by Herman Benson
How things have changed for Andy Stern in five years!
In 2004, he was the hottest labor celebrity in town. He was about to lead a coalition of major unions out of the AFL-CIO into the rival Change to Win, reorganize and galvanize his own SEIU, organize low-paid immigrants and minorities, and revive a declining labor movement. Labor activists , some out of the civil rights movement, some with honorable resumes in battles for union democracy, some students looking for a worthy cause, found a place with Stern. Pro-labor intellectuals ---writers, academics, researchers --- hailed the Stern-inspired movement as the greatest thing since the CIO left the AFL. The mainstream media, including even the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, featured him as the rising star of labor leadership.
In five years, he solidified his power in the SEIU by merging old locals into new mammoth units with leaders who are appointed by him, often after pledging uncritical loyalty to the administration. The SEIU convention in June last year, overwhelmingly endorsed all he has done and proposed to do. The union has amassed a huge treasury for organizing and political action. He can afford to mobilize a paid staff and some supporters for mass demonstrations against rivals in the labor movement. His power is respected ....and feared.
But he has created a problem for himself: Entrenched at the height of organizational authority, he is losing the moral high ground he once occupied so prominently. Change to Win, the union coalition he led, is falling apart.
Back in May 2005, in the celebratory spirit of the day, Sal Rosselli contributed a long piece to Labor Notes, the bottom-up troublemakers' newsletter, welcoming Stern's call for a new way. “At our international convention in June 2004,” he wrote, “we authorized our officers to put forward a set of proposals top pproduct fundamental change in the AFL-CIO. If that change were not possible, we authorized our officers to withdraw from thje AFL-CIO to build something stronger….[T]he AFL-CIO needs a new leader…It is just ommon sense that a new-industry based strategy nd structure could only be led by someone who fought for ---and not against--- that change….”
Years before, Rosselli, as an insurgent, won office as president of SEIU Local 250. As part of the Stern team, he became president of United Healthcare Workers-West in California, one of the largest SEIU locals, president of the SEIU California Council, and a member of the SEIU executive committee. But by 2007, Rosselli learned that everything had changed. After he criticized one healthcare agreement negotiated by Stern as near-company union contract, Stern embarked on a relentless campaign to destroy him, ending in a trusteeship imposed over UHW-W and the removal of Rosselli and all the local’s officers.
Stern was able to use the power of the purse to retain Ray Marshall, a former respected Secretary of Labor and university professor, to conduct hearings and invest the trusteeship with the gloss of impartiality. But that power could not shield him from the public relations disaster that he inflicted upon himself.
When rumors of a pending trusteeship first surfaced, over a hundred writers and educators expressed dismay in a long letter to Stern. "Putting UHW under trusteeship," they wrote, "would send a very troubling message and be viewed by many as a sign that internal democracy is not valued or tolerated within SEIU." Such a statement was a startling event. An assemblage of intellectuals in moral support of dissidents facing repression inside a union: nothing like it in memory. (But for the SEIU, it soon became almost routine!) Some of the signers, unaware of its implications, imagined that the letter would remain an unheralded private complaint; but, when it was published as an ad in the New York Times; and Stern expressed his displeasure, a few got the nervous jitters and hastened to backtrack. But only a few.
On November 9, 2008, when trusteeship had been transformed from rumor to imminent reality, a second group of 51 academics, writers, and labor educators, joined by the presidents of two Teacher locals ---all from California --- spoke out. "We in California have a great deal at stake... [An unjustified] take over of the 150,000-member UHW would be a disaster....We urge you to avoid such a tragedy by respecting the autonomy and constructive dissent of UHW." This time, none got nervous; they all held firm.
A week later, opposition to the pending trusteeship had spread beyond the narrow circle of intellectuals to representatives in California of community, ethnic, and religious organizations and local and state political leaders. On November 17, 2008, the San Francisco Business Times reported: "More than 240 lawmakers, community leaders, urge SEIU to hold off on UHW takeover." Signers of their letter included state senators, assembly reps, and country supervisors. "We ask," they wrote Stern, "that you accept [a] mediator's recommendation... rather than precipitate a crippling war inside SEIU." The San Francisco Board of Supervisors presented a "Certificate of Honor" to "Sal Rosselli and the 150,000 members of UHW-West for their continued fight for real democracy in the American Labor Movement and their commitment to building real power for healthcare workers."
Meanwhile, Stern's Change to Win coalition was coming apart, plunging him into a second front in his war inside the labor movement. (The first is against the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the new independent union founded by Rosselli's team.) Two of Stern's major allies in founding Change to Win back in 2005 had been Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE the clothing union, and John Wilhelm, president of HERE, the hotel-restaurant workers union. The two unions,. UNITE and HERE, had merged into the unified UNITE-HERE, with Raynor as its president. But when it seemed obvious that he would be defeated for reelection by the Wilhelm forces, Raynor split away, formed a rival union, Workers United, and turned it into an affiliate of Stern's SEIU. Welcoming Raynor, Stern loaned the new union a million dollars. Now, backed by Stern, Raynor is at war with Wilhelm's UNITE-HERE.
Who is right and who wrong, who are the good guys and who the bad in this battle between Raynor and Wilhelm? Whatever the answer to that question, it will not alter one obvious fact: Stern's PR stock has fallen so low, his public reputation has been so damaged that he is widely blamed for provoking the internecine war. In July this year, in a letter to SEIU Executive Board members, 228 scholars and educators from universities all over the country, and some in Canada, (even 3 in Britain, and one each in New Zealand, Japan, and Guatemala!) protested Stern's role. They wrote, "SEIU's concerted efforts to undermine UNITE-HERE belie the progressive ideals SEIU has upheld for decades.... We are concerned that these actions are undermining the principle of union democracy and dividing the progressive movement at a critical moment in history. We urge you to stop your interference in UNITE-HERE, refocus on organizing the millions of unorganized workers...."
If this array of public criticism from pro-labor intellectuals and public representatives is unprecedented, what follows is even more unusual. An unwritten gentlemen's agreement regulates relations among top labor leaders: "You can run your union as you see fit, even honestly, and I will never criticize you publicly. In return, you will never criticize me for running my union as I see fit." But that code was seriously breached in June when, in an obvious repudiation of Stern-Raynor, fourteen top labor leaders signed a statement of support for UNITE-HERE. The leaders of the presidents of all big Change to Win unions were among them.
Taken together, all these events pose a portentous question: What will shape the future role of the SEIU: the organizational power and resources at the disposal of Andy Stern or the power of social opinion expressed by intellectuals, political leaders, and laborites?