SEIU president offers a look ahead before stepping down

By Ezra Klein
Sunday, April 18, 2010

Andy Stern is the president of SEIU, a service employees union with 2.2 million members. He led the breakaway unions that split from the AFL-CIO and formed Change to Win, and he's been a key political player during the Obama era, visiting the White House more than any other individual. Last week, he announced his retirement.

In a wide-ranging interview conducted at his office, Stern talked about his reasons for retiring, the need for unions to partner with employers rather than fight against them, and why the working class has every right to be angry at Wall Street and politicians. This excerpt was edited for length:

Ezra Klein: Why are you leaving SEIU?

Andy Stern: In 1972, I signed a union card for SEIU. And for the last 38 years, 14 as president, it's been my life. I've seen the most miraculous, spectacular things. But there's a time to learn, a time to lead and a time to leave. And my leaving really has two basic parts to it. One is the union's never been stronger. We've elected a president. We have passed health-care reform. We have the strongest and most diverse group of local union leaders in our history. We finished the restructuring of the union; our political program is spectacular in terms of the 100,000 members that participated in the last election; we have the largest PAC.

But every institution needs to renew itself, and I've seen way too many labor leaders stay way too long -- and politicians -- and I have no intention of doing that. The union is ready for renewal, and the first renewal is electing new leadership and then another generation of leadership to take the union to the future.

On a personal side, I'm turning 60. My father died at 68, got cancer at 65. I lost a daughter eight years ago, which I've been running from, so to speak, ever since. I need to get hold of my own life and my own future and my own responsibilities, and at the same time, the union needs to get hold of its future and its future leadership, and we've met at the same moment.

EK: And where do you leave the labor movement, beyond just SEIU? Density remains low. There's infighting among different unions. Where is labor now?

AS: It is the greatest middle-class, job-creating mechanism that we have ever had in America that doesn't cost taxpayers a dime. . . .

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