Monday, April 19, 2010

SEIU's Stern announces retirement

Andy Stern, the influential but controversial president of the Service Employees International Union, officially announced his retirement last week after 14 years at the helm of the 2.2-million member union.

"With the strength and power of SEIU members' voices we have accomplished what once seemed unimaginable,” Stern said, in announcing his departure. “And, I can imagine no greater honor than these hard-working Americans entrusting me to represent them and their voice.” Stern, who ushered in a web-savvy era for organized labor, fittingly announced his retirement to SEIU members in a videotaped announcement posted on YouTube.

It was originally speculated, after unconfirmed reports of his retirement began to surface, that Stern would leave when his term ended in 2012. However, his immediate retirement puts SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger in the role of interim president until the union’s International Executive Board votes on Stern’s successor. The SEIU constitution stipulates that the IEB must schedule an election within 30 days.

Since assuming the union’s presidency in 1996, Stern built the SEIU into the nation’s fastest-growing union, adding 850,000 new members during a period in which union rolls dropped precipitously. Stern's SEIU elevated the union corporate campaign, demonstrating how a lawful work-around to a traditional NLRB-sponsored representation election could be the most effective mechanism for bringing new members into the fold. His relentless focus on organizing new members stemmed in part from the belief that more organizing would cultivate the political clout necessary for organized labor to press its agenda and build the movement. The recent passage of health care reform and President Obama's recess appointment of former SEIU lawyer Craig Becker to the NLRB would seem to support that theory.

But Stern’s successes have earned him enemies, both on the right and the left--within organized labor in particular. Stern angered many in the AFL-CIO when, in 2005, he led the SEIU and five other unions to break away from the labor federation, claiming it was too wedded to unsuccessful strategies of the past and that more organizing was needed, and forming the competing Change to Win federation. His most recent battle came in a high-profile dispute with leaders of the SEIU-UHW, the union’s giant local of California health care workers, who left to form the rival National Union of Healthcare Workers. In a statement issued last week, former SEIU-UHW chief and interim NUHW president Sal Rosselli said: “Stern’s legacy is that he took control of an organization built by more than a million hardworking janitors, healthcare workers, and public servants, and used their resources primarily to secure his own political power.”

Stern’s ties with Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration have also rankled conservatives. Of Stern’s departure, The Wall Street Journal wrote: “In future histories of America's metamorphosis into a European-style entitlement state, Mr. Stern will deserve prominent mention.”

“I have been privileged and could not be more proud of the role I was permitted to play in helping make SEIU the preeminent voice and organization for people who work hard and take responsibility for their families,” Stern said. “It's been an extraordinary run, and I leave my union on solid ground financially and with a deep bench of talent that will advance SEIU's legacy of working for justice for all workers.”

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