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."