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,
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."