The announcement this week that labor’s maverick leader, Andy Stern, is stepping down — "very soon" in the words of a colleague –will create a void in the country’s labor movement at an awkward time.

The 59-year-old Stern has led the Service Employees International Union since 1996 and made it the country’s most politically active labor organization. Stern is very close to President Obama and like the president called the health care bill a victory for working Americans.

Stern’s tenure has been marked by controversy: it was under Stern that the SEIU separated from the AFL-CIO, which Stern believed had dropped the ball on organizing. A heated, high-profile trial against union insurgents in California is on-going; and charges that Stern is too quick to make concessions have dogged him for years.

Loyalists point to the union’s growth– to 1.9 million workers–and other gains: the recent appointment of a labor lawyer to the National Labor Relations Board and a former SEIU officer serves as political director in the White House today.

But what labor needs most is unity, especially at a time when pressure on working people in America is mounting. And that should be the highest priority as the SEIU considers who will fill the shoes of Andy Stern.

The F Word is a regular commentary by Laura Flanders, the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Support us by signing up for our podcast, and follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.