SEIU Head Andy Stern to Resign Early, But On a Win

Service Employees International Union, SEIU Head Andy Stern will retire
Service Employees International Union, SEIU Head Andy Stern will retire

After 14 years as head of the Service Employees International Union, Andy Stern (pictured) is planning to step down, two years before his current term is up. Though a formal announcement is still in the works, backers and critics of the man who helped revitalize the flagging U.S. labor movement are already weighing in on his accomplishments -- and his failures.

Many experts say Stern is leaving the 2.2 million member union in good health, and it will remain a powerful force even after he departs. A formal announcement about Stern's retirement is expected Thursday. SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, a close associate of Stern, will take over as union president and then face an election within 30 days.

While some view Stern as an abrasive and polarizing figure, he will be remembered for his success at increasing union membership during an era that saw many blue-collar jobs disappear through downsizing, off-shoring or plant closures.

"He's arguably the most important labor leader we've had in a long time: aggressive and controversial," Philip Dine, an authority on labor issues, told NPR in an interview. "There are very few Andy Sterns around in terms of creativity, energy and vision."

By bringing together workers such as janitors, immigrants and home health-care aides -- groups often ignored by other unions -- Stern led the SEIU to grow faster than any other labor group, adding 800,000 members in the last decade. In the process, the SEIU became an important political force, one that has had the ear of President Barack Obama.

Stern Won Some Key Battles -- And Made Some Missteps

Since the 2008 election, Stern, 59, has been a frequent guest at the White House, calling on the president more than 20 times during the his first six months in office, according to visitor logs. Stern also played a key role in helping Democrats pass health-care overhaul legislation earlier this year, threatening to withhold union support from those lawmakers who chose to vote against the measure.

But Stern's tenure hasn't been without its missteps. One example some point to is his decision in 2005 to split from the powerful AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, to form the Change To Win federation. In doing so, Stern sought to focus less on politics and more on member recruitment. But the coalition of seven unions has fallen short of expectations and done little organizing.

There have also been high profile battles with smaller SEIU bargaining units, which Stern forced to merge with other locals in an effort to increase not just their size but their leverage in labor negotiations and politics. Stern has also rankled some members by negotiating deals with employers that reduced worker benefits in exchange for pledges not to oppose new membership drives.

It remains unclear why Stern is stepping down early, but having achieved two key goals -- helping to elect Obama as president and pass historic health-care legislation that greatly expands coverage -- Stern may be choosing to take his bow while he's able to bask in the glow of success -- a job well done, if not yet complete.