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Death moved SEIU head to challenge himself and unionism

Lynne Duke

WASHINGTON – A daughter’s death left an unexpected gift. After the sorrow ripped his heart and the confusion left him dazed, Andrew Stern began to discover it – began to see what Cassie, his 13-year-old, had passed on to him. She had been so fragile, even confined by a back brace for a time, yet so very much alive. Frail but fearless – that was Cassie. And that was her gift to her father. It is but one facet of a man’s life – certainly not his sum total. Stern, 55, president of the powerful Service Employees International Union, has been a labor activist and innovator for more than 30 years and, in fact, had been fomenting rebellion in big labor for years.Something awakened And, yet, after Cassie passed away 312 years ago of complications from spinal surgery and after he cried in the shower every day for months, torn apart by the memories, such as jumping little waves at the beach with his daughter in his arms – after all that, Stern realized that something in him had awakened. “Cassie gave me the courage to have the voice,” he explains carefully. He began speaking more stridently, and sometimes unwisely, he says. “I lost a lot of my concern about what people thought of me,” he says. He’s seated in his office, which has an array of photos that include Cassie, a smiling sprite, and her big brother Matt, now 19. “My greatest fear,” Stern is saying, “is not having the courage” to take on a fight, “whether it’s the labor movement, the Democratic Party or anybody else who stands in the way of workers doing well.” After Cassie, the question taunted him: “What am I so scared about?” Last summer, he stunned the American labor movement when he led the SEIU and six other unions to defect from the AFL-CIO. He had effectively split the “house of labor” in two, peeling off about 40 percent of its membership. American union movementHistory one day will record Stern as the impetuous, power-hungry man who accelerated the decline of the American union movement – the view taken by some embittered former colleagues at the AFL-CIO. Or, his supporters say, Stern will go down in history as the courageous, visionary leader who charted a bold new course for American unionism and helped spark a labor movement to fight for workers in the world economy. Stern, of course, would pick the kinder rendering, maintaining that labor needed to be shaken up and that no more harm could come from an AFL-CIO breakup than from the inertia that gripped it. Low numbers speak of the high stakes: Only 12 percent of the American labor force is unionized, down from 35 percent three decades ago. Surveys show that Americans want unions but are afraid of how bosses will react, because organizers often are fired illegally for their activities. Workers are devalued, says Stern, who seeks to change the way Americans view labor and the economy as a whole. DarwinismLow-wage workers too often succumb to a form of economic Darwinism, says Stern, who delivers that message in speeches and rallies nationwide. He talks about how the global economy has made things worse, with multinationals competing to find the cheapest labor, minus unions – the Wal-Mart effect. For workers to thrive, big labor has to act as big business does: Go global; recruit without borders; unionize workers across entire economic sectors. He has rankled many by calling big labor a “lap dog” for the Democratic Party. Labor, he says, should follow a political agenda that’s good for workers, regardless of party. And he caused a firestorm at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when he said a John Kerry victory would be bad for big labor, giving it a false sense of power, and papering over its fundamental problem of flagging union membership. Kerry lost. Big labor could not muster enough troops – a fact that also sparked a rethinking in the movement. Some old-line, blue-collar unionists are annoyed with his white-collar, Ivy League background. Tom Buffenbarger, leader of the machinists and aerospace workers, virtually spat out the words “Wharton School” in deriding Stern’s educational background. Yet Stern has taken the labor movement to the brink of a new era, for better or worse, while an interior dialogue of grief and loss has shaped his leadership, adding volume to an already voluble voice. He’s in Philadelphia one November day, at the ornate Union League building on Broad Street, to address the nabobs of the local chapter of the World Affairs Council. He’s come home, in a way, for he attended college here, the University of Pennsylvania. He first joined a union here, in 1972. And Cassie died here, at Children’s Hospital, which he’d passed on the train ride up from Washington. Internal landscape”Lot of memories,” he’s saying before his speech. “I actually couldn’t ride the train for a while (after Cassie) because it passed right by the hospital.” But that is his internal landscape. Onstage, he tells Philadelphia business and civic leaders of his life’s work, of the question that has vexed him for years. “How is hard work valued and rewarded in America?” He is speaking, as he so often does, for the blue-collar American workers, those folks whose plight outrages him. He’s telling of Flora Aguilar, who is among the janitors that SEIU recently organized in Houston. She works four hours a day for one of the nation’s largest cleaning firms, cleaning “30 offices, two hallways, 29 toilets. And she goes home with 20 bucks. That’s Flora Aguilar’s life,” he says. Such workers, increasingly the backbone of the service economy, have been overlooked, deemed too hard to organize by a labor movement whose mentality is stuck in an industrial, manufacturing past that has been exported and globalized. That’s why he calls the labor movement “male, pale and stale.” “We thought we could go into the future by looking into the rear-view mirror, but it just doesn’t work,” Stern says. The largely white male crowd applauds politely. An hour later, Stern is in South Philly peeling off his jacket and tie, pulling on a purple SEIU windbreaker to join purple-clad protesters converging