You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Labor's Love Lost

Will Andy Stern save unions, or destroy them?

With our interview winding down, Andy Stern leaps out of his chair to show me something. On the far wall of his Washington, D.C., office, the leader of the 1.9-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) keeps a little museum. "This stuff's great," he says, pointing to photos, memorabilia--and what he really wants me to see: the head of Gus Bevona.

As the leader of Local 32BJ in New York City during the 1980s and '90s, the 300-pound Bevona was the epitome of union sleaze. His salary of $400,000 per year made him one of the highest-paid labor officials in the country. Like many locals of old, 32BJ never had much interest in organizing new workers or advancing a broader cause. Bevona was content to maintain high salaries for his dwindling flock of janitors and doormen, while reportedly using union funds to build himself a posh lower-Manhattan penthouse. "So he puts this bust in his dedication to the building," Stern says, pointing to the brass head. "Kim Il Sung would've been proud. This building is dedicated to Gus Bevona, for his tireless efforts, blah, blah, blah." After Stern became president of SEIU in 1996, Gus had to go. So did all of the old guard. Unions had become too "male, pale, and stale," as Stern likes to put it. And organized labor was dying because of it.

Getting rid of Bevona was just the start. Over the past twelve years, Stern has pulled off a transformation of SEIU that is, by any metric, astounding. Today, SEIU is the most dynamic and powerful union in the country. At a time when organized labor was widely believed to be headed for extinction--in 1954, roughly one-third of the American workforce was unionized; today, that number is 12.1 percent--Stern's union accomplished the seemingly impossible: It grew, and grew a lot. The past decade has seen SEIU add nearly one million workers, including janitors, nurses, and home-care providers--many of them women, minorities, and immigrants. Most of these workers have seen their wages rise. The union now runs one of the largest PACs in the country, with money to rival even Big Pharma's lobbying arm. It's a record of success that would have stunned even the great labor organizers of the New Deal era.

In 2005, frustrated with the pace of reform in the AFL-CIO, Stern led SEIU and six other unions out of the labor federation to form a new coalition called Change to Win. Although clashing egos probably played as big a role in the split as ideological differences, Stern still had a lofty vision: His fellow secessionists would learn to do what SEIU had done--retool, restructure, and figure out how to organize new workers in order to make labor unions relevant again.

As his achievements have added up, Stern, who at 57 is thin and white-haired, has won widespread acclaim. "He's like no union boss you've ever seen," crowed Fortune. The press has thrilled to a labor leader who doesn't believe workers and employers have to be locked in mortal conflict, who thinks like a CEO, who embraces globalization, who tosses out fresh ideas like wedding rice. Stern has also been hailed as a progressive hero for pushing the Democrats left, particularly on health care. And it doesn't hurt that he's charismatic: While most labor leaders shy away from cameras, Stern is at ease joking with reporters and debating the future of unions.

Now Stern has bigger plans. "I do feel like we're coming up on a moment in history, with this primary and hopefully after a successful election, where we can have universal health care, an economy that rewards work and not just wealth," he tells me. "All of these things are in front of us. And we have to be a voice for something much bigger than our own members." Indeed, as Stern sees it, the role of a union is not simply to represent its workers, but to fight for all workers--including those who are not unionized themselves--by pushing for social and political changes that benefit laborers across the country.

But, at the very moment when Stern's plans are at their most expansive and ambitious, he is facing a revolt from within his own union. This time, his opponent is no Gus Bevona. He is a man named Sal Rosselli, a lifelong progressive who heads SEIU's most powerful health care local in California, the 150,000 member United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW). Rosselli has launched a war against Stern that has spilled out into the open in recent months. His complaints--that Stern has made the union too undemocratic, that he has cut secret deals with employers, that he cares more about enlarging the union than serving its existing members--are resonating with at least some of SEIU's rank and file. And they raise difficult questions, not just about Stern's particular ideas but about what a union in twenty-first-century America ought to be. Can a union be too large for its own good? How closely should a union cooperate with employers? Does a union exist primarily for the benefit of its members--or to serve the interests of American labor as a whole? And who, in the end, gets to make these decisions? How much power belongs to a union's members? And how much should rest with leaders like Stern?

It turns out that dislodging bad guys like Gus Bevona was easy. The harder issue of what comes next for American unions is still very much up for debate. And no one knows whether Andy Stern, in the course of trying to find the answer, will end up saving organized labor--or tearing it apart.

