|Introduction by Workers Action
Workers Action is reproducing the following article — with the author’s permission — that originally appeared in Counterpunch. The article contains important information for our readers, especially those who are following the trade union movement closely. We believe, however, that the article would have been stronger if it had adopted a class-analytic framework. In particular, while the author is rightly critical of the millions of dollars SEIU spent under Andy Stern’s leadership in attacking and preying on other unions, the author finds the $95 million SEIU spent in support of Democrats was entirely commendable.
The Democratic Party represents the interests of capitalists; it does not champion the interests of working people except as an afterthought in the form of crumbs in exchange for the millions of dollars organized labor has channeled in its direction. Consequently, it can hardly be surprising that, while organized labor has donated somewhere in the realm of billions of dollars to the Democratic Party during the past decades, there is little to show in terms of positive results for working people. In fact, working people have watched their standard of living drop continuously since the 1970s.
The problems discussed by this article in relation to SEIU under Stern’s leadership stem from a failed strategy of depending on a corporate party such as the Democrats to win victories for the working class. If workers’ living conditions, rights, and unions have been degenerating because of a bipartisan, corporate attack, then the unions will either degenerate further, including trying to grow by stripping members from other unions, or unions will be compelled to chart a course independent of the Democrats and make it a principle to encourage workers to seek strength by uniting and collectively fighting for their needs.
Who’s Going to Pay the Tab Left Behind by Andy Stern? The Cost of Labor Civil War
By Steve Early
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern was always a fan of the blogosphere. So it was quite fitting that news of his imminent departure from SEIU first appeared, earlier this week, on several blogs. Andy bid SEIU members adieu, officially, a few days later (using a YouTube video, of course). By then, the unconfirmed reports of his resignation had become major news in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and other national papers.
The ensuing flow of encomia and criticism summed up, in one place or another, much that was good or bad about Stern’s career in labor, including his recent role in passage of Obama’s health care legislation. But the effusive farewells penned by his longtime admirers on the liberal-left contained one omission. Not a single one addressed the little matter of membership dues money. As in how many millions of dollars of it was spent, in the final years of Stern’s reign, on the costly internecine conflicts, in and around SEIU, that were instigated or aggravated by him.
Before we get to that total, let’s note the political “bottom line” played up instead by his journalistic fans. While Alec MacGillis at The Post and Kris Maher at The Journal were both probing Andy’s troubled financial legacy in their news stories, Post columnist Harold Meyerson was hailing Stern, for the umpteenth time, as “the leader of liberalism’s most effective political organization.” Finding Andy to be a “figure of Dostoevskian complexity” as well, Meyerson argued that he “has done more than any other to build a nationwide progressive infrastructure.” Meanwhile, over at The Nation, its editor expressed — and not for the first time either — her fervent admiration for Stern’s singular charisma, “pragmatism,” and “vision.” According to Katrina van den Heuvel, Andy’s “push for dramatic structural change, his openness to remaking labor’s traditional ties to the Democratic Party and creating new institutions and alliances for working people, and his urgency, even desperation, about the future of labor” made him a ”bold and heretical reformer.”
Van den Heuvel did note that, under Stern’s leadership, “SEIU waged bitter battles” inside organized labor. “One of the nastiest, she wrote, “turned in SEIU’s favor with a ruling last week” — a vague reference to the confused jury verdict, described on this site by Cal Winslow a few days ago, in a disgraceful SEIU civil suit against the rival National Union of Healthcare Workers that will hardly be determinative of NUHW’s on-going fight to replace SEIU in California. At The American Prospect, Tim Fernholz also alluded, in passing, to internal conflicts instigated by Stern’s union. In Fernholz’s view, Andy’s disastrous trusteeship over United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) — which led to the formation of NUHW — was just “something of a distraction from his broader mission.”
Nation contributing editor Marc Cooper put Stern’s “broader mission” in the proper liberal perspective when he dismissed those marginal characters always sniping at Andy on the Left Coast. Stern may have been “abrasive,” “divisive,” and uncaring about “whether he made a lot of friends — or enemies,” Cooper admitted. Nevertheless, he “embodied the best hope for labor’s renewal” and was never “a ruthless and power-hungry ego-tripper who ran roughshod over a noble rank-and-file.” Only “the Berkeley-style left,” loaded down with a “reading diet” composed of “too much Lenin and Trotsky” would ever propagate such a political “fantasy.” Just remember, Cooper warned, Andy’s “rivals were hardly saints themselves.”
Saintly or not, two of those formidable rivals weighed in on Stern’s departure with commentary far more rooted in reality than any of the liberal cheerleading above.
As UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm told The Washington Post: “A combination of events destroyed what ought to have been a great legacy for Andy [who] could have been a really great labor leader. He’s a smart guy with a lot of abilities and a strong strategic sense. But something happened to the guy. It says in Scripture that pride goeth before the fall, and that’s what happened here.” NUHW leader Sal Rosselli echoed the blistering (and more secular) critique of Stern that Wilhelm delivered before the AFL-CIO executive council in Florida a month ago:
At least one count in their joint indictment is simply incontestable — namely, the ruinous cost of warfare that SEIU itself unleashed upon the progressive wing of labor, in Puerto Rico and on the mainland, via its “organizing union” implosion of the last three years. For a forthcoming book, I’ve done a preliminary tally of that tab (which Brother Andy is now leaving behind for others to pay). The figures below, particularly staff time/salary costs, are just estimates — because only those paying the bills, on all sides, then and now, know the exact numbers for sure.
In January, 2,300 KP hospital staffers in southern California already voted to switch to the new union by a large margin. If SEIU fails to block an election showdown involving another 45,000 Kaiser workers, its campaign will require tens of millions of dollars, including the deployment of hundreds of staffers to counter-act NUHW’s strong shop-floor network at Kaiser.
In light of all of the above, is it any wonder then that, as The Washington Post just reported, “SEIU membership growth has slowed — after growing by 300,000 workers from 2006 to 2009, it added only 50,000 workers last year, for a total of 1.86 million.” (In every press release, including the one announcing Stern’s retirement, SEIU turns that real number, as just reported by the U.S. Department of Labor, into “2.2 million.”) In addition, as Alec MacGillis of The Post wrote:
In all the tributes to Stern, the dollar figure that keeps getting repeated is the $85 million that his union spent electing Obama and other Democrats in 2008. Some reports even recall the $10 million SEIU set aside afterwards for a 35-state grassroots campaign (called “Change That Works”) designed to hold newly-elected officials accountable. The union spending that goes un-noted, for the most part, is the cost of labor’s civil wars, circa 2008-10. The total tab for progressive union mayhem, all SEIU-related, easily matches Stern’s much applauded expenditures on national politics during the same period. And that’s why The Washington Post headline, April 14, had it right when it called Stern’s record “a mixed legacy.” A financial day of reckoning is coming, but Andy won’t be around to settle up the bill.