"Andy Stern is not shy about speaking his mind," veteran labor reporter David Moberg wrote in a 2005 Nation cover story, "Can’t Workers of the World Unite?" That description came to mind minutes after I heard that Stern was stepping down as President of SEIU. Over the years, I’ve admired the charismatic and controversial labor leader’s vision and pragmatism, his push for dramatic structural change, his opennness to remaking labor’s traditional ties to the Democratic Party and creating new institutions and alliances for working people, and his urgency, even desperation, about the future of labor. That urgency, fused with a strong ego and sense of turf, may have put Stern at the center of stormy controversies. Under his leadership, SEIU waged bitter battles inside the labor movement–one of the nastiest which turned in SEIU’s favor with a California ruling last week. And Stern’s insistence on change at almost any cost–splitting the House of Labor when it was under ferocious assault during the Bush years–was the wrong, or necessary, move depending on whose side you were on.
In the end, I believe Stern is a bold and heretical reformer, a leader who triggered the most far-reaching strategic debate in labor in more than a generation.
After helping elect President Obama (if you check the White House’s visitor’s logs, you’ll find that Stern may be one of the most regular visitors!), and helping push through healthcare reform, Stern is now poised to play a role as a member of the President’s deficit commission, to which he was appointed in February. He may also lead a much-needed conversation about forging public-private partnerships (for example, more equitable use of public pension funds) to invest in our deteriorating infrastructure and build a 21st century, sustainable economy.
New leaders and voices will now emerge as labor finds its footing in an Obama Administration–and during these times of economic troubles when long-term unemployment scars our country. Already, the new AFL leader, Rich Trumka, is speaking out about what must be done if we’re to remain a democratic country with secure and stable working and middle-class families.
I take the liberty of reposting a blog post I wrote soon after Obama’s election on an afternoon when Stern and his savvy ally and longtime colleague Anna Burger visited The Nation‘s offices. (Burger, by the way , is being talked about as Stern’s successor in SEIU.) Stern was hopeful about what an Obama Presidency would mean for the progressive politics. You be the judge of his insights–two years on.
===================================== 11/25/2008 @ 5:56pm
Andy Stern on the New Moment by Katrina vanden Heuvel
Like any reformer, SEIU President Andy Stern has his admirers and his critics. I understand the critics’ arguments. But I also think Stern is a visionary labor figure. When in history were heretics well liked? Yet their ideas are worth hearing.
Yesterday, Stern came to The Nation offices along with Change to Win Chair and SEIU International Secretary-Treasure, Anna Burger, to discuss this new moment in the country’s history and what kind of strategic thinking will be needed moving forward. Their mood was optimistic– as well it should be, since labor spent some $450 million in the 2008 races, contributed mightily to massive voter outreach and mobilization and saw their candidates win.