The last great labor schism took place at the height of the Depression, when John L. Lewis, the jowly president of the United Mine Workers, socked a rival AFL leader in the jaw and barreled out of the federation. For years, the AFL had ignored unskilled workers in the auto, rubber, and steel factories. Then, in 1935, Congress passed the Wagner Act, which guaranteed collective-bargaining rights. Seizing the moment, Lewis formed the breakaway Congress of Industrial Organizations and sent his best men into the factories. The rivalry between the two federations revitalized labor after a decade of stagnation, and unions organized more than five million members in a few short years.

Stern admires Lewis, and, with Change to Win, he is trying to do what the CIO did in the 1930s: create a new infrastructure for organizing American workers. The similarities between the two end there, however. Lewis entered the backbreaking world of mining as a teen, while Stern was part of a generation of idealistic union leaders who came to organized labor from college, not the factory floor. These men and women, many of whom had been student radicals in the '60s, saw how corrupt, autocratic union heads were crippling labor. In Cleveland, a former Berkeley physics student named Ken Paff helped create Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a group that sought to clean up the infamously corrupt truck drivers' union. Even Ralph Nader had a Teamsters reform group for a brief while.

Although Stern wasn't as ideological as some of these reformers (as a 23-year-old caseworker, he didn't go to his first union meeting with plans to form a Trotskyite cell--he showed up for free pizza), he was very much part of their world. The son of a New Jersey lawyer, he earned a degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. After bumming around Europe, Stern took a job in a Philadelphia welfare office newly organized by SEIU. Early on, he became convinced that he and his fellow caseworkers were being sold out by their union's lawyer, who had put the finishing touches on their new contract at a poolside fund-raiser for the lieutenant governor. Stern helped lead a wildcat strike in protest, earning the wrath of higher-ups. "I began to suspect," he later recalled, "that the structure of the union provided the staff with disproportionate authority for decision-making, as opposed to the more democratic empowerment of the members that I thought was in the true spirit of the labor movement." Running as a reformer, Stern soon got himself elected president of the local.

Stern was setting out at a difficult time for organized labor. Shortly after taking over the local in 1978, he tried to organize a nursing home in Harrisburg. Most of the workers there had signed cards saying they wanted a union, so Stern filed for an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. The nursing home responded by threatening workers in one-on-one meetings and messing with the shifts of anyone sympathetic to the union. "A veil of terror fell over the workday," Stern later explained. The union lost the election in a rout.

At the time, similar stories were unfolding across the country--employers were hiring consultants and firing union supporters to thwart organizing drives. Most AFL-CIO unions concluded that organizing was simply impossible in this climate. But, in the early '80s, SEIU under John Sweeney decided to hire the sort of bright college grads who could figure a way around this impasse. Although Stern's nursing-home campaign failed, he had a reputation as someone willing to experiment. In 1984, Sweeney made Stern his national organizing director.

As Stern's generation of reformers entered the upper ranks of the labor movement, they began to pioneer creative approaches to organizing. In SEIU's famous Justice for Janitors campaign, which has organized 225,000 janitors since 1985, the union allied with community groups to pressure building owners and cleaning contractors to stay out of the way if their janitors wanted to unionize. When gentle nudges didn't work, SEIU would block traffic, storm private meetings, and file shareholder resolutions. In one campaign against a health care company, SEIU organizers told employees to report as many health and safety problems as they could, bogging the employer down in inspection hell. "We just tried to stay in their faces at all levels," explained one organizer. During Stern's tenure as organizing director, SEIU roughly doubled its membership.

In late 1995, Sweeney decamped to head the AFL-CIO, and SEIU's old guard tried to reassert itself: Stern was fired by Sweeney's successor, his office sealed shut with yellow police tape. But he ran for president and won, after garnering support from SEIU locals around the country--many of which he had helped organize.

As president, Stern continued to focus on organizing new workers above all else. But, along with the confrontational tactics he had helped craft in his earlier days, Stern was now experimenting with more conciliatory approaches.

