Correction to This Article
A Jan. 3 Style profile of Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, said that the International Brotherhood of Teamsters does not support union mergers. The Teamsters oppose mergers that are forced on unions.

Love, Labor, Loss

andrew stern
"Cassie gave me the courage to have the voice," Andrew Stern says of his daughter's death. Last summer, he led seven unions in breaking away from the AFL-CIO. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Adaughter's death left an unexpected gift. After the sorrow ripped his heart and the confusion left him dazed, Andrew Stern began to discover it -- began to see what Cassie, his 13-year-old, had passed on to him.

She had been so fragile, even confined by a back brace for a time, yet so very much alive. Frail but fearless -- that was Cassie. And that was her gift to her father.

It is but one facet of a man's life -- certainly not his sum total. Stern, 55, president of the powerful Service Employees International Union, has been a labor activist and innovator for more than 30 years and, in fact, had been fomenting rebellion in big labor for years.

And, yet, after Cassie passed away 3 1/2 years ago of complications from spinal surgery, and after he cried in the shower every day for months, torn apart by the memories, such as jumping little waves at the beach with his daughter in his arms -- after all that, Stern realized that something in him had awakened.

"Cassie gave me the courage to have the voice," he explains carefully. He's talking about the voice to articulate his controversial vision.

He began speaking more stridently, and sometimes unwisely, he says. "I lost a lot of my concern about what people thought of me," he says.

He's seated in his office, calming in its monotone whiteness, overlooking a snow-covered Dupont Circle. Cassie is a smiling sprite of a girl in an array of photos on Stern's credenza, along with her big brother Matt, now 19.

"My greatest fear," Stern is saying, "is not having the courage" to take on a fight, "whether it's the labor movement, the Democratic Party or anybody else who stands in the way of workers doing well."

After Cassie, the question taunted him: "What am I so scared about?"

Last summer, he stunned the American labor movement when he led the SEIU and six other unions to defect from the AFL-CIO. He had effectively split the "house of labor" in two, peeling off about 40 percent of its membership.

History one day will record Stern as the impetuous, power-hungry man who accelerated the decline of the American union movement. That is one view, taken by some of his embittered former colleagues at the AFL-CIO.

Or, his supporters say, Stern will go down in history as the courageous, visionary leader who charted a bold new course for American unionism just in time and helped spark a labor movement to fight for workers in the world economy.

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