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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
A Child's Death Stirred Andrew Stern To Challenge Himself -- and Unionism

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.

Stern, of course, would pick the kinder rendering, for he believes firmly that he is right. Labor needed to be shaken up, and no more harm could come from an AFL-CIO breakup than from the inertia that gripped it, Stern says.

Low numbers speak of the high stakes: Only 12 percent of the American labor force is unionized these days, down from 35 percent three decades ago. Surveys show that Americans want unions but are afraid of how bosses will react, because organizers often are fired illegally for their activities. Workers, Stern says, are devalued, and he is trying to change the way Americans view labor and the economy as a whole.

In the world according to Stern, low-wage workers too often succumb to a form of economic Darwinism. Stern travels the country delivering that message in speeches and rallies. He talks about how the global economy has made things worse, with multinationals competing to find the cheapest labor, minus unions -- the Wal-Mart effect. For workers to thrive, big labor has to act as big business does: Go global, recruit without borders, unionize workers across entire economic sectors.

He has rankled many by calling big labor a "lap dog" for the Democratic Party. Labor, he says, should follow a political agenda that's good for workers, regardless of party.

And he caused a firestorm at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when he said a John Kerry victory would be bad for big labor, would give it a false sense of power, and paper over its fundamental problem of flagging union membership. As it turned out, of course, Kerry lost. Big labor could not muster enough troops -- a fact that also sparked a rethinking in the movement.

Beyond such macro issues, though, Stern has even drawn suspicion just for being who he is. Some old-line, blue-collar unionists are annoyed with his white-collar, Ivy League background. Tom Buffenbarger, leader of the machinists and aerospace workers, virtually spat out the words "Wharton School" in deriding Stern's educational background.

And yet Stern has pushed big labor, challenged it, lined up some of its big names behind him. He has taken the labor movement to the brink of a new era, for better or worse, while an interior dialogue of grief and loss has shaped his leadership, adding volume to an already voluble voice.

'Male, Pale and Stale'

He's in Philadelphia one November day, at the ornate Union League building on Broad Street, about to address the nabobs of the local chapter of the World Affairs Council and introduce them to his vision of the world of labor.

He's come home, in a way, for he attended college here, the University of Pennsylvania. He first joined a union here, back in 1972. And Cassie died here, over at Children's Hospital, which he'd passed on the train ride up from Washington.

"Lot of memories," he's saying in a corridor before his speech. "I actually couldn't ride the train for a while [after Cassie] because it passed right by the hospital."

But that is his internal landscape. Onstage, before a sea of well-appointed Philadelphia business and civic leaders, he is telling the crowd of his life's work, of the question that has vexed him for years and years.

"How is hard work valued and rewarded in America?" He is speaking, as he so often does, for the blue-collar American workers, those folks whose plight outrages him.

He's telling of a woman named Flora Aguilar. She's a janitor in Houston, among the janitors that Stern's SEIU has just recently organized. She works four hours a day for one of the largest cleaning firms in the country, he says, cleaning "30 offices, two hallways, 29 toilets. And she goes home with 20 bucks. That's Flora Aguilar's life."

And yet workers like Aguilar -- increasingly the backbone of the service economy -- have been overlooked, deemed too hard to organize by a labor movement whose mentality is stuck in an industrial, manufacturing past that has been exported and globalized.

That's why he calls the labor movement "male, pale and stale."

"We thought we could go into the future by looking into the rear-view mirror, but it just doesn't work," Stern is saying, using one of his oft-repeated images of labor stuck in the past.

The largely white male crowd applauds politely.

An hour later, Stern is down in South Philly peeling off his suit jacket and tie, pulling on a purple SEIU windbreaker and marching across a rain-swept parking lot to join a sea of purple-clad protesters converging on a local Wal-Mart.

He loves this, loves the fray. He used to take Cassie and Matt to protests once in a while, as well as labor conventions, when Cassie was well enough to go.