During the 1980s and '90s, SEIU had waged a scorched-earth battle with Beverly Enterprises, one of the nation's largest nursing-home operators. Stern had once threatened to "use every means at our disposal" to expose Beverly's labor practices and force the company to bargain with SEIU. The union staged a strike ending in a lockout, flooded the air with radio ads, and enlisted local politicians to denounce the company. But SEIU didn't achieve any of its goals. So, in 2003, Stern approached Beverly COO David Devereaux with a deal: SEIU would lobby state legislatures to win funding for the nursing homes in exchange for organizing rights. "These long, drawn-out battles are exhausting," Stern tells me. "With Beverly, we could both appreciate that there were certain things we did better together--lobbying for more staffing and higher wages. That was the basis of our partnership."

This became a new creed for Stern, as he tried to convince companies that allowing employees to unionize could actually be in their interest. "Stern conclude[d] that we tried this them-and-us model, and we were on the losing end," notes Paul Krehbiel, a former SEIU staffer. In New Jersey, for instance, the union hatched a novel scheme in which union contracts for janitors wouldn't take effect until a majority of employers in the area also signed on--a way of organizing the entire market so that no one company had to worry about being made uncompetitive by labor costs. The gambit worked: SEIU now represents 70 percent of northern New Jersey janitors, whose pay has risen considerably. Meanwhile, the union pursued cooperative relationships with Kaiser Permanente, New York hospitals, and Catholic Healthcare West.

Not surprisingly, aspects of this approach were controversial. Some SEIU leaders, like Sal Rosselli, argue that these amicable relationships were only possible after years of confrontation. In his book A Country That Works, Stern recalls how "a series of strikes had poisoned the relationship" with Kaiser--which only healed when Stern called up Kaiser's then-CEO David Lawrence and "experimented with a new approach to collective bargaining that emphasized problem solving." Rosselli says this distorts history: "The labor-management agreement was born out of enormous struggle. A six-week strike with our local, strikes throughout the 1990s in Los Angeles, Portland, Denver. By the mid-'90s, Kaiser was going over a cliff."

One of Stern's other controversial creeds is that, as he wrote on his short-lived SEIU blog, "structure matters." Many labor unions had long let their locals run as autonomous fiefdoms, and SEIU was no exception. Locals would refuse to work together, sometimes even crossing each other's picket lines. After Sweeney became head of the AFL-CIO, his plans for ambitious new organizing drives ran aground when stubborn national and local unions refused to follow suit. Stern didn't want the same thing to happen to him. As SEIU president, he frequently put recalcitrant locals in trusteeship, tossing out their leaders and seizing control of their day-to-day operations. Unions generally trustee locals for financial improprieties or corruption. But Stern was aggressive in rooting out the dinosaurs--as when one longtime baron was ousted for driving drunk in a union car without a license.

Even more contentiously, Stern set about merging locals. The theory was that it's inefficient to have multiple locals representing a single large employer or industry. In California, 600,000 workers were re-organized along industry lines into a few "mega-locals," some with more than 100,000 members. The process wasn't always wholly democratic. "Often the workers involved did not have a choice," says Jerry Brown, a former president of a health care local in New England. "There would be a referendum, but...the people in small locals that would be merged, their votes would be pooled with those of huge locals that would receive them."

While mergers are often a useful tool for reform, some critics worry the power can be abused, not least because, under labor law, Stern is allowed to appoint the president of a newly merged local for up to three years before elections are held. Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, points out that the process can sometimes "be used to stifle dissent"--if, say, an unruly local is thrown into a much larger one.

The new mega-locals can also be unresponsive. Four years ago, nurses in Local 660 in Los Angeles complained that their hospitals weren't following California's new staffing law--nurses there told me they were often handling many more than the mandated maximum of six patients at a time--and began agitating for change. When support from the local leadership came too slowly, a reform slate mounted a challenge in the next union election, winning a number of seats. But the local was later merged into a larger, 90,000-member local sprawled out around southern California, and the reform movement died. Joel Solis, a nurse who helped lead the fight over staffing ratios, says that members now find themselves disconnected from the union that is supposed to represent their interests. "Our issues aren't being taken care of," he says. Although most locals have adjusted fairly well, sporadic complaints have cropped up in places like Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Oregon, with some locals electing to leave SEIU after complaining about forced mergers and out-of- touch leadership.

Stern argues that, in an age of multinational corporations, it's not always viable to have the workplace as the main site of union power--decisions often need to be made at a statewide or national level. "Stern has said he doesn't want to emphasize individual grievances," says Herman Benson of the Association for Union Democracy. "He's interested in the bigger stuff." Benson, whose group tracks complaints about whether unions are run democratically, says he hears more grumbling from SEIU members nowadays than those in any other organization.

