SEIU President Andy Stern announced this week that he would retire after 38 years in the labor movement, leaving a historic achievement as part of his legacy. Health care reform, a lifetime commitment of Stern's and a primary focus of his 2.2 million-member organization, had finally been passed into law. What better way to walk into the sunset?
But in an exit interview with the Huffington Post, Stern acknowledged that not everything was rosy for him, his union and the labor community at large. He expressed regrets about the direction of the union movement and offered subtle warnings to the Obama White House, to which Stern is closely allied. Mostly, he signaled frustration that the inertia of the political process had prevented further achievement.
"Washington is sort of eating itself alive between K Street and the lobbyists and the revolving doors and has lost the focus on what it means to work in America and what its responsibility is," Stern said. "America is living through the third economic revolution and our country doesn't really have a plan on how to deal with it, and when it does -- like the president sort of outlined when he first got here -- we have a Congress who seem incapable of acting on it."
Changing the structures and mores of Congress (the Senate in particular) was a late-career passion of Stern's, so much so that he once called obstructionist Democrats legislative "terrorists" and became a leading and vocal champion of filibuster reform. But while he'd like nothing more than to see the political process streamlined, Stern insisted he has no interest in doing it from within Congress itself.
"I'll never run for office," he said. "But I intend, either on the fiscal commission or on issues like immigration, to hopefully have my voice be heard."
How about Justice John Paul Steven's soon-to-be-open Supreme Court seat, the Huffington Post asked playfully. "Just, I can be," he replied, "but deliberative, I'm not sure."
Reflecting on his many decades in the labor movement, the SEIU leader had some specific gripes; none more so than about the inability to get legislation passed that would give workers more opportunities to organize. He was talking both specifically about the Employee Free Choice Act, which seems all but dead in the current Congress, as well as earlier efforts to alter labor law.
"I'm disappointed that we have a country that doesn't allow workers to make the kind of choices so that they can share in the successes of their employers," Stern said. "And as a result we've had a growing inequality."
Saying he would formally step down from his post soon (he officially announced his retirement on Thursday), Stern will leave an institution and movement very much at a crossroads. While the SEIU has grown into a powerful political force since he led its exodus from the AFL-CIO, there are weighty questions about its future and that of its umbrella organization, Change to Win. Those questions, Stern argued, extend to the union community at large, where a philosophical debate over the direction and purpose of organization remains hotly contested. Take, for instance, Stern's decision to work with two traditional foes -- Walmart and the pharmaceutical industry -- on health care reform, which was much-debated among rivals and labor observers.
"Unions should not be lapdogs to a political party, they should be watchdogs for their members' interests," he said, when asked about those decisions. "If their members' interests are served by people who agree with you on issues, like Walmart or Pharma or the Business Roundtable, then I think there's a higher interest, which is our country and its future and the lives of people that work, more than the Washington, DC, inside-the-Beltway politics as usual."
Speaking earlier with the Washington Post's Ezra Klein, Stern expressed no regret about his decision to split from the AFL-CIO. Going forward, he posited, the question wasn't merely how large and strong an individual union could be (in the strict political sense), but whether a system is in place to meet the demands of a modern economy. The latter will always trump the former.
"I would say the issue for the labor movement in the United States is not structural... there is no correlation between the success of workers and how the labor movement is structured," he said. "I think the real question is, can the labor movement make some of the changes we did?: challenge your members to build an organization that can build partnerships with employers, that can [give] voice to people that work, politically; that can hold politicians accountable and go stronger not smaller. And the truth is, that if there are 50 labor movements in the United States or there is one, they will not necessarily have any answer to any of those questions. It is really a choice of what the individual unions do to change themselves to meet the 21st-century challenges."