Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Andy Stern, You Were Never Ruthless Enough

ANDY, THE SUMMER'S OVERMost news coming out of the American labor movement can be categorized as "depressing." The news of Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern's impending resignation is no exception. It means that Stern's aggressive, and often sloppy, campaign to rehabilitate labor of its unhealthy tendencies-turf wars, stagnation, bankrolling of weak Democrats-was a failure. Throughout his 15-year tenure, Stern has gotten it from all sides. Within the left, the attack most often levied against Stern was that he has been a ruthless union boss, bent on consolidating his own power. In this version of events, Stern squelched union democracy by cobbling together local union chapters, deposing local leadership, turning rank and file against union officials-and throughout displayed an easy willingness to throw anyone in front of the firing squad if they stood in the way of his agenda.

With such merciless ambition, it was feared-really, it was prophesied-that Stern would roll over for employers just as long as he was able to grow the ranks of union membership. Weak contracts or not, the goal, whether for virtuous or ignoble reasons, was to organize workers by any means necessary.

If only.

I quit working for SEIU because Stern wasn't brutish enough. The blood bath of indolent staffers and dinosaur union bosses never happened on the scale it was supposed to. We never got the controversial or "watered-down" contracts with mega-employers because the union was constantly fighting off rival unions or rogue local chapters. When we weren't spending our resources on state-by-state skirmishes with other unions, we were fighting off decertification campaigns from within. From 2007 to 2009, SEIU largely stopped organizing workers at all. If anything, Stern's last years in office proved that the individual determinism and zealotry of one man, though charismatic and influential, was no match against labor's warring chieftains.

Nevertheless, two weeks after Obama won the presidency- an election which cost SEIU about $70 million, some of which came from mortgaging the international union's headquarters in Washington D.C.-it was Stern's ambition to start influencing federal labor policy. The economy wasn't understood to be completely junked yet, and health care reform still only existed in white paper form, so Stern and his cabinet wanted to ride the momentum coming out of election day to pass The Employee Free Choice Act with the new Congress. The legislation, though undoubtedly flawed, would allow employees to form a union by signing a card rather than going through a multi-month-some times years-long-election for union recognition.

Getting senators to vote for EFCA meant cashing in unearned political credit all over the Hill, mobilizing 1500 staffers (already burnt out from 6 months of tireless campaigning), and organizing thousands of union members around federal labor legislation that had no direct affect on them.

In the most frigid days of December, the national EFCA campaign coordinator and I camped outside of Stern's office so we could beg for more staff to put in the field. He arrived from a day of meetings around 8 p.m., looking beleaguered. We made the case for beefing up the ground game. He picked up a memo that was on his desk. It was a 14-page health and safety report from the internal staff union of the SEIU, complaining about their office chairs, keyboards and the specter of carpal tunnel.

"They work in a beautiful five-story building built off the wages of janitors," I remember Stern saying. "We're broke from funding Obama, we have to pass EFCA, then health care reform. No one on the Hill will take us seriously because we've never moved policy like this before. And I can't talk to you about staff right now because I have to respond to this memo."

The coordinator made an attempt at to redirect the conversation.

He interrupted her and, with a curious expression, he asked, "Why would they even think about putting us in charge? Would you put us in charge?"

I don't remember what the coordinator said in response, because I was too dismayed at my certainty regarding the answer.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper's Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America is available for pre-order.

15 Comments / Post A Comment

kneetoe (#1,881)

But his name is STERN!

Leaving now.

Crantastical (#4,127)

Embarassing disclosure: although I am a liberal, I used to work at the US Chamber of Commerce. (Basically, I couldn't get another job at the time and they paid well – I didn't know how bad they were either)
You can learn more by working from your most vicious enemy, toxic as they are, than the incompetent group you want to succeed. Also if there's one thing this guy and Tom Donohue have in common, it is the complexion of an over ripe cherry tomato.

jrb (#3,020)

Interesting, but what happens next?

jfruh (#713)

Can someone smarter than me explain what the deal is with EFCA/"card check," and why each side of the debate claims that its passage (or failure to pass) would end "secret ballot" elections for unions? Thanx.

deepomega (#1,720)

Yes. As it stands, there's a multi-stage unionizing process. First, signatures of 30% (I think?) of workers must be collected saying "A+ Go Unions!" Then, there's a secret ballot, by which I mean just regular-ass voting. A simple majority vote there means unions, hooray.

