The Nation: the SEIU Andy Stern leaves behind

NewsJune 16, 2010

Max Fraser | June 16, 2010

By the time Andy Stern resigned from his post as president of the country’s second-largest union, in May, he had established himself as the most influential and controversial labor leader of his generation. When he took over the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 1996, with the labor movement still mired in a decades-long decline, Stern quickly made renewing labor’s commitment to growth the refrain of his presidency. He called on the rest of the labor movement to abandon a status quo that was no longer working, and he insisted that unless unions figured out new ways to organize the tens of millions of nonunion workers and create a “modern, pro-growth, dynamic, progressive, problem-solving labor movement,” they were doomed to obsolescence.

“When our leadership team came into office,” Stern reflected in early May, “we took over a good union and made it into the largest voice for workers in the country. We became the most effective grassroots political organization around.” As SEIU’s stock rose, so did Stern’s. Prominent liberals from Howard Dean to George Soros hailed his “bold vision for reform,” while the Wall Street Journal and the Chamber of Commerce praised him as a “new” kind of labor leader that business could work with. And after SEIU moved mountains to elect Barack Obama in 2008, Stern became one of Obama’s closest confidants outside government—a throwback to the days when union presidents doubled as labor statesmen on the national stage.

Much ink has been spilled, including in this magazine, on the internal disputes that racked the union under Stern’s tenure [see Peter Dreier, “Divorce—Union Style,” August 31, 2009, and Esther Kaplan, “Labor’s Growing Pains,” June 16, 2008, among others]. And surely the rancor he leaves behind is part of his legacy—as one senior union official bluntly put it, “Andy Stern leaves pretty much without a friend in the labor movement.” But for Stern, who dismisses his critics as zealots and traditionalists, the more important question is whether he has realized his early promises of revitalizing the union’s organizing mission.

On the face of it, the numbers are impressive: between 1996 and today, SEIU added more than 1 million members, “the largest growth of strength in any union, in any decade in the history of the labor movement,” as Stern boasted at the union’s most recent convention. But SEIU’s recent accomplishments are far more ambiguous than they would initially seem. As growth became his all-consuming passion, Stern came to rely heavily on back-room deals with employers and other shortcuts, perpetuating an illusion of robust growth that has obscured SEIU’s failure to devise a viable long-term strategy for reversing labor’s decline. Along the way, Stern’s go-it-alone leadership style alienated rank-and-file members and isolated the union from former allies. “Stern understood that labor had to grow or die, that union density is a vital part of making the trade union movement an effective economic and political bargainer,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But density is not the only thing, because unions today are essentially political organizations which succeed by mobilizing their membership and animating their allies. Numbers are less important than élan. Andy Stern lost sight of that.”

No moment better signified the polarizing effects of Stern’s single-minded pursuit of growth than when he and SEIU led a group of five unions out of the AFL-CIO in 2005 and into a new federation, Change to Win, full of promises to substantially increase the resources the labor movement was devoting to organizing new workers. The split, Stern says, was about creating “a federation that was focused on using every weapon at its disposal to grow larger, not smaller.” As it turned out, the break did not produce any such explosion of new organizing, and in retrospect, to his critics, it was just the kind of uncompromising and ill-considered move that typified his tenure at SEIU.

Drawn to unorthodox ideas—like collaborating with the notoriously antiunion Wal-Mart to push for healthcare reform—Stern frequently forged tactical partnerships with corporate America that made other unionists uneasy. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the union began to embrace new strategies to meet Stern’s bold growth targets, seeking deals with large employers in which they would agree to remain neutral in unionization drives in exchange for a quid pro quo from the union. In some cases, this involved the union’s collaborating with nursing home operators to improve patient care or lobby statehouses for increased Medicare payments. In others it meant ceding the union’s ability to strike; or providing national hospital chains with economic relief in the form of substandard wages and benefits; or agreeing to organize certain subcontractor facilities but not others, even if workers there wanted to join SEIU. In a number of instances the more debatable aspects of these agreements were hammered out at the highest levels of the union, with little or no direct involvement on the part of the workers.

Cornell University’s Kate Bronfenbrenner has studied these “employer neutrality” deals extensively, and notes that SEIU is not the only union to use them to grow. “The question is not whether you are using neutrality agreements; it’s about what you give up to get them and how you go about using them,” she says. “If you want to have a lasting union afterward, you have to involve the members. Unions are most likely to win any kind of organizing campaign when they combine top-down leverage with bottom-up organizing. SEIU has had some very effective agreements with employers that have combined the two approaches, but in recent years they started to back off from the bottom-up approach.”

By 2007 doubts began to emerge inside SEIU about the transparency and strategic effectiveness of these arrangements with employers. The most vocal came from Sal Rosselli—the leader of a large, Oakland-based local, United Healthcare Workers West—who entered into a take-no-prisoners battle with Stern and the national union that quickly went public. UHW had been involved in a number of such agreements with nursing homes and hospitals in California, and in Rosselli’s eyes the sacrifices involved had come to outweigh the benefits for the union. “This transactional exchange of members’ rights and standards for greater numbers contradicts the core mission of SEIU,” he charged in a February 2008 resignation letter to the union’s executive committee. “An overly zealous focus on growth—growth at any cost, apparently,” was distorting the promise of Stern’s ambitious agenda and leaving workers with little control over their union, he argued. Despite considerable support for Rosselli’s position inside and out of the union, Stern put the local under trusteeship in 2009. Rosselli and the UHW leadership in turn defected from SEIU and formed a rival union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

Also controversial was SEIU’s pursuit of growth through strategic mergers. Sometimes these marriages were entered into willingly, like the 1998 melding of New York City’s 120,000-member healthcare union, Local 1199, with SEIU. But when SEIU couldn’t make these mergers happen peaceably, it often resorted to more predatory tactics. Between 2002 and 2009, SEIU led what amounted to a series of hostile takeover campaigns against smaller unions in the service sector, pushing members to switch their affiliation to SEIU and in some cases filing decertification measures against rival unio
ns. SEIU wasn’t always successful, but a pattern of behavior was clearly being established.

“SEIU became an acquisition machine,” says John Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE, which has been locked in a battle with SEIU over members and financial assets for the past year. When an earlier merger between UNITE and HERE began to fall apart in 2008, Stern initially invited the whole union to merge with SEIU; but then, when that idea fell flat, he encouraged the UNITE side to split off and join SEIU under the guise of a new grouping called Workers United. Stern argues that it makes strategic sense for SEIU to represent workers in hotels and office buildings that are owned by the same firms that employ the union’s janitors or security guards. But Wilhelm attributes Stern’s involvement in another union’s internal affairs to a naked grab for power and members, and accuses SEIU of trying to home in on HERE’s traditional organizing jurisdictions while seizing a share of UNITE HERE’s substantial financial assets. SEIU has spent the past year mounting decertification campaigns in UNITE HERE–represented hotels and casinos in Puerto Rico, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Toronto and elsewhere, earning the ire of a labor movement that historically has had little tolerance for such interunion raiding. At a meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council in March, even John Sweeney, the former AFL-CIO and SEIU president who brought Stern into the union some thirty years ago, described his onetime protégé’s recent actions as “despicable.”

These ongoing fights have taken their toll on SEIU, draining millions of dollars from the union’s operating budget and, by a number of accounts, leaving the union’s staff increasingly frustrated with the leadership’s priorities. They have also distracted attention from the fact that SEIU’s actual organizing record never lived up to Stern’s expectations. In SEIU’s core private-sector jurisdictions of healthcare and property services, growth has been sluggish at best. Over the past ten years, SEIU added on average just 6,000 nursing home members annually, and in hospitals, as the union has acknowledged, “organizing didn’t match industry growth” for much of that period. Even some of the more encouraging recent victories, like a 2006 campaign that brought union recognition to janitors in Houston and was hailed as a major breakthrough in the largely nonunion South, did not translate into the kind of membership gains the union had hoped for. By 2008 SEIU still represented less than 10 percent of hospital workers in the country, just under 11 percent of nursing home employees and less than 8 percent of the property services industry.

What headway SEIU did make during the Stern years came largely among public employees, particularly nurses and health aides in state-funded, home-based healthcare systems. By using its electoral clout to coax, cajole and bully governors and state legislators into granting collective bargaining rights to homecare workers or childcare providers, SEIU added hundreds of thousands of members over the past two decades, while expanding its footprint in low-membership states between the coasts like Wisconsin, Nevada and Missouri. Close to half of SEIU’s organizing growth between 1996 and 2006 was a direct result of these kinds of political campaigns, and today homecare accounts for fully a quarter of SEIU’s total membership.

But growth of this kind has depended to a great extent on the fiscal stability of SEIU’s public sector employers, and as Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein point out in their forthcoming book on homecare workers and organized labor, “the current recession and the fiscal crisis of the states now expose the Achilles heel of welfare state political unionism.” In California, for example, where SEIU has more homecare members than in any other state, Governor Schwarzenegger has included deep cuts to the state’s homecare system as part of his latest budget proposal, and it’s unclear whether the union will be able to find many other willing partners in state capitals in the years ahead.

Not only does a reliance on public sector growth make unions vulnerable to fiscal belt-tightening, but with five private sector workers for every one in the public sector, the labor movement needs a private sector base to retain any significant social relevance. And without its recent gains in the public sector, SEIU would be hard-pressed to uphold its status as the country’s fastest-growing union. As Wilhelm argues, “SEIU’s success in organizing public and quasi-public employees has created a mythology that has obscured the reality in the private sector, which is that they have failed.” The collapse of the Employee Free Choice Act, which Stern poured more time and energy into than anyone else, dashed SEIU’s best hope for resolving labor’s continuing private sector organizing difficulties.

