SEIU’s Andy Stern – he didn’t jump off the bridge, he was pushed

With all due respect to the dogged and important reporting of Randy Shaw at BeyondChron on the SEIU v. NUHW saga, I differ with his suggestion today that Andy Stern, longtime head of SEIU, decided to sail into the good night just because the heat in the kitchen was too much to bear.

Shaw concludes in an account that is only slightly different than the press release apologias coming from SEIU HQ that “the bottom line: Stern was burned out, saw nothing on the immediate horizon that excited him, and decided he wanted out. He clearly prefers being a spokesperson for political issues to the day to day struggles of running a labor union, and expect him to stay politically involved.”

Sorry, but no one walks away from command of a 2 million member organization that can shut down entire cities (as Stern did as part of the immigrant rights marches a few years ago) or elect presidents (as, arguably, Stern helped do in the case of Obama) quietly or on their own.

Anyone who would should have their head examined. In any case, Stern without those 2 million members is a nobody and he likely knows that. His days as “Obama’s Fifth Man” are certainly numbered. His seat at the table was based on his ability to mobilize those members and their affiliate groups in the low wage immigrant communities they were connected to, such as ACORN and various La Raza-type entities.

No, Stern was pushed – by whom and why remains to be explained. But there is a report circulating that Stern was savaged at a recent AFL-CIO Executive Council by none other than his mentor, former AFL president, John J. Sweeney, who preceded Stern as head of SEIU.

In any case, good riddance. Stern’s organizing “success” was largely made up out of bureaucratic maneuvers.

He appended CSEA, the huge California public sector union (and the union I belonged to when I was on the labor center staff at U.C. Berkeley) to SEIU and then claimed he had organized 100,000 new workers. Yet, CSEA had been a viable labor organization for many decades in California. He engineered top down deals with governors like Blagojevich and Gray Davis to reclassify social welfare recipients as workers and claim tens of thousands more “new” union members.

He re-organized low wage immigrant hispanic workers in the janitorial and building service sectors in places like Los Angeles only after SEIU had watched for decades while the industry restructured to destroy the unions that often African-American janitors had built over many decades. Then he (and Sweeney too it should be said) imposed trusteeships when the new members thought they should have real input over their labor organizations.

And who can forget Stern’s travels to Beijing to meet with Chinese Communist Party officials in an abrupt and damaging reversal of international labor’s support for genuine independent unions in China? Stern dragged Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., along as well who, likely against his better instincts decided not to press the Chinese on the rights of imprisoned labor activists. Stern claimed, absurdly, that CtW was helping the Chinese state controlled labor organization, the ACFTU, organize WalMart operations there! But the delegations he and UCLA’s Kent Wong led there have ignored genuine labor leaders like Han Dong Fang of the China Labour Bulletin as well as the only real labor union in today’s China, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

Change to Win has turned out to be a pipe dream. Labor intellectuals like Nelson Lichtenstein, Ruth Milkman, Kim Voss, and Ken Jacobs, all based for some odd reason at the University of California which has almost no SEIU presence, thought CtW was the re-birth of the CIO with Stern as John L. Lewis. How quaint. In fact, the five affiliates in CtW went to the mattresses as quickly as the Mafia’s Five Families in New York did in the gangland wars of the 30s or 60s.

First, SEIU betrayed the efforts of the UFCW to lead a campaign among WalMart’s one million non-union workers with a back stage deal with the WalMart CEO. Then, Stern backed Bruce Raynor in an absurd effort to wrest control of the Unite-HERE (home now of the old ILGWU, my grandfather’s proud union for many decades) and its Amalgamated Bank.

Finally, in what has to be the coup de grace in assessing Stern’s legacy, there are reports that SEIU supported a “no union” choice in the ongoing election battle in USC’s hospital system in Los Angeles when the National Union of Health Workers challenged SEIU’s hold on that shop.  But the USC employees were, of course, part of the old UHW when it was inside SEIU.  It was Stern who forced the split that led to the election, one of many occurring across the state to settle the unions’ battle. A recent legal dispute between the two unions resulted in largely a draw.

The upside of the ouster of Stern is that it is very unlikely that his replacement will have anything like the ability or desire to control the union in quite the way he did. It will likely be a very messy transition but we could see the opening of real talks about the CtW affiliates following Unite-HERE back into the House of Labor where they belong.