Here, he is with a family of a different kind. He is chairman of the Wal-Mart Watch advocacy group, and these protesters -- white, black and brown home-care workers and janitors -- are from SEIU Local 668, where Stern got his start. Now he's plunging into the crowd to show his solidarity, chanting "Hey-hey! Ho-ho! Wal-Mart has got to go!"

From Success, Criticism

Stern wanted to overhaul the AFL-CIO and its more than 60 affiliated unions. And as the leader of the largest and fastest growing union in the group, his voice was heard.

He wanted the federation to merge some of its small unions with larger ones. He wanted it to recruit more aggressively and across entire sectors (all janitors, home-care workers, security guards, etc.), not just at individual workplaces. And he wanted to bring businesses on board by dispelling their fears, in labor negotiations, of being undercut by competing workplaces.

It could be done, he believed, for his own union has done it. In the SEIU, membership has tripled since the 1980s to 1.8 million. The union represents health care workers, janitors, security guards and other service workers often deemed difficult to organize because many are part-time or contract workers.

By gathering the support of local political and religious leaders, the SEIU recently unionized 5,000 janitors in Houston across several workplaces. It also won a recent battle to organize 49,000 child-care workers in Illinois.

The SEIU's successes have not gone unnoticed.

"Houston's tough turf," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. "Houston sends a very good message -- that you can win in the South and you can win big."

And that is the rub.

Ruth Milkman, a professor and director of the UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations, says the SEIU's success has made it the target of resentment by some in the labor movement.

"They're so much better than everybody else that the hubris that might go with that is dangerous," Milkman says.

Indeed, there's a soaring self-assuredness that infuses Stern's work. Get him talking and he launches into a rapid-fire stream of consciousness, very high-concept, and it all makes sense, you think, but then he's turning a sharp intellectual corner, racing up a hill, rounding a bend in the logic and challenging the listener to keep up.

Stern's leadership is "both exciting, wonderful and sometimes a little terrifying," says Stephen Lerner, a SEIU division director and leader of the Justice for Janitors campaign begun in the 1980s. "You can be working with Andy Stern hand in hand with a great idea and there'll be a series of discussions and he'll have a brand-new idea and gears will change incredibly quickly," says Lerner. "So part of what happens is there's very little orthodox. It's an environment that is constantly challenging you and saying you can't sit on your laurels."

In a broad brush, Stern likens himself to John L. Lewis, the mine workers leader who broke with the AFL back in the 1930s when he founded the CIO to represent industrial and manufacturing workers.

"He had the guts to take the money of the mine workers and invest it in building a new organization based on a fundamentally different principle," Stern says. "This guy really created the modern industrial labor movement." Minus Lewis's infamous megalomania, Stern sees himself as leading a similar sea change in big labor.

His detractors -- surprise -- don't see it that way at all.

When he put forward a set of comprehensive proposals to the AFL-CIO in December 2004, John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO president and Stern's onetime mentor, and other labor leaders rejected most of them.

But even some of Stern's main allies didn't share his far-reaching vision.

James P. Hoffa, president of the 1.4-million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters and son of the late and legendary Jimmy Hoffa, said his union does not support mergers and strict sectorial organizing. But Hoffa shares Stern's frustration with the AFL-CIO's failure to arrest labor's decline, as well as annoyance at its administrative size.

"You go to meetings there, it's like going to a U.N. meeting," Hoffa said. The Teamsters made some radical organizing proposals of their own. But Sweeney's team was not receptive. (Sweeney declined to be interviewed for this article.)

In June, the SEIU, the Teamsters and other disaffected unions formed the Change to Win Coalition. The next month, while the AFL-CIO was holding its 50th anniversary convention in Chicago, the SEIU and Teamsters announced they were leaving. Soon thereafter, they were joined by the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Laborers International Union, the United Farm Workers of America, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and the apparel and hospitality workers of the Unite Here union.

They left behind an AFL-CIO embittered by the breakup.

