Big news broke last night in the cloistered world of organized labor. The Beltway insider rag Politico reported that Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employee International Union (SEIU), is going to resign. SEIU is the largest union in the country (reports vary from 1.9 to 2.2 million members), and Stern arguably wields more influence than any other labor leader, including AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. White House visitor logs show Stern visiting upwards of twenty times during Obama’s first six months in office.
Politico’s Ben Smith got the tip off from SEIU local 1199NW, based right here in Seattle. Diane Sosne, president of the Seattle local, sent an interoffice email yesterday at around 11:35. Sosne quickly distanced herself from the leak, describing it as the work of an “industrious staff member. When I called 1199NW for comment the receptionist sounded awfully surprised that I even knew about the email: “Which reports…how did you get that report?”. The communications department has yet to call me back.
Stern’s legacy will be complex, to say the least. Under his leadership SEIU’s membership expanded rapidly, incorporating workers from dying unions, organizing new workers (until recently) and even poaching from other vibrant unions. In fact, Stern’s SEIU is one of the only union’s to grow at all in recent years, although critics accuse him of ruthlessly growing his union on the backs of other segments of the labor movement.
Stern’s most concrete accomplishments fall in the political realm. SEIU worked long and hard to elect Barack Obama. Stern pumped about $70 million into his campaign and, more importantly, he provided an organized and committed membership to beat the streets for Obama. After the historic 2008 victory, the alliance between Stern and the president remained strong. SEIU and the administration stood shoulder to shoulder on the healthcare reform bill, and Stern kept plugging away at it even during the dark weeks when it looked like Scott Brown might sink the effort. Universal health care has been a priority of organized labor since the 1930s, and Stern can claim more credit for its successful passage than nearly any other union leader. Recent weeks have also seen Obama appoint Stern’s old ally Craig Becker to the NLRB, returning that body to relative functionality.
But even these victories are marred by Stern’s complexities. In 2005 he led SEIU and five other unions away from the AFL-CIO to form a new labor federation called Change to Win (CtW). The move fragmented the labor movement to no constructive end. At the time, Stern lambasted the AFL’s unions for no longer organizing new workers (true), and spending too much time on politics. Unfortunately, since CtW’s beginnings, the federation hasn't devoted significant resources to massive new organizing drives, they simply ran up against America's viciously unfair labor laws too, and instead formed political alliances to circumvent those laws, where they could. (Fixed from:
SEIU has , see the comment thread for more details.) basically ceased organizing new workers in favor of spending all their time on, you guessed it, politics.
Well, not all their time. SEIU has also wasted huge amounts of resources on battling other unions. They became involved in a complex fight within the hotel workers union, UNITE HERE, an erstwhile CtW member. The decision to intervene in UNITE HERE’s politics eventually earned Stern condemnations from every other union in the country. The decision proved doubly unfortunate: UNITE HERE and SEIU used to be the two strongest voices for immigration reform, now they are too busy duking it out to effectively contribute—see the comment thread for more details. (Stern’s internecine battle with the National Union of Healthcare Workers has also proved an expensive and reputation damaging exercise.)
Neither of SEIU's rival unions have released statements regarding Stern's rumored resignation. “We don’t have a public statement at this point based on the uncertainty still of what exactly is happening,” a UNITE HERE spokeswoman commented.
It is unclear how SEIU will change after Stern leaves. (It’s not even clear when he is leaving, although I keep hearing 2012 as a possibility.) His second in command, Anna Burger, is widely considered a likely replacement, although there have also been rumors of a rival candidate. If Burger does succeed him it is doubtful that the union’s position on intra-labor duels or Capitol Hill policy will change much.
The impact of Stern’s departure in in Washington State will be interesting. On the one hand, the UNITE HERE/SEIU conflict hasn’t really affected the city, and some regional SEIU locals, including 1199NW, are relatively autonomous from the international in DC. But other branches, including the massive homecare workers local 775NW, have tight ties with Stern's power structure. David Rolf, president of local 775, is particularly close with Stern and has benefited from his patronage in inner-union politics. More to come next week.