on a local Wal-Mart. He loves the fray. He used to take Cassie and Matt to protests, when Cassie was well enough to go. Here, he is with a family of a different kind. These protesters – white, black and brown home-care workers and janitors – are from SEIU Local 668, where Stern got his start. Now he’s with the crowd, chanting “Hey-hey! Ho-ho! Wal-Mart has got to go!” Stern wanted to overhaul the AFL-CIO and its more than 60 affiliated unions. And as the leader of the group’s largest and fastest growing union, his voice was heard. He wanted the federation to merge some of its small unions with larger ones. He wanted it to recruit more aggressively and across entire sectors (all janitors, home-care workers, security guards, etc.), not just at individual workplaces. And he wanted to bring businesses on board by dispelling their fears, in labor negotiations, of being undercut by competing workplaces. His own union has done it. SEIU membership has tripled since the 1980s to 1.8 million. The union represents health care workers, janitors, security guards and other service workers often deemed difficult to organize because many are part-time or contract workers. By gathering the support of local political and religious leaders, the SEIU recently unionized 5,000 janitors in Houston across several workplaces. It also won a recent battle to organize 49,000 child-care workers in Illinois. “Houston’s tough turf,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. “Houston sends a very good message: that you can win in the South and you can win big.” And that is the rub. Ruth Milkman, a professor and director of the UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations, says the SEIU’s success has made it the target of resentment by some in the labor movement. “They’re so much better than everybody else that the hubris that might go with that is dangerous,” Milkman says. Indeed, a soaring self-assuredness infuses Stern’s work. Stern’s leadership is “both exciting, wonderful and sometimes a little terrifying,” says Stephen Lerner, a SEIU division director and leader of the Justice for Janitors campaign begun in the 1980s. “You can be working with Andy Stern hand in hand with a great idea and there’ll be a series of discussions and he’ll have a brand-new idea and gears will change incredibly quickly,” says Lerner. “It’s an environment that is constantly challenging you and saying you can’t sit on your laurels.” When he put forward a set of comprehensive proposals to the AFL-CIO in December 2004, John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO president and Stern’s one-time mentor, and other labor leaders rejected most of them. But even some of Stern’s main allies didn’t share his vision. James Hoffa, president of the 1.4-million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said his union does not support mergers and strict sectorial organizing. But Hoffa shares Stern’s frustration with the AFL-CIO’s failure to arrest labor’s decline, as well as annoyance at its administrative size. “You go to meetings there, it’s like going to a U.N. meeting,” Hoffa said. The Teamsters made some radical organizing proposals of their own. But Sweeney’s team was not receptive. (Sweeney declined to be interviewed for this article.) In June, the SEIU, the Teamsters and other disaffected unions formed the Change to Win Coalition. The next month, while the AFL-CIO was holding its 50th anniversary convention in Chicago, the SEIU and Teamsters announced they were leaving. Soon thereafter, they were joined by the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Laborers International Union, the United Farm Workers of America, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and the apparel and hospitality workers of the Unite Here union. They left behind an AFL-CIO embittered by the breakup. The AFL-CIO executive committee had tried to satisfy Stern by proposing that a commission be established to recommend union mergers. Stern saw it as a feint, an AFL-CIO tactic to “fake change rather than make change.” “Nobody ever understood exactly what they wanted,” says Denise Mitchell, spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO. “It was maddening.” Some observers suggested it was a power play by Stern. “For all the talk about fundamentally different principles, different strategic approaches, differing organizing principles, that’s all really (expletive),” says a labor official familiar with the SEIU who spoke anonymously because he works with both labor federations. “He’d decided he had outgrown the federation,” the source says. “His union was growing. Too many other unions weren’t.” Stern dismisses such criticism as “insulting.” He does want power, he says – “but for workers.” In May 2002, Cassie had surgery to correct scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. She also was chronically weak from hypotonia, abnormally low muscle tone. Later that month, father and daughter visited his stepmother in Ocean City, N.J. Stern slept in the same room with Cassie to make sure she was all right through the night. He heard the silence when she stopped breathing. He tried to resuscitate her. A chopper medevaced Cassie to the hospital. But she slipped into a coma. Several days later, it was over. His memories became a form of torture – their trip to Venice and the Vatican, their safari in Botswana, the way she bossed her cats, Patrick and Olivia, and did her pottery and had her dad and everyone else lovingly wrapped around her finger. There was grief counseling. Stern’s marriage to Cassie’s mom did not survive. One day, Stern just walked out of a union meeting and wandered the streets. “I wasn’t sure I could continue doing my job after she died,” he says. This year, for the first time, he watched a video montage that a friend had made of Cassie’s life. It was hard. He watched it in segments over three weeks. And slowly, it happened. The balance began to take shape. There was and will always be the horror of the loss, he says, but bursting through the pain was also the joy of remembrance. He had discovered and claimed Cassie’s gift. Vail, Colorado


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