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At the peak of his influence, SEIU chief set to leave a mixed legacy

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; A01

As he prepares to turn over the reins of the Service Employees International Union, Andrew L. Stern is at the apex of his political influence. He helped lead the push for the health-care overhaul that became law last month. He has visited the White House 38 times in President Obama's tenure, far more than other labor leaders. Obama named him to a new deficit commission.

But underlying Stern's glittering profile -- a well-connected visionary seeking to revive organized labor and lead the liberal vanguard -- is the complicated reality surrounding his departure, which he is expected to make official at a meeting Wednesday.

Although Stern expanded his own union at a time of general labor decline, that growth has ebbed, its finances are in poor shape and it is facing federal investigations into allegations that Stern loyalists stole funds.

Stern's mission to transform the labor movement as a whole is faltering. The breakaway federation he formed in 2005, Change to Win, has fallen short of its promise of launching a new era of organizing success. Most of its unions either have returned to the AFL-CIO or are on the verge of doing so, leaving the SEIU increasingly isolated.

Many labor supporters who hailed Stern as a savior are disillusioned. They say that his push to expand membership too often involved cutting deals with employers at the expense of favorable terms for workers. They are alarmed at the vicious internal fights that Stern has picked with a large California chapter and the hotel workers union, disputes that have drained resources and riven the movement when it could have taken advantage of a Democratic-controlled White House and Congress.

The rancor surrounding these internal battles -- and the charge from the SEIU's rivals that its tactics are undermining union democracy -- have undercut organized labor's push for its top priority, legislation to make it easier to organize workers, many in the movement say. Overall, they say, the rise of Stern's own star has failed to lift the prospects of the cause he sought to lead.

"A combination of events destroyed what ought to have been a great legacy for Andy," said John Wilhelm, the head of Unite Here, the hotel and garment workers union, with which the SEIU is feuding. "Andy could have been a really great labor leader. He's a smart guy with a lot of abilities and a strong strategic sense. But something happened to the guy. It says in Scripture that pride goeth before the fall, and that's what happened here."

Stern, 59, and SEIU officials declined to comment. But several of Stern's political allies hailed his achievements in 14 years as the union's chief, notably the leading role he played in pushing for health-care reform.

"The union played a steadfast role in supporting reform even at points when the union had some misgivings about some elements of the reform," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal advocacy group. "They had a very good mixture of clear direction and yet also practicality so that reform would actually pass this year -- and much of this credit goes to Andy."

Although union membership in the private sector has dropped to near 7 percent, down from a third of workers in the 1950s, membership is expanding in the public sector, where much of the SEIU's growth has occurred. And even as their numbers have fallen, unions retain clout -- the SEIU spent $60 million on the 2008 elections.

But Stern's ambitions were far grander than clinging to what remained of organized labor's relevance. In 2005, the former social worker from New Jersey declared that he was leading the SEIU out of the AFL-CIO, the federation led by his onetime mentor, John Sweeney, into a new federation, accompanied by the Teamsters, Unite Here and the laborers union, among others. The AFL-CIO, Stern argued, was atrophying, focusing too much on protecting the gains of existing members instead of trying to sign up new ones.

For a while, his vision, articulated in a more media-savvy and intellectual form than labor leaders were known for, inspired hopes of a broad revival. The SEIU scored major organizing successes, such as unionizing thousands of janitors in Houston. The general strategy was to try to win contracts that applied across a swath of workers in a given sector or region, often by pressuring employers into acceding to unionization instead of trying to win traditional union elections, which labor supporters say are tilted toward employers.

But critics argued that Stern's emphasis on expanding the membership rolls too often amounted to convincing employers that the SEIU would be less than aggressive at the bargaining table. Critics also balked at his decision to drop a publicity campaign against Wal-Mart after the retail giant, which is sharply opposed to unionization, moved to offer more employee health benefits.

Many of the union's gains also came from deals cut with elected officials. For instance, the SEIU contributed $1.8 million to the campaigns of then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), making it one of his top contributors. In 2006, he gave the union the go-ahead to organize about 20,000 home health-care workers.

Such top-down tactics, critics say, left little room for workers to fight for their own fate.

"On the one hand, [Stern] deserves credit for issuing the call to organize," said Herman Benson, head of the Association for Union Democracy, a pro-labor advocacy group. But, he said, Stern also "put forward the notion that in order to achieve our great objective, we have to turn the labor movement into a bureaucratized, semi-militarized operation where locals are made so big that local autonomy is essentially disappeared, that everything depends on the word of the leader up on top. What we needed was a leader that unleashed the strength in his members to make them a real force for justice in America."

This critique is at the heart of the brutal turf battle in Northern California, where leaders of a 150,000-person chapter argued that Stern was giving too much away in negotiations and disempowering workers. The SEIU early last year forced out the local leaders, who formed a union to win back their former members.

The SEIU has invested heavily in the fight, sending dozens of organizers into the state, but the new union has won several of the initial elections. It has fared little better in trying to capitalize on the breakup of Unite Here. The SEIU created an affiliate, Workers United, to pry away Unite Here members, but so far, fewer than a third of them have come over.

SEIU membership growth has slowed -- after growing by 300,000 workers from 2006 to 2009, it added only 50,000 workers last year, for a total of 1.86 million. The union's finances are far more leveraged than those of most other unions -- it owes $121 million, while much of its $188 million in assets include IOUs from strapped locals.

And it is now facing a likely succession struggle. Stern is supporting his lieutenant Anna Burger, who would take over as interim leader for 30 days before the executive board elects a new president.

But others may challenge her, such as Mary Kay Henry, the head of the union's health-care division. Challengers may well argue for extricating the SEIU from its costly internal battles, said Bob Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"I don't think it's necessarily that [Stern] is thinking, 'I'm feeling pressure to step down for the good of the labor movement,' " Bruno said. "But people are speculating that this could create an opportunity."

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