SEIU President Andy Stern walked away from his post this week, and the fight is on to define his legacy and the future of one of the country’s most important unions.
A little on the legacy. Stern started out asking a lot of the right questions.
Under his leadership, SEIU forced the rest of labor to confront its dwindling numbers. Unions needed strategies to organize entire industries, and they needed to devote the money necessary to do it seriously. They needed to roust often-sleepy and sometimes-corrupt local leaders from their complacency. And the house of labor needed friends in the academy, the embrace of community allies, and a welcome sign on the door for immigrant workers.
SEIU led by example, through high-profile organizing drives like Justice for Janitors and by ousting crooked leaders like New York City’s Gus Bevona.
But after two decades working to expand SEIU’s ranks—and reshaping the union’s structure to bolster that aim—Stern drew mostly the wrong conclusions. In his quest to reverse labor’s slide, he relied on shortcuts, trying to swell SEIU’s ranks by any means necessary—including ways that weaken unions everywhere.