Regardless of how you feel about Andy Stern, president of the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union, there is no denying that he is the most important labor leader of his generation.
So, it came as a surprise when he announced last week that he would resign the position he has held since 1996. His resignation—two years before his term ends—comes at an apparent high point for organized labor. SEIU, with half of its membership from the healthcare sector, played a crucial role in raising money, and electing President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress. The union worked hard for the passage of the jobs bill and healthcare reform by targeting wavering Democratic lawmakers and bolstering their support. In return, Stern has had unfettered access to the White House, with nearly 40 trips since Obama took office, according to several media accounts.
Labor was expected to make a concerted push this year for the Employee Free Choice Act—or a watered down version of it—which still would be the most sweeping pro-labor legislation in decades. After the bruising healthcare reforms fight, however, the labor bill's fate is in limbo.
Why did Andy Stern quit? Pose that question on Google and you'll get rampant speculation and intrigue.
In a video message to SEIU's members, however, Stern touted his accomplishments, insisted he had no immediate future plans, and suggested that he is burned out. "I've seen too many leaders who've stayed on too long. I have no intention of being one of them . . . I leave the job I love by choice," Stern said. "But for all the joy, there has been sorrow as well. The loss of my 13-year-old daughter Cassie (in 2002) and the 24/7 responsibilities of this job have left me at times not paying enough attention to the personal dimensions of my life."
The news of Stern's departure brought swift and unequivocal reactions across ideological rainbow, from inside organized labor and well without. The Wall Street Journal said in a scathing editorial that Stern is leaving the SEIU $85 million in debt—right before Republicans are expected to make significant gains in November, thus weakening labor's hand.
Sal Rosselli, interim president of the breakaway National Union of Healthcare Workers, and a bitter foe of the SEIU, said Stern's "legacy is that he took control of an organization built by more than a million hardworking janitors, healthcare workers, and public servants, and used their resources primarily to secure his own political power."
Marick F. Masters, director of the Fraser Center for Workplace Issues and Labor at Wayne State University in Detroit, said he's inclined to take Stern at his word. "He had the presence of mind to leave when he is at the top rather than to stay longer," Masters says. "And the fact is he has been the leader of that organization since 1996. How many corporate executives stay at the helm for as long as he has? You are talking about 14 years being the head of an organization that has been at the center of most of the controversies that labor has been involved in that time period. It's reasonable that he could be a little tired."
John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.