Kate Bronfenbrenner has studied these "employer neutrality" deals extensively, and notes that SEIU is not the only union to use them to grow. "The question is not whether you are using neutrality agreements; it's about what you give up to get them and how you go about using them," she says. "If you want to have a lasting union afterward, you have to involve the members. Unions are most likely to win any kind of organizing campaign when they combine top-down leverage with bottom-up organizing. SEIU has had some very effective agreements with employers that have combined the two approaches, but in recent years they started to back off from the bottom-up approach."