EFCA would change this to just a single majority-rule non-secret vote, done by signing a card and turning it in. Get enough cards signed, and unionizing happens.

The pro-EFCA argument is that as it stands, employers use the second vote as a hurdle to slow down the process of unionizing. Yuck! The anti-EFCA argument is that replacing a secret ballot with a non-secret ballot is maybe not so much the best?

crookedE (#1,817)

Good summary, but I would also add that most unions would not use the 30% threshold of support to call for an election, because you can safely assume that the employer will scare the crap out of people during the weeks leading up to the election. My union only files signatures with the NLRB (to call for an election) when they have a strong majority signed up, so we can be sure to weather the anti-union storm. With EFCA, that majority would be enough to get union recognition, and you wouldn't have to go through an election to prove majority support a second time.

The employers groups who are fighting EFCA are mostly concerned that they will lose their opportunity to campaign against the union, because theoretically workers could organize and gain majority support under EFCA without the boss finding out until it was too late for them to do anything about it. I was involved in an organizing drive in which we filed for an election with a huge majority, and the employer heard about it when the Times called them for a quote. (LOL).

Abe Sauer (#148)

Ah, as anyone who knows from working on a campaign, the Purple People Eaters are great for putting together an event presence at short notice and sure can GOTV! So… you got that.

lbrnyc (#4,405)

Natasha: you left because you could not get along with your supervisor. Don't try to rewrite history.

Focus on your important coffee table book and leave the labor movement to us indolent staff, dinosaur union bosses and, you know, members.

crookedE (#1,817)

Seriously, good freaking riddance. While I am totally in favor of pouring union resources into organizing, SEIU's practice of selling some groups out in order to organize other groups really doesn't serve the labor movement very well.

Fresh34 (#4,406)

This is the best thing I have read about Stern and SEIU and think it really speaks to the bigger issues of dysfunction of labor. Given how the EFCA campaign has turned out, dead as a doornail, I certainly HOPE that the author didn't get along with her supervisor. Looks from here that her boss was the Supervisor of Defeat — a good kind of person not to get along with. Also think the more central point raised by the writer is that while lefties get hot and bothered about such mythical notions as union democracy, Stern's real failing is that he wasn't half as guilty as the accusations against him claimed. If only he had organized another million workers under weak contracts — better than no contracts. If only he had booted out the bureaucrats and local princes who ran and run their outfits like feifdoms. If only.

lbrnyc (#4,405)

Did you get your mom to sign in under Fresh34?

Fresh34 (#4,406)

What a smarmy little thing you be lbrnyc. If the author had to deal with little minds like yours in the union, she should have run out of there with her hair on fire. You seem to vivdly prove her point about the nastiness of self-interested staff. As if there is some crime in deciding to leave a union in the midst of a pointless civil war and then to sneer at someone's success as a writer by fliping her off a coffee table book writer. My, what a progressive, magnanimous and humanitarian soul you must possess, oh great staff defender of the workers!

By the way, I am not her Mom. Or her Dad. Or her Brother or her Uncle. I don't even know her as you apparently do. But I would be equally happy to look you eye to eye and tell you what a petty piece of navel lint you appear to be.

Instead of responding to a core argument put forward, and to support it with any facts, you besmirch the character of the messenger with citing no sources or facts other than some supposed inside info.

Let's hope that you are not part of that indolent staff living off the dues of service workers and bitching that your cubicles aren't big enough. Perhaps cages would be more appropriate.

Union maid (#4,411)

Dear "smarmy little thing",

Gee, how many DAYS did you work at SEIU, before you were FIRED? (aka, Terminated, asked to leave the building).

And, where the f–k did you come from, other than your father's credentials. You should change your name to avoid him future embarassment.

You obviously don't know anything about unions, legislation, field, campaigns, workers, respect, or when to keep your mouth shut and your pen dry.

Please go work for the Chamber of Commerce, they deserve you and appreciate people like you.

Also, would you please refund the salary you earned in your short employment with SEIU to those janitors, who actually work for a living.

By the way, which union are have you paid dues to or just willing to be paid by dues?

In Solidarity,
Union maid 1978 to present, and still working for and paying dues.

carpetblogger (#306)

Ooo! It's internecine labor fights on the Awl Day! Awesome.

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