What Future for SEIU After Andy Stern Resigns?


by Paul Garver

Articles and editorial comments in the Left and liberal press display a wide spectrum of reactions to Andy Stern’s divided legacy as SEIU President. I will analyze these reactions, note where they diverge and converge, and propose some modest course adjustments for a union that is too big, and too important to the movement, to be allowed to fail.

The articles and comments cited are:

Beyond Chron: Randy Shaw, “SEIU’s Post-Andy Stern Era”
Counterpunch: Steve Early, “Who’s Going to Pay the Tab Left Behind by Andy Stern?”
In These Times: Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Nelson Lichtenstein, “SEIU’s Civil War”
Labor Notes: Mark Brenner, Mischa Gaus, and Jane Slaughter, Andy Stern’s Legacy: Right Questions, Wrong Answers
Katrina van den Heuvel, “SEIU’s Andy Stern Steps Down”
New Republic:
John Judis, “Andy Stern’s departure is another sign of labor movement’s decline”
New York Times:
Steven Greenhouse, “Andy Stern to Step Down as Chief of Politically Active Union”
Washington Post:
Harold Meyerson, “Andy Stern: A union maverick clocks out”
Washington Post: Alec MacGillis, “At the peak of his influence, SEIU chief set to leave a mixed legacy”

When Andy Stern announced his resignation as SEIU President, most liberal and Left publications reacted. A round-up of these commentaries illustrates the wide spectrum of reactions to Stern’s divided legacy and evaluation of SEIU’s current status.

Katrina van den Heuvel , Harold Meyerson, John Judis and Steven Greenhouse positively evaluated Andy Stern’s contribution to positioning SEIU as a key element in the progressive political coalition that elected Obama and a Democratic congress and passed health care reform. Stern was praised for his “push for dramatic structural change” and for “creating new institutions and alliances for working people” (van den Heuvel), as one of the few union leaders who “actually did something about arresting the labor movement’s decline” and whose departure is “another step downward in labor’s descent,” (Judis), as an “outside-the box thinker” who “rewrote the rules of organizing,” (Meyerson), and for taking the strategy of “making the union movement a social justice movement for low-wage workers to a new level” (Greenhouse). These commentators did criticize Stern’s propensity to enter into polarizing fights with other unions and noted the failure of Change To Win to fulfill its ambitious organizing goals. Judis opined that Stern’s insistence on doing things his own way may, like John L. Lewis, have undermined his own ambitious goals.

The article by Alec MacGillis probes more deeply into the “mixed legacy” left by Stern and the “complicated reality surrounding his departure.” MacGillis notes the ebbing of SEIU’s growth rate, the poor shape of its finances, and the extent to which its warfare with other unions has undercut the push for labor law reform. He quotes Stern critics John Wilhelm of Unite Here and Herman Benson (Association for Union Democracy), and concludes by citing labor educator Bob Bruno’s hope that challengers to replace Stern might argue for extricating SEIU from its costly internal battles.

Steve Early writing for Counterpunch attempted to add up all the SEIU dues money that has been spent on its warfare against other unions, and concludes that it approximates the $85 million SEIU spent on political campaigning in the last election cycle. Workers United/SEIU has become a major financial drain rather than a major new revenue source. He also points out that SEIU used to receive $20 million in per capita payments annually from UHW, and that under trusteeship the UHW has fallen into arrears in its payments as well as costing SEIU tens of millions for its campaigns against the NUHW. Early concludes that Stern’s successor will face a “financial day of reckoning” for his excesses.

The Labor Notes staff praised Stern for initially focusing on organizing strategies for whole industries, for ousting crooked and complacent local union leaders that stood in the way, and for embracing community allies and enlisting academic friends of labor. But they believe that SEIU then began to take short-cuts for organizing that bypassed their own members. Labor Notes holds out hope that SEIU members, leaders and staff (some of whom are “among the best in the movement”) will be able to chart a new course that will reverse the “top-down internal culture of SEIU.”

According to Randy Shaw the fear and loyalty Stern engendered among SEIU staff and members will not be transferable to his successor, and that could result in more open debate and internal dissent within SEIU. This in turn may help SEIU’s troubled relations with Unite-Here and other unions, and unblock SEIU’s return to the AFL-CIO. However “SEIU lacks a clear focus, suffers from an acute crisis of confidence and spirit” and “its fights with UNITE HERE and NUHW are not aberrations, but are symptoms of a larger problem likely centered on SEIU’s confused mission.”

My Commentary
I applaud Andy Stern’s decision to resign his presidency. It sets a good precedent for union leaders, allows him space for personal reflection, and permits him to consider how best to use his bully pulpit on the Deficit Commission to fight for progressive policies.

Moreover Stern’s resignation creates a competition to replace him that might encourage SEIU to re-examine its current direction as an organization. One encouraging signal is that four SEIU International Executive Vice Presidents (Gerry Hudson, Eliseo Medina, Dave Regan and Tom Woodruff) have endorsed Mary Kay Henry as Stern’s successor, in part because “Mary Kay would have a unique opportunity to re-establish SEIU as an important partner in the labor and progressive community” (The need to accomplish this was not apparent in the editorial comments in the left liberal media!)

