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The Inscrutable Andy Stern, In His Own Defense

At a time when unions hold an ever-diminishing role in American life, Andy Stern commanded a remarkably high profile. To his supporters, the longtime head of the Service Employees International Union was the savior of organized labor, who had found a way to expand the ranks of his union when almost every other one in the private sector was shrinking. To his detractors on the left, he was a self-promoter who was growing his union’s membership by cutting pro-management deals with employers or with ethically dubious elected officials such as Illinois’ Rod Blagojevich, all while waging costly internecine fights within the labor movement. To his detractors on the right, he was a dangerous radical who was paying a suspiciously high number of visits to the Obama White House.

Stern further confused the picture following his retirement from SEIU in 2010. He served on the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, where he was putatively representing the liberal wing of the spectrum, but where he caused agita among liberal skeptics with, among other things, his talk of investing part of the Social Security trust fund in the stock market. He voted against the commission’s final recommendations, but is going to be joining up with the deficit-reduction cause again next month, taking part in a nationwide bus tour organized by the Peterson Foundation to warn Americans about the coming fiscal apocalypse. More curiously, in December 2011, Stern wrote an eye-catching op-ed in the Wall Street Journal declaring that it was time for the United States to drop free-market capitalism in exchange for China's “superior economic model.”

Meanwhile, though, Stern has also been doing well for himself under good old American-style capitalism. Mike Elk of In These Times just did a comprehensive wrap-up on Stern’s post-retirement enterprises which suggests that his skeptics on the left may have been on to something:

Stern recently accepted a paid position on the board of directors of the biochemical company SIGA, owned by billionaire Ron Perelman’s private equity firm MacAndrews & Forbes. Stern also recently accepted an endowed position at Columbia University as a Ronald O. Perelman Senior Fellow at the Richard Paul Richman Center for Business, Law, and Public Policy. During his tenure at SEIU, Stern faced criticsim for cutting a 2006 deal with AlliedBarton, also owned by Perelman, in which SEIU agreed to abandon an organizing drive of an estimated 10,000 security guards in exchange for employer neutrality in organizing AlliedBarton security guards elsewhere.  
Stern has also taken an unpaid position on the board of directors of the Broad Center, which critics allege is hostile to teachers’ unions. (Along with Stern, the center’s board also includes former Obama economic advisor Larry Summers, former Democratic Congressman turned bank lobbyist Harold Ford Jr., and former Louisiana state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, who is infamous for using the devastation from Hurricane Katrina as a means of converting public schools to charter schools and pushing voucher programs.) The Broad Center is run by the Broad Foundation, which has spent $400 million to fulfill its mission statement of “transforming urban K-12 public education through better governance, management, labor relations and competition.” The Broad Foundation was founded by billionaire Eli Broad, who believes that education reform entails taking anti-teacher union measures such as “charter schools, performance pay for teachers and accountability” for teachers.

Elk managed to get hold of Stern to ask him about his post-retirement activities:

Stern rejects these charges and sees no conflict of interest in taking the position at Columbia University, which is funded by Ron Perelman, with whom Stern is criticized for negotiating employer-friendly deals.
“He gives a grant. Someone funds the position. They don’t pay you to speak. I don’t think it’s unusual for people in academia to have titles related to donors. That’s just the nature of academia,” says Stern. “I am trying to look at what is being done around the country from Berkeley on income inequality and Harvard on labor markets and see if there is a gap Columbia can fill. I am also trying to stimulate a discussion about economic policies.”
Stern also dismisses charges of having a conflict of interest for taking a position on the board of SIGA. “I don't work at SEIU anymore,” Stern says. “I think the company, SIGA, which has invented the cure for smallpox, has a successful role in life. As a person who watched all of our healthcare workers have anxiety about smallpox vaccines, it’s a pretty good advance.”

Without a doubt, Stern was a figure to be reckoned with, and he remains so. For one thing, the union he expanded is continuing to play a pivotal role on the political scene by, among other things, co-funding major Spanish-language ad buys with Priorities USA Action, the Super-PAC supporting Obama. But one certainly gets the sense from Stern’s post-retirement activities that the right’s caricature of him as an irreconcilable radical was further from the mark than his liberal doubters’ warnings that he was, for an ardent unionist, surprisingly eager to play footsie with the other side of the table.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis