FOR THE past fifteen years, Andy Stern has been the nation’s most ambitious trade unionist. No labor leader has curried favor with the media so assiduously or obtained more face time on television. Yet, a decade and a half after promising to implement policies that would rebuild the labor movement, a goal that remains for the most part unaccomplished, Stern has unexpectedly resigned as president of the nation’s largest single union, the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU).
Stern’s counterparts in the past either died in office—Samuel Gompers, Bill Green, Phil Murray, Walter Reuther—or left office at a relatively old age—John L. Lewis, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and even Stern’s predecessor the former president of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney. Why Stern retired remains opaque, but we can evaluate the extent to which he delivered on promises first made when he assumed the presidency of SEIU in 1996 and subsequently when he seceded from the AFL-CIO in 2005 and created a competing national union center, Change to Win (CTW).
Stern emerged on the national labor stage in the 1990s as one of several younger dissidents dissatisfied with Lane Kirkland’s AFL-CIO, which failed to reverse unions’ decades-long decline in members. By the 1990s, union density had fallen to levels not experienced since the first decade of the century and nearly to rock-bottom in the private sector. The strike as a weapon of worker power had been neutered and labor’s political influence rendered ineffective.
Stern and his fellow dissidents, Bruce Raynor of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers and John Wilhelm of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ Union, allied with other union leaders, to force Kirkland from the presidency of the AFL-CIO and to replace him with John Sweeney. The insurgents promised a different AFL-CIO, one that would bring “the movement” back to labor by devoting a greater share of union resources to organizing the unorganized, to creating effective forms of political education and mobilization, to minimizing labor’s jurisdictional feuds, to integrating idealistic youths into unionism, and to building alliances with community-based social reform organizations.
At first, the Sweeney-led AFL-CIO implemented new policies. “Union Summer” recruited college students to a program that trained them to serve as organizers and future leaders. The AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions strengthened their ties with reformers outside labor in such movements as “Jobs with Justice” and the campaign for living-wage ordinances, “Working America,” as an alternative for workers unable to join unions at their places of employment. The federation also allocated additional resources to the organization of workers, and it enhanced its political power by generating massive union funding and get-out-the-vote drives during the 1996 elections.
Stern, meanwhile, applied his ideas for revitalizing the labor movement to SEIU. When Stern took over, SEIU was situated to flourish. Sweeney had already set the course, using SEIU’s traditional strength in such union cities as New York and Chicago to amass the resources necessary to promote an aggressive organizing campaign nationally. The jobs that SEIU sought to unionize could not be off-shored or undercut by cheaper labor abroad. Moreover, the workers Stern sought to organize were those most favorably inclined to unionism and most eager to gain its benefits: poorly paid workers in the secondary labor market, immigrants, racial minorities, and women.
Stern concentrated on unionizing laborers who worked in custodial occupations, cleaning urban office towers, and providing home health services. The organizing campaigns that he mobilized in Houston and Los Angeles under the rubric “Justice for Janitors” achieved notable success. While other national unions continued to shed members, SEIU grew. He chose another effective method to build his union, swallowing the memberships of heretofore independent unions in health services, another economic sector immune to off-shoring and cheaper labor abroad. That strategy gained the SEIU hundreds of thousands of members in two of the three most populous states, California and New York, and in the latter incorporated that state’s most politically powerful union, Dennis Rivera’s 1199. Stern’s SEIU grew into the largest single union in the nation, with more than a million members, and perhaps the most effective politically.
Stern drew his style of union leadership from two of the nation’s most famous labor leaders, Sidney Hillman and John L. Lewis. Like Hillman, Stern sought employer cooperation rather than wage strikes or open class conflict. If gaining the voluntary assent of an employer to union recognition meant a less than perfect bargain, Stern took it, never subjecting such agreements to the vote of members. In an environment in which NLRB-mandated elections on strikes were rarely conducive to union success, Stern–like Hillman in the 1920s–preferred to take what he could get. Like Lewis, Stern believed that union power was more important than union democracy. Power came from mass membership and union density, realities that created labor market monopolies and political influence. Like Lewis, Stern preferred an organization controlled by capable administrators who knew how to bargain with employers and how to discipline members. If local unions proved independent of the national office and their members unruly, Stern–like Lewis–was ready to place them into trusteeship or to merge them into newly created locals with officers more loyal to the president. Like Lewis, Stern believed that unions and their leaders had a single overriding goal: to accumulate power and then use it to enhance workers’ rights.
While Stern accumulated members and power in the SEIU, the Sweeney-led AFL-CIO had less success. The federation’s leaders failed to convince its affiliates to devote adequate resources to organization, and union membership and density continued their decline. Politically, the AFL appeared inept and impotent, unable to deny national and state power to its enemies in the Republican party. So, borrowing another page from John L. Lewis’s book on how to build labor power, Stern walked out of the AFL-CIO in 2005 along with Raynor and Wilhelm and several other unionists who chafed under Sweeney’s leadership.
