There will be a mixed reaction to Andy Stern's forthcoming resignation as the head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Many in the labor movement, even inside SEIU, will rejoice that he is out. But many friends of the labor movement like myself, who share its ideals but don't have to live with its daily travail, will regard Stern's departure with foreboding-as another step downward in labor's descent.
During the last decade, Stern, who took the helm of SEIU in 1996, burnt many of his bridges inside the labor movement. In the early 2000s, SEIU was involved in bitter jurisdictional disputes with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) over how to organize public-sector workers. These were the kinds of disputes that the AFL-CIO-the umbrella organization which contained both the SEIU and AFSCME-had been created, in part, to eliminate.
Then came the split within the AFL-CIO. In 2005, Stern took his union and four others out of the AFL-CIO into Change to Win, a new labor federation. Stern and his chief theoretician, Stephen Lerner, compared the current plight of the labor movement with that of the labor movement of the early '30s. "The labor movement is at a point today that has similarities to the early 1930s, when union workers were a small minority in an economy dominated by the emergence of huge industrial corporations," Lerner wrote in an influential manifesto. Stern proposed to do for today's movement what United Mine Workers head John L. Lewis had done for the movement of the 1930s.
In 1935, Lewis had taken his union out of the floundering American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which in a few years succeeded in organizing many of the industrial workers that the AFL had spurned. Stern wanted to do the same through Change to Win. But under the leadership of Stern's lieutenant, Anna Burger, Change to Win has enjoyed little success. And the split in 2005 looks in retrospect merely to have been another symptom of the labor movement's decline rather than a sign of its awakening.
More recently, Stern has been involved in jurisdictional disputes within his own union and within Change to Win's unions. These disputes have left some of his own members and staff questioning his leadership. As my colleague Bradford Plumer described in The New Republic, Stern attempted to build a home-care workers union in California at the expense of the membership of an existing and successful SEIU local, the United Healthcare Workers. Stern eventually put the local under trusteeship, but rather than complying with his dictate, the local's leadership, enraged by the move, broke away and organized an independent union that drew members away from the United Healthcare Workers.
Stern also intervened in a dispute that was roiling UNITE HERE, a union within the SEIU that had itself been formed out of two very different unions. UNITE HERE had been created in 2004 by the merger of HERE, which under John Wilhelm was organizing workers in hotels and food services, and UNITE, which under Bruce Raynor organized textile and apparel workers. HERE brought to the partnership a reputation for organizing, while UNITE brought along a dwindling membership but formidable financial resources, including a bank. When Wilhelm and Raynor quarreled over organizing, Stern allied himself with Raynor. He brought Raynor and his members into the SEIU, and according to Wilhelm, threatened to take his jurisdiction and assets. Wilhelm, meanwhile, took what remained of UNITE HERE back into the AFL-CIO