Having followed Stern's lead in bolting from the AFL-CIO, other Change to Win unions are now mimicking his methods. The Teamsters, for instance, have started focusing on national organizing campaigns in their core industries, devising an innovative strategy to organize 16,000 port truckers in Los Angeles and Long Beach with help from the new federation. The 1.4-million-member food-workers union is hiring former SEIU staffers, while putting more money toward organizing. The upshot is that Stern's ideas now have a wider laboratory than ever before. No wonder his critics are nervous.

When I sat down to interview Sal Rosselli last month at the National Press Club, it was stunning how much he sounded like the young Stern--the Stern who had, many years ago, assailed Pennsylvania union leaders for ignoring the interests of their own workers. "It's top-down versus bottomup," Rosselli told me, laying out his differences with the SEIU leadership. "Stern's continuing to consolidate power in D.C., and we...we don't want to put limits on empowering workers to have a voice against their employer."

Like Stern, Rosselli came up in the tempestuous 1970s. He had been working as a janitor in California, studying to go to medical school, when he was asked by SEIU staffers to help out in a campaign against local movie theaters. "One thing led to another," he said, "and I never got around to medical school." Unlike Bevona and past Stern foes, Rosselli is a longtime activist--a former Catholic Worker who went on to fight for gay rights in the '80s. Indeed, in 1992, as the president of his local, Rosselli had pushed a platform at the SEIU convention to eliminate certain corrupt practices and put more of the union's dues toward organizing. "For a long time," Rosselli said, "Stern and I were leaning in the same general direction."

Although Rosselli had a more militant attitude toward organizing, he was initially receptive to Stern's strategy for allying with employers. In 2003, SEIU struck a secret deal--supported by Rosselli--with a group of California nursing-home chains: Nursing homes would drop their resistance to organizing drives, and, in return, SEIU would use its sway in Sacramento to push for more state money for the facilities as well as a tort-reform measure that would limit patients' ability to sue over neglect or abuse. (The latter was abandoned after a public outcry.)

By 2006, however, Rosselli had soured on these agreements. The ability of workers to expose unsafe conditions in nursing homes had been severely curtailed, and employers were demanding the exclusive right to set pay rates, hire and fire workers, eliminate jobs, and outsource at will. "In the beginning, the opposite commitment was made--to give these workers a voice," Rosselli told me. "But by the end, because of their relationship with SEIU and Stern's drive for growth at all costs, these employers said, if you want growth, this is the exchange we need." Rosselli refused to speak to the press at the time, but an internal memo prepared by UHW was furious: "Is it any wonder that we have often heard from these workers that 'the boss brought us the union'?" Last year, the SF Weekly got its hands on the memo--and the union put the agreements on hold. Stern angrily accused Rosselli's local of leaking the report, a charge Rosselli denies.

Around the same time, the Seattle Times uncovered a similar secret agreement struck by SEIU with nursing homes in Washington. In exchange for organizing rights, SEIU had promised to lobby the state legislature for millions in Medicaid reimbursements for the nursing homes. But the ten-year deal also blocked workers from striking and speaking out publicly, while granting employers final say over which nursing homes could be organized.

Earlier this year, I learned about yet more agreements that the Service Workers Union--a joint venture between SEIU and another union--had been negotiating with subcontractors Sodexho and Compass, which provide food and janitorial services in the health care sector. For years, SEIU had been struggling to deal with hospitals that contract out work and undercut their unionized employees. Under these agreements, the subcontractors would allow a fraction of their workers to unionize, but they would get to decide which employees could join. Labor disputes would be handled by national union headquarters, rather than the members themselves. While SEIU officials say that this was the best way to make inroads, UHW workers complain that the subcontracted employees they work with in California get little in the way of representation. "Truth be told," they wrote in a letter to Stern, "most of them don't even know they have a union."

It isn't just the agreements themselves that rankle; it's the way they are reached. Over the years, for instance, UHW had maneuvered so that some 200 nursing home and hospital contracts covering 100,000 workers were set to expire this year--a move that would give the union enormous leverage. Rosselli, however, accuses Stern of undermining UHW's bargaining strength by trying to block his local from taking the lead in negotiations and sending in SEIU representatives to seek more conciliatory agreements. "The people negotiating those agreements don't work in these places," Eloise Reese-Burns, a UHW official in California, complained to Labor Notes, a trade publication. "They don't know about short staffing. They don't know about the lack of supplies." Stern and other SEIU leaders respond that bargaining tactics are crafted by a national committee of elected local leaders, and Rosselli simply didn't like being outvoted. "Everybody would like democracy to work so that they're in charge," Stern tells me.

