By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; A19
"The special gift of this union has been its ability to do things differently," Andy Stern told me on Tuesday as he looked back on his 14-year tenure as president of the Service Employees International Union in the wake of his reported decision to resign, which shocked Washington after it leaked out Monday.
Stern's resignation could be Exhibit A in the SEIU's Doing Things Differently file. It comes at the height of his power, not just as the leader of America's most dynamic union but also as the leader of liberalism's most effective political organization; one with the best access to President Obama and that has done more than any other to build a nationwide progressive infrastructure over the past couple of decades.
The resignation comes on the heels of several notable victories: the enactment of health-care reform, for which the SEIU had campaigned for years; the appointment of pro-labor members (including former SEIU attorney Craig Becker) to the National Labor Relations Board; and a California court verdict largely upholding the SEIU's position in a bitter dispute with onetime leaders of its major Bay Area local. If anything, these victories make Stern's departure even more of a conundrum by normal Beltway standards.
Yet Stern, who went to work for the union straight out of college 38 years ago, has wanted to step down for some time, and these recent successes offered the opportunity to go out on a high note. Those who know him find his resignation anything but a surprise. "He decided a long time ago that he would not be one of those people who would hang on forever," says one of his closest friends. "I know you don't see people at the pinnacle of their careers doing this, but Andy's always been outside the box."
Stern's outside-the-boxness may be the only attribute on which his supporters and critics -- both are legion -- can agree. After then-SEIU President John Sweeney made Stern the union's organizing director in 1984, Stern began directing organizing efforts toward whole categories of workers that the rest of the labor movement was largely ignoring, including janitors who clean the office buildings of America's downtowns and, later, home-care and child-care workers and private security guards. These workers were immigrants, women and people of color "in jobs and sectors," said Stern, "that many other unions didn't know existed."
"He rewrote the rules of organizing," says a competing union's organizing director. Unionizing janitors required raucous street demonstrations and pressuring the financial institutions that owned the office buildings. Efforts were made to enlist immigrant communities and churches in the cause. Organizing home-care and child-care workers, who were largely paid out of state funds, meant getting governors to sign orders permitting the workers to form a union, which in turn compelled the SEIU to become a major electoral player in numerous states. Organizing security guards, who are increasingly employed by massive transnational conglomerates, required the SEIU to form and fund worldwide alliances of guard unions that have compelled those employers to acquiesce to global organizing accords.
At a time when the labor movement as a whole was shrinking, the SEIU grew tremendously -- from 625,000 members when Sweeney became president in 1981 to a little over 1 million when Stern became president in 1996, to 2.1 million today. The best measure of success, however, is the transformation of members' lives. SEIU janitors, for instance, have health insurance for themselves and their families, which cannot be said of the millions of nonunion workers in similar jobs.
Meanwhile, the SEIU built a reputation for turning out more precinct walkers and phone-bank workers among its members than almost any other American organization. It funded the groups that mobilized nonmembers -- chiefly new immigrant voters and inner-city African Americans -- at election time. As Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers was the chief funder of many civil rights campaigns during the 1960s, so Stern's SEIU has been the leading force behind many immigrant-rights campaigns today.
Not all of Stern's outside-the-box ideas have been good. His decision to split from the AFL-CIO and form a separate federation, Change to Win, has not led to the uptick in organizing he predicted. "Just changing union structures may help," Stern acknowledged Tuesday, "but is not in itself determinative." Indeed, with each passing month, Change to Win's raison d'etre grows harder to discern, even as the cost it imposes on labor solidarity rises. Stern -- who seems at times a figure of Dostoevskian complexity -- has displayed a consistent inclination to step on other unions' toes, and his internal reorganization of SEIU, which has resulted in bigger and fewer locals, has dismayed many within the union's ranks and some union-democracy advocates.
Not even his fiercest critics can ignore his successes, however, during a time when union successes were few and far between. Stern leaves as he presided -- way outside the box.