The AFL-CIO executive committee had tried to satisfy Stern by proposing that a commission be established to recommend union mergers. Stern voted against it. He saw it as a feint, an AFL-CIO tactic to "fake change rather than make change."

"Nobody ever understood exactly what they wanted," says Denise Mitchell, spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO. "It was maddening."

Some observers suggested that it was all a power play by Stern.

"For all the talk about fundamentally different principles, different strategic approaches, differing organizing principles, that's all really [expletive]," says a labor official familiar with the SEIU who spoke anonymously because he works with both labor federations.

"He'd decided he had outgrown the federation," the source says. "His union was growing. Too many other unions weren't."

Stern dismisses such criticism as "insulting," saying it merely attempts to "diminish" the reformist agenda. Yes, he does want power, he says -- "but for workers."

Aiding the Underdog

Almost all the men in Stern's family are lawyers. His late father was. His brothers are. A grandfather was. (The other grandfather was a butcher.)

Ken Stern, 53, Andrew's brother, says they were raised in the Judaic tradition of tikkun olam , "sort of a duty and responsibility to heal the world, make the world a better place."

"He's always cared about people," Ken Stern says of his big brother. "He always liked to help the underdog."

As a teen in West Orange, N.J., Andrew Stern raised money for poor children around the world by throwing backyard carnivals, complete with a baton-twirling neighbor and songs lip-synched by Tom Stern, his youngest brother, who was terrified but did it because Andy was persuasive that way.

In high school, Stern managed a political campaign for a class-president candidate. That role, in the background, was typical of his high school career, except when he played on the tennis team. He was never the high achiever of parental expectations.

"My mom wanted me to be the most likely to succeed or win an academic prize," Stern says, "so in ninth grade, me and my girlfriend were class couple." He laughs. "And then in 12th grade, I was best personality or runner-up in best personality. My mom was hoping for the best biology award."

At the University of Pennsylvania, he enrolled in the Wharton School for a year. But it was a mistake. He didn't plan on going into business.

"You had to wear a tie and jacket to get into the dining hall, and you were served by students in uniforms wearing white gloves," he says, laughing at the spectacle.

He switched to urban studies. He threw himself into campus activism. He helped organize and manage a food co-op. He protested a university plan to turn Penn's version of a "people's park" into a parking lot.

After graduating, he went into welfare, becoming a caseworker for the state. That led him to join the SEIU, which hired him as a union organizer in 1973.

He rose steadily through its ranks -- as a local president, then a state president, all the while challenging the status quo, making allies and enemies with whom he would contend for years to come.

Transcending the Grief

Cassie had surgery to correct scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, in May 2002. She also was chronically weak from hypotonia, abnormally low muscle tone that plagued her from birth. Later that month, father and daughter visited his stepmother in Ocean City, N.J. Stern slept in the same room as Cassie to make sure she was all right through the night.

He heard the silence when she stopped breathing.

He tried to resuscitate her. His stepmother called 911. A chopper medevaced Cassie to the hospital. But she slipped into a coma. Several days later, it was over.

His memories became a form of torture -- their trip to Venice and the Vatican, their safari in Botswana, the way she bossed her cats, Patrick and Olivia, and did her pottery and had her dad and everyone else lovingly wrapped around her finger.

There was grief counseling. He had a hard time coping. So did Matt, who found it troubling that his father would lose it and start crying in public. And Stern's marriage to Cassie's mom, A. Jane Perkins, did not survive the trauma.

One day, Stern just walked out of a union meeting and wandered the streets.

"I wasn't sure I could continue doing my job after she died," he says.

This year, for the first time, he watched a video montage that a friend had made for him of Cassie's life. It was hard. He watched it in segments over three weeks.

And slowly, it happened. The balance began to take shape. There was and will always be the horror of the loss, he says, but bursting through the pain was also the joy of remembrance.

He had discovered and claimed Cassie's gift.

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