It will be a long time before the labor movement produces another leader quite as far-seeing as Andrew L. Stern, who stepped down Apr. 14 as president of the Service Employees International Union. Or one quite so controversial.
During his 14 years atop the SEIU, Stern turned it into a potent political force. He used its might to shape policy and ultimately help determine the outcome of the 2008 elections. Funneling more than $70 million into the campaign coffers of Barack Obama and other Democrats, the SEIU outspent even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
SEIU became the country's fastest-growing labor union, doubling its size to 2.2 million, mostly by organizing state and local employees, janitors, and health-care workers. "He organized workers at the lowest rungs who had been ignored, workers like immigrants," says Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "He transformed a whole class of jobs—from janitors to home health-care workers to nursing home workers—into middle-class jobs by helping them unionize and negotiate contracts."
Stern, 59, stood out among his fellow union officials, many of whom had worked their way up from coal mines or factory floors. Armed with an Ivy League education, Stern recognized early on what other union leaders didn't want to see: that the AFL-CIO's membership was both dwindling and aging. While others worked to preserve the gains of manufacturing workers in auto and steel plants, Stern foresaw a shift in the country's economic landscape. He fought to shift gears and organize service workers to replace the labor movement's thin- ning ranks.
That led to Stern's most controversial move, his 2005 secession from the AFL-CIO with seven unions in tow. His formation of a rival federation led many to compare him to John L. Lewis, the Depression-era miners' leader famous for his aggressive organizing and contentious style.
Some in the labor movement never forgave him and insist that Stern has left it weaker. Private-sector union numbers in the U.S. fell to a record low of 7.2% of the workforce last year, and two unions have quit Stern's breakaway group. "He has disregarded democracy and made secret deals with employers that adversely affects SEIU members and the patients they take care of," says Sal Rosselli, a former SEIU leader in California who created a rival health-care union. "The labor movement is absolutely weaker because he has used his influence for his own personal political gain."
Robert Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, says that Stern's labor federation "never evolved into something really new and independent to transform the labor movement."
That said, the results of his strong-willed leadership will be felt even by Americans who have never belonged to a union. Stern was the most frequent outside visitor to the White House in the first six months of President Obama's tenure. Administration officials say he helped shape the strategy that ultimately won passage of the health-care overhaul legislation.
Now, with 30 million Americans about to become newly insured, the health-care industry is almost certain to mushroom. And the SEIU will be ready to organize its new employees.