Friday, July 02, 2010

Just in time. Andy Stern retires from SEIU

(From Union Democracy Review #185)

Andy Stern's retirement as SEIU president took everyone by surprise. He is only 59 and voluntarily stepped out at the height of his power inside the union. Why? It was a rare initiative among top leaders who usually try to hold on until they are tottering on canes. If he said that he yearned to spend more time with his loving family, who would believe him? But he explained that he always felt that leaders should quit early to make room for the younger generation. Believable, even admirable --- except for one element that may not ring quite true:

It was only two years ago that Stern was reelected by inspired colleagues on a platform of changing the labor movement, changing America, and changing the world. You'd think that he would want to hang around for at least until the end of his term to make sure that it worked out.

However, regardless of why he really retired, he couldn't have picked a better time. He is at the height of glory and influence with President Obama with easy and frequent access to the White House and appointed by the president as the (only) labor representative on the 18-person National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The commission is charged with nothing less than figuring out how to improve the nation's fiscal position; they will start out with Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. As SEIU president, Stern accumulated experience handling big money.

In past years, Stern had acquired an enviable record and reputation as a new type of dynamic union leader, hailed in the mainstream media and respected by a staff of idealistic union activists, civil rights campaigners, and community organizers. But he managed to squander all that by projecting an authoritarian style of unionism, in principle and practice.

President Obama's staff may not have known, and obviously did not tell him, that Stern had just begun a free fall in status everywhere outside the White House. It began with a hundred writers, academics, and assorted intellectuals all over the country who criticized his attack on Sal Rosselli's 150,000-member West Coast SEIU local; those critics were joined by a similar group in California, and then by public and community leaders in the state. In the labor movement, AFL-CIO leaders denounced him for his attack on John Wilhelm, president of UNITE/HERE. No one except his own staff and International Executive Board came to his defense; he lost the support of his own former partners in the Change to Win Federation which he had inspired and led. Inside his own SEIU, people he placed in high union positions turned out to be corrupt. Officers who he had appointed to run two important locals were defeated by rank and file oppositions.

The unkindest cut of all came from his own International Executive Board which, under the SEIU constitution, was authorized to choose the successor to fill Stern's unexpired term of office. Stern's choice for SEIU president was Anna Burger, presumably second in command as secretary treasurer and the natural choice for the job. Under Stern's tutelage, she had emerged as head of the Change to Win coalition. She announced that she was a ready and willing candidate and she seemed to be the routine choice. But it was not to be. Now that the retiring Stern had lost the power to dispense perquisites and inflict pain, the members of the International Executive Board, who had seemed so supinely under his thumb, seem to have broken loose. Anna Burger, Stern's choice, never had a chance. She was obviously unable even to mount a campaign. Within two weeks of Stern's withdrawal, the board chose the new president: Mary Kay Henry, had been an executive vice president and a leader of the union's healthcare division.

In choosing a new career, Andy Stern may have performed one last service for his union. The new president and the old international board are free to try to mend what has begun to tear the union apart.

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