These fights get to the heart of the broader dispute between Stern and Rosselli. Stern believes that unions can't be strong in an industry until they have reached sufficient density, so the key is to add as many members as possible, no matter how it's done. When I bring up the nursing-home deals in our interview, Stern notes that the United Auto Workers had a strong presence at Ford, GM, and Chrysler plants but were massacred when Toyota and Honda started setting up plants in the non-union South, driving down wages in the whole industry. In other words, unionized workers are not safe as long as their industry contains large cadres of non-union workers. Hence the need to prioritize organizing--which, Stern argues, often means making strategic decisions at a national level.

Rosselli and others counter that, in the course of trying to expand, Stern is weakening unions past the point where they can be effective advocates--nationalizing the power structure of unions so that workers end up with little say over their own fate, then agreeing to concessions in exchange for growth that the workers themselves would never have accepted. Some of Stern's critics fear that this philosophy is turning his union into an AARP-style organization, where members simply pay their dues and trust that others will look out for their interests. These critics aren't against growth: Rosselli's union, UHW, has been one of the fastest-growing locals within SEIU over the past six years. They simply argue that, when expansion comes at the expense of worker rights, it isn't much of a triumph at all. "In his zeal to grow faster, Andy is taking shortcuts that will have serious effects on the vitality of the institution," says Brown, the former SEIU leader from New England. "The members will look at the union leadership the way they look at the boss: The boss wants this, the union wants that, and I'm in the middle."

The feud between Stern and Rosselli finally boiled over late last year, during the legislative debate over universal health care in California. Stern had strongly supported a compromise bill that would require individuals to buy health insurance, while Rosselli had concerns about affordability. A series of e-mails and letters, beginning in October, show Stern maneuvering to sideline Rosselli from his spot at the head of SEIU's California Executive Council by dissolving the body and creating a new one. Then, in January--in response to an internal SEIU strategy document arguing that the union needed to further centralize resources in order to wage large-scale organizing campaigns--Rosselli fired off a critique charging that Washington headquarters had become unaccountable. In February, Rosselli resigned from the union's executive committee, so that he was no longer bound by its gag rules. In late March, Stern sent a letter to Rosselli raising questions about "unethical conduct" and "financial irregularities"; UHW officials charged that Stern was laying the groundwork to trustee their local. At SEIU's convention this June, Rosselli plans to put forward constitutional changes that would revamp the process for voting on bargaining issues and mergers, and provide for direct election of the president by union members. (Currently, the president is elected by delegates to SEIU's national convention.)

SEIU officials contend that Rosselli's complaints are disingenuous, that he is mostly motivated by self-interest. "The thing that this is really about is Sal Rosselli wants more power for himself and his local," says Andrew McDonald, an SEIU spokesman. Thomas Dewar, a former communications staffer at Local 1021 in California, told me that he attended a strategy meeting with SEIU officials about responding to Rosselli. "I actually asked them straight up, 'Why don't you co-opt [Rosselli's] platform?'" Dewar says. "They balked at that. ... Instead, the strategy was to personalize the attack against Sal."

Rosselli currently has few public allies outside of his local. "Right now, the environment is one of fear," Rosselli tells me. "UHW is the second-largest union in SEIU, with 150,000 members, almost 400 staff. You can imagine other people watching the retaliation against us--'If they can do that to UHW, we'll get killed if we speak out.'" Many SEIU members I talked to were torn between a genuine respect for Stern and a belief that certain problems needed to be addressed.

With Rosselli and Stern slugging it out, the bigger issues--about how unions should be run, when they should collaborate with employers, and who, in the end, they really represent--threaten to become lost in the din. But that would be the worst possible outcome of this fight. Andy Stern's ideas deserve to be taken seriously, but they also deserve to be debated. There are plenty of reasons to applaud what he has done for American unions--and, at the same time, good reasons to wonder whether his vision contains flaws. Even if Sal Rosselli surrendered tomorrow, the questions about where, exactly, Stern is leading American labor wouldn't go away.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece said that the Teamsters's ports campaign was devised with help from SEIU. In fact, it was Change to Win that offered assistance.

Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic.