This week, Andy Stern (59), perhaps the most influential person in the American union movement, announced that he will step down as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Stern is credited with organising cleaners and other low-wage workers, and with having had a decisive impact on the election of Barack Obama and on health care reform. His union is also a major source of inspiration for the historical cleaners’ strike currently going on in the Netherlands.
Stern said that it is time for a new generation of union leaders to take over.
The SEIU is most well known for its revolutionary Justice for Janitors Campaign, but also runs innovative campaigns in other sectors. In the words of columnist Harold Meyerson: “Unionizing janitors required raucous street demonstrations and pressuring the financial institutions that owned the office buildings. Efforts were made to enlist immigrant communities and churches in the cause. Organizing home-care and child-care workers, who were largely paid out of state funds, meant getting governors to sign orders permitting the workers to form a union, which in turn compelled the SEIU to become a major electoral player in numerous states. Organizing security guards, who are increasingly employed by massive transnational conglomerates, required the SEIU to form and fund worldwide alliances of guard unions that have compelled those employers to acquiesce to global organizing accords.”
Because of his union’s capacity to mobilise voters, Stern is also a political force to be reckoned with. As a measure of his influence, media point out that he visited the White House no less than 38 times since Obama became president, making him one the most frequent visitors. Some are concerned that his decision to step down may hurt the Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. “Democrats are on the defensive this year, and there’s a lot of division within the labour movement, and this is just going to add to the muddle,” commentator Charles Cook told the New York Times.
In 2005, the SEIU left the AFL-CIO because the federation would not focus enough on organising. Stern created the rival federation Change to Win. Critics say the new federation fell short in promoting organising and had a divisive effect on the union movement. “With each passing month, Change to Win’s raison d’être grows harder to discern,” Meyerson says.
Critics further accuse Stern of seeking membership growth through a top-down approach, at the expense of workers’ interest, union democracy and empowerment. He would sign ‘sweetheart deals’ with employers, leading to vicious fights with rival unions and SEIU locals that challenge his approach.
The most likely candidate to succeed Stern seems to be current vice president Anna Burger, although there will be serious challengers. The executive board will appoint someone to replace Stern until the next convention in 2012. A decision is expected within a month.