As a long-time SEIU staffer with a personal interest in seeing SEIU recuperate the sounder parts of its heritage, I find myself in agreement with Randy Shaw and Alec MacGinnis. For historical background I highly recommend the superb December 2009 In These Times report on SEIU’s Civil War by Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Nelson Lichtenstein. Editorial comments in the liberal media appear unwilling to grapple with the shadow side of Andy Stern’s legacy. I agree with their generally positive evaluation of SEIU’s keystone position in the arch of progressive politics, but find them oblivious to the costs that that has imposed on SEIU’s internal organizational life. Building a giant bureaucratized machine on the “command” model does generate major organizational and financial resources for political campaigns. However, too many organizational shortcuts have been taken rather than undertaking the difficult but indispensable task of convincing SEIU local members to support SEIU’s political campaigns. Merging and restructuring SEIU locals, often through trusteeships, are too often employed to short-cut the process of winning the informed consent of SEIU members. These trustees, drawn from a narrow pool of loyalists whose actual experience in the labor movement is often limited, are too prone to personal corruption and political arrogance. As local unions eventually emerge from trusteeship (provided that this process is not delayed by new reorganizations), they often reject the former trustees in contested elections. However the repudiated trustees can simply be parachuted into newly trusteed locals, where democratic elections will not take place for several years. Under these conditions, the emergence of a member-driven internal debate and discussion within SEIU is hampered.

Moreover, the quest to secure new membership in collaboration with management at the cost of weak contractual agreements angers existing members whose own contracts may suffer as a result. Passive union members may not have the means to resist, but SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers West local that had a politically sophisticated leadership and deep shop steward structure was able to fight back and impose heavy costs on SEIU’s risky trusteeship gamble. Similarly SEIU’s maladroit attempt to take advantage of the messy divorce of UniteHere to seize its entire organization faltered on unexpectedly heavy resistance, and led to collateral conflicts with national, state and local labor organizations (and driving a stake into the heart of Change To Win).

The wars of choice that SEIU has waged on its own dissidents and on other unions in the last few years have led to such damaging organizational and financial consequences that they will surely force a painful internal reexamination within SEIU (perhaps not immediately but surely early in the term of whoever succeeds Andy Stern as President). Perhaps only a victory by the insurgent NUHW at Kaiser Permanente in California will trigger that essential course correction. SEIU is simply too big and too important to the future of the labor movement to be allowed to fail.

Friends of labor should do less speculating on motivations and personalities, while proposing how SEIU might recover its balance and sobriety, while retaining its legitimate ambitions and aspirations for American workers. I have a few modest suggestions:

1- SEIU should bury the corpse of Change to Win, rejoin the AFL-CIO and encourage other CTW affiliates to rejoin the AFL-CIO as well (At this point, CTW is simply a dues-chiseling operation).

2. Settle the disputes with the Puerto Rico Federation of Teachers, Unite Here and the NUHW on an equitable basis. An imperfect peace is better than constant warfare, as demonstrated by the truce SEIU reached with the California Nurses’ Association. Furthermore, begin to explore strategies to collaborate with other unions in SEIU’s sectors to jointly organize those sectors.

3. Reincorporate a previous strength of SEIU, namely its long tradition of relative local autonomy and respect for diversity of opinion among local leaders. I do not claim that SEIU was ever a genuine forum for democratic discussion and debate, nor were most of its locals models for member participation, but until a few years ago SEIU’s national leadership skillfully accommodated a wide spectrum of political beliefs and local organizational stances.

4. SEIU needs to create a serious program for leadership development. The costs of creating a vast bureaucratic machine focused on political and financial mobilization excessively burdened the capacity of SEIU to develop staff and leadership in a systematic way, or to subject them to sufficient democratic control from the membership. The results were growing corruption, arrogance, and an overreliance on cutting short the democratic process by forced local restructuring and trusteeships.

5. Some of these problems would be mitigated (though probably not eliminated) by strengthening the sectoral divisions (in SEIU mainly Public Sector, Health Care and Building/Security Services.). Although this divisional structure has long existed on paper in SEIU, the sectors has not functioned effectively as “strategic units” to focus on the real demands of organizing and bargaining for workers in a particular service industry (another reason why bargaining conducted at higher levels in the union has resulted in weaker contracts than those negotiated by the stronger SEIU locals).

6. The real priority choices are not between “service” and “organizing” models, nor between “density” and “quality,” but on how best to mobilize and sustain democratic membership support for all of the union’s legitimate organizational and political goals, including organizing new members.

3 Responses

  1. […] to believe that SEIU might undertake a modest course correction in the near future. I recently outlined a minimal reform program for SEIU on this blog. Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect hoped that the electoral contest between […]

  2. […] to believe that SEIU might undertake a modest course correction in the near future. I recently outlined a minimal reform program for SEIU on this blog. Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect hoped that the electoral contest between […]

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