Washington As I made my way back from half-way across the world, I watched the story unfold even before leaving Mumbai of first reports that Andy Stern would resign as President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and then a message from him by the time that I arrived at Dulles that there was a “time to lead and a time to leave.” There seems to be rampant speculation about what all of this means for Stern, for SEIU, and for the labor movement. There should be concern at the White House and among the progressive forces as well. Labor union meetings and decision making is still a lot like watching for smoke to signal from the Vatican that a new Pope has been chosen (speaking of a “time to leave”), but the SEIU International Board is meeting in DC for a couple of days, and I’m sure this is occupying a lot of attention as the jockeying and elbowing about the present and future is in full earnest.
When Local 100 was part of SEIU, I served for 8 years on that board having been elected on Stern’s slate during his first two terms before stepping down largely to move the Wal-Mart organizing pilots. I would not pretend to know what is on the agenda now and since Local 100 is no longer an affiliate of SEIU, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I wouldn’t pretend to be a fan of everything Andy has done, but that’s the nature of the beast, nonetheless, if I were still on the board, I would be rising to speak in favor of the long goodbye for Stern.
He’s made his announcement and would be technically a lame duck, but I wouldn’t worry about that within the SEIU culture. Speculation that he is being forced out is ridiculous. He may have had some folks knocking at his door in hopes for anointment, but the board is Andy’s board from SEIUs Puerto Rican convention less than 2 years ago, and there’s no pressure there for him to leave. His last couple of chapters may have been more fraught with conflict given the split from the AFL, which has accomplished so little, and the internal problems on the West Coast and with other former union allies in HERE, and there’s a big hit coming whenever the final chapters of the problems with Tyrone Freeman in Los Angeles hit the front pages, but this is a guy who added 1.2 million members under his watch to all of the locals sitting around the big tables in whatever hotel is hosting the meeting, and he was the architect for about ½ million as Organizing Director under John Sweeney before he became International President. The Greenhouse article in the Times and some of the other pieces make it look like he’s got legacy issues, but there are none inside SEIU. Andy could stay another dozen years probably before facing much real heat.
In SEIU he’s earned a long goodbye on his own terms. I’m not sure how the current rules work on a special election, but given what it took to unlodge Sweeney’s successor, it’s probably a quick turnaround. Andy should serve out his term for another two years and help in the hand off transition, the Obama re-election, and and the thousand other things on the “want to do” list before he leaves. The successor might be a little fidgety, but given the polarization in American politics now, letting Andy be the lightening rod for some of that for another couple of years makes sense while the successor straps it up. Trumka waited forever at the AFL-CIO and had no problem commanding the new space, and might could have used a two year transition internally there even though he had been around the building for more than a dozen years.
We have few real leaders in labor, so no one should sweat the small stuff. Andy did the job and made a difference. SEIU would be crazy not to keep him for every day they can. I would move the “long goodbye!”