Stern’s effort to build a competing national labor center, however, was quite unlike Lewis’s creation of CIO in 1935. For starters, Lewis created CIO with workers on the march and their friends in political power in Washington and many state capitals. Stern seceded when labor was in retreat and its enemies in political power. Lewis’s insurgency allied unions and labor leaders who shared ideas and goals. Stern’s brought together an ill-suited collection of allies, including two unions, the Carpenters and the Teamsters, who had long histories of autocratic leadership, corruption, and an inability to cooperate with their brothers and sisters in the labor movement.
The United Food and Commercial Workers, another of Stern’s allies, found themselves in a strange new relationship. Now they were in bed with a union leader who was playing footsy with the executives of Wal Mart, the aggressively anti-union enterprise and largest single employer of labor in the United States, which had already subverted the Food and Commercial Workers’ presence in the retail food trades. The distinguished sociologist Daniel Bell wrote this in 1995 about the alliance between intellectuals and organized labor that flourished in the aftermath of Sweeney’s rise to power: “For the intellectuals it’s a lot of wishful thinking; I don’t mean that in an invidious way. The real test will be whether labor has the ability to expand its numbers. Simply becoming more rhetorical and becoming more active politically is not in and of itself enough.” The same can be said about Andy Stern and his creation of CTW. It was indeed a lot of wishful thinking.
CTW collapsed almost before it came to life. The Carpenters and the Teamsters behaved no differently as part of Stern’s coalition than they had as affiliates and frequent secessionists from the AFL-CIO. Early on, the Laborers’ International Union, another of Stern’s original allies, sought to reintegrate with the Building and Construction Trades Department and remain in the good graces of the AFL-CIO. The United Farm Workers, another ally, was a shell of the union that had organized California’s field workers in the 1960s and 1970s; by 2005, it was a minuscule, dictatorial union with few members and few contracts. Saddest of all, Stern’s closest allies ideologically and culturally, fellow products of the 1960s student rebellion, Raynor and Wilhelm, waged war against each other. That conflict led to a bitter break-up with Wilhelm taking UNITE-HERE back into the AFL-CIO, Raynor joining hands with Stern, and the two camps going to court to resolve a property settlement like parties to a bitter divorce.
What had Stern accomplished in his fifteen years of union power? On the credit side, he built SEIU into the largest and most powerful union in the nation, used his union’s political muscle to restore the Democrats to national political power and to make Stern labor’s most effective voice in the White House, and, finally, he awakened the AFL-CIO from its latest spell of lethargy by speeding Sweeney’s retirement and his replacement by Richard Trumka. His debits, however, appear far weightier. Stern divided the labor movement when it could least afford internal division and to no good effect. His attempt to build mega-local unions engendered union splits in California, resistance from many sectors of the membership, and severe criticism from many of labor’s most ardent friends. And he aggravated relations between Raynor and Wilhelm, possibly to enhance his own personal power.
It is unlikely that Stern will be recognized as a labor statesman comparable to Hillman or Lewis. He can claim none of their grand accomplishments, having neither rebuilt a union from near extinction nor created a national labor center that precipitated the greatest upsurge in union membership in U.S. history.
Stern’s accomplishments and failures remind me of an essay that the labor movement intellectual J.B.S. Hardman wrote more than eighty years ago. In the essay, a dream-like dialogue takes place between a powerful current labor leader and his former self, likely based on Hardman’s long relationship with Sidney Hillman. The present and the past represent the passage of fifteen years, the span of time between Stern’s assumption of union power and his retirement, and one can imagine Stern’s younger self, like Hardman’s, challenging his present self with these words:
We are not to inherit a movement but to build it…you have abandoned democracy in the name of efficiency. Idealism you decry because that upsets you…you hunt for the immediate and the tangible…you have identified yourself with the organization which you are called on to lead, to such a point that you cannot think of the movement without you leading.
And, Stern circa 2010, responding:
The union is the queerest compound of contradictions. Its accepted vocabulary is that of a militant venture. But, in point of fact and in terms of what its members want it to be, it is a business enterprise all through…it is [also] the most political of all things! It carries the gospel of rebellion, and it suppresses opposition within its own ranks with an iron hand, ruthlessly. (See J.B.S. Hardmen’s American Labor Dynamics for the essay)
That, it seems, has been a perpetual dilemma in labor history: the evolution of labor leaders from rebels to union administrators.
Melvyn Dubofsky is Distinguished Professor of History & Sociology Emeritus, Binghamton University SUNY; author of numerous books and essays in United States history, including a major history of the IWW, a biography of John L. Lewis, a study of the role of the federal government in regulating labor-capital relations, and a collection of essays in labor history under the title Hard Work.
Photo: Andy Stern in Sundance, Utah, 2005 (Joi / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 2.5)