All told, SEIU today finds itself in a precarious situation. By 2009 the union was facing dire economic straits as it struggled under the rising costs of political campaigns, which were paying diminishing returns, and interunion wars, which had sapped its material reserves. The union spent much of Stern’s final full year in office cutting back on expenditures wherever it could. The deepest cuts, ironically, were made to SEIU’s representational expenses, which are associated with a union’s organizing operations. By the end of the year, the union Stern had promised to turn into the engine of growth for a revitalized labor movement was spending less per member on representational costs than at any time since 2002. As Stern exits, SEIU is left with more questions than answers about how the labor movement can once again become a dynamic force in the political and economic life of the country.

Stern’s successor, Mary Kay Henry, in an interview days after the SEIU executive board named her the union’s first female president, talked about how much work still remains undone since she joined the union in 1979. She was discussing a recent action at the Maryland headquarters of Sodexo, a subcontractor that provides on-site food, janitorial and other services for large employers like hospitals and universities. With 120,000 North American employees, Sodexo has been an important SEIU target for some years, and the union was in Gaithersburg in mid-April to protest the company’s low wages, unpaid sick days and outright hostility to employees’ efforts to form a union, which has included threats and even firings.

“It infuriates me that in 2010 we are still fighting for frickin’ sick days,” Henry fumed, showing some of the exasperation that comes from many years of fighting a losing battle. “It’s a testament to how bad things have become. When I hear that nursing home workers are still bringing in towels from home to cut up to make their own washcloths—that’s what they were doing in 1983, when I first started organizing nursing home workers! The promise of change with a union is great enough that these workers are willing to walk through fire to make it happen, and we just haven’t done enough for them to change things.”

How much of a change Henry represents remains to be seen. She promises to redouble the union’s commitment to growth, especially among security guards, multiservice workers, and hospital and nursing home employees, while continuing to expand its presence in homecare and other public sector work. She talks about empowering rank-and-file members to play a larger role in the union’s organizing program, and is setting aside $4 million for a research and development fund designed to nurture new ideas about how to fuel private sector organizing. She speaks highly of creative strategies like Local 1199’s Heart of Baltimore campai
gn, which is using the Justice for Janitors model for organizing an entire industry in a single city—where one in five Baltimore jobs is in healthcare—rather than picking off employers one by one. This fall the union will send its member volunteers and other campaign resources to forty-four states, to beat back a Republican resurgence during the midterm elections and, in Henry’s words, “be the drumbeat for working people during the economic crisis.” And recognizing that it will be hard for SEIU to do all that on its own, she sounds committed to doing “everything we can” to settle the dispute with UNITE HERE (if not NUHW), and is otherwise eager to “restore our relationships with the rest of the American labor movement.”

SEIU’s critics remain unconvinced. They note that Henry has been part of Stern’s inner circle for many years, as a union vice president, executive committee member and director of the union’s healthcare division, and signed off on the more controversial decisions of Stern’s presidency. NUHW’s Rosselli spent thirty years working with Henry in SEIU’s healthcare division, during which “there were times of absolute collaboration and then times of absolute betrayal,” he says. In one case, a national bargaining team Henry oversaw during negotiations with the Tenet hospital chain in 2007 agreed to concessionary contract terms without clearing them with members in California, in what would become a critical point of contention in the ensuing battle between Rosselli’s local and the national union. Henry disputes Rosselli’s claim about the role she played in the Tenet bargaining, describing it as a temporary misunderstanding caused by a “rogue bargainer,” which she quickly corrected. And for her part, Henry says she will consider “no settlement with Sal Rosselli that falls short of him pulling out of all elections” to win back his old members. But Rosselli has made it clear that he has no intention of doing so, and already nearly 4,300 members in eleven bargaining units have voted to leave SEIU for the breakaway union. In the next few weeks the two sides will fight what could be a decisive battle in the Kaiser Permanente system. SEIU has nearly 50,000 members in Kaiser—enough to make or break Rosselli’s goal of becoming a viable challenger to SEIU in the California healthcare industry and eventually nationwide.

More generally, Henry has to decide the extent to which she is willing to acknowledge the failures of the Stern years and learn from them. For Wilhelm, who describes Stern as a “brilliant man of enormous ability,” reckoning with the shortcomings of his approach to organizing is one of the key challenges facing Henry, SEIU and the rest of a labor movement still fighting for its very survival. “Andy got captured by the notion that by being part of the inner circle of discussions in Washington and rubbing shoulders with people with power that he himself was powerful,” Wilhelm says. “I know that I have zero power if I’m disconnected from my members. And that’s what happened to Andy—he couldn’t have gotten more disconnected. That’s the kiss of death.”

With private sector union membership at 7 percent of the workforce and shrinking, the urgency of Stern’s original call to arms to restore union growth has never been so great. But in his obsessive focus on increasing SEIU’s ranks, Stern forgot the lessons of the last significant period of growth for American unions, during the birth of industrial unionism in the 1930s, when the shop-floor militancy of the great sit-down strikes electrified a movement of workers like never before. If such a movement is possible again today, it will require a more ambitious growth agenda than Stern ever envisioned—one of workers, by workers and for workers.

Soiurce: The Nation