Most 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.
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.