Stern, 59, the president of the nearly 2.2 million-strong Service Employees International Union, has told friends that he is tired after 14 arduous years in the role, and wants to move on. The cause of his life -- comprehensive health care reform -- was signed into law as he watched two weeks ago. And a close friend, Craig Becker, was given a recess appointment to the National Labor Relations Board.
Stern feels that he's outlived his usefulness and would rather turn his union over to younger folks with new ideas, associates said.
The news, first reported by Ben Smith of POLITICO, stunned senior SEIU officials, one of whom e-mailed me "that [s]afe to say it was news to everyone I've talked to. I have the feeling I'll be learning more as I read whatever you write about it."
An SEIU spokesperson said that "rumors" about Stern's retirement would be addressed at an SEIU executive meeting later this week.
Stern, almost always seen clad in SEIU's purple banner color, is a figure of passion and melancholy. He never got over the death of his young daughter, Cassie, in 2002. It was a clarifying moment: he became far more aggressive about everything. Stern turned the SEIU into a political powerhouse, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to help elect Democrats over the past several cycles.
He led the move by several unions to break away from the AFL-CIO umbrella to form the Change to Win union coalition, promising to devote more resources to organizing. The CTW's promises never lived up to reality, although Stern's SEIU continued to grow.
In the past two years, though, Stern had become a polarizing figure within the circle of unions that supported the SEIU; he took sides in a nasty dispute between the UNITE and HERE unions, and his attempts to incorporate locals and organize workers already claimed by other unions made him, in some eyes, the enemy of union democracy. He was not afraid to campaign against other unions, either.
To Stern, these complaints were all petty; he was successful and his rivals weren't, and his union's size allowed him to wring out better contracts for his members. More recently, the SEIU stepped up efforts to primary Democrats who voted against health care.
To conservatives, Stern was a bully, an exemplification of Chicago-style labor mob tactics. But he successfully forged relationships with several major companies, reasoning that they, too, had a stake in fundamental reform. Stern's alliance with Wal-Mart, after years of fighting them, either pushed the company to undertake efforts to provide better health care for its employees, or allowed them to use him as shield against further criticism.
That said, the average lot of an SEIU member, who tends to be a service worker, is more likely than not a member of a minority group and female, and is poorer than the average blue collar union employee. That's why a massive change to the health care system -- one that made it easier for poorer people to buy coverage, and that would provide disincentives for employers to use health insurance as bargaining chips, became the cause of his life.
Earlier in the year, he told friends that he would step down after health care -- and that's what he's apparently decided to do. One major promise not fulfilled for Stern: the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it far easier for unions to organize. Stern has also not succeeded in reunifying the Change to Win unions with the AFL-CIO; talks about the subject have broken down, even though the two union federations collaborate on politics.
Stern is Obama's closest labor ally and the Democratic figure who visited the White House more often than any other. And most folks at the highest level of his union love him -- and begged him to stay. He has spent his entire life in service to organized labor.
Stern was appointed to President Obama's deficit reduction commission and intends to actively participate, a friend said.
Update: a statement from the SEIU follows:
"The 2.2-million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU)
is an organization united by the belief in the dignity and worth of
workers and the services they provide. SEIU is dedicated to improving
the lives of workers and their families and creating a more just and
"This week, the SEIU Executive Committee is gathering in Washington,
DC, for a three-day meeting where it will celebrate the monumental
achievement and the role of the union in passing healthcare reform.
During that meeting, there will be a series of discussions regarding
the union's future, including our plans for growth in our core
industries, our work to reform the financial institutions that trashed
our economy, and our efforts to hold elected leaders accountable to
"Over the past few months, there has been increasing speculation
regarding SEIU President Andy Stern's intention to step down as
president at the end of his term in 2012. President Stern will
address these rumors at the close of the SEIU Executive Committee
meeting this week."
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