For a union that frequently takes to the streets with drums banging, the contest within the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to succeed outgoing president Andy Stern is proceeding with uncustomary discretion. Two candidates -- Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger and Executive Vice President Mary Kay Henry -- are vying for the job, but neither has issued any public statements or put forth platforms that make clear their differences. The candidates are busily wooing undecided members of SEIU's board, which will select the president who will serve until the union's next convention two years hence. But neither has yet unveiled a real campaign.
Part of the reason that the campaigns are muted is that the contest is in an odd kind of limbo. Stern has not yet stepped down -- an act that would trigger the executive-board decision on his successor 30 days later. He is trying to line up the votes for Burger, whom he endorsed in a letter to board members last weekend, before he goes. This puts Stern in something of a bind: Having announced quite publicly that he is going forthwith, he cannot postpone his departure date much longer without looking -- well, silly.
But if and when Stern does go without being able to anoint his successor, we have to hope that SEIU has the kind of full-throated (which is not to say rancorous) campaign that our embattled unions need just now. At a moment when American labor is trying to pick itself up from the aftermath of its failed battle for labor-law reform, at a time when unions appear to have few ideas about how to chart a new strategy to arrest the movement's decline, the contest to head America's most innovative union should -- and had better -- yield some serious discussion about new directions for American labor.
For now, Stern's leave-taking has exposed considerable rifts within SEIU's leadership -- most clearly, at the very top. Burger's candidacy is backed by four members of the union's executive committee -- Stern, Burger, and executive vice presidents Mitch Ackerman and Bruce Raynor. Henry's is backed by five -- Henry and executive vice presidents Gerry Hudson, Eliseo Medina, Dave Regan, and Tom Woodruff. The latter four have sent a letter to SEIU board members endorsing Henry's candidacy.
"What's happening," says another leader, "is that Anna is getting the backlash against a lot of Andy's policies and attitudes." While all camps publicly and privately praise Stern for his achievements as an organizer (the union roughly doubled in size, from 1 million to 2 million members, during his tenure as president) and for turning the union into the most effective political organization in liberal America, a number of Stern's more recent moves have rankled SEIU leaders. Some of their complaints concern leadership style and substance -- what some leaders say is Stern's (and Burger's) unwillingness to consult other leaders, of SEIU and of other unions, on policy decisions. In SEIU's dealings with other unions, says one leader, "We've been arrogant. We've needlessly estranged much of the labor movement."
Stern's internal critics say that by attempting to anoint Burger and short-circuit a contested election, he displays more of that arrogance -- and links Burger with it. "We know Anna is not Andy," says one union leader. "But by trying to pass the union on to Anna, they've created two kinds of opponents: those who back Mary Kay and those who want the union to hear the candidates discuss how to confront our problems, and then make a considered choice for president."
SEIU's problems are real. Over the past two years, SEIU's much-vaunted organizing efforts have dwindled as the union threw itself into the 2008 presidential election and the battle for health-care reform. There have also been the very bitter battles with the former leaders of a 150,000-member California local whom it ousted, and with UNITE-HERE, whose seceding garment workers it welcomed into its ranks. In part, organizing has suffered because so much of SEIU's staff has been diverted to these other struggles. But SEIU's biggest organizing gains of the past decade -- chiefly, of home-care workers and child-care workers in states in which friendly governors issued executive orders permitting those workers to unionize -- are no longer easily replicable.
Worse yet, the union has found itself embroiled in an existential struggle to defend its public-employee members in an age of cutbacks. More than half of SEIU's members, a majority of whom work for state and local government, are located in two states, California and New York, facing major budget constraints. Even if their jobs can be saved, their pension benefits are under attack -- and it's not at all clear that a substantially de-unionized private-sector work force will be willing, particularly in the midst of a protracted recession, to go on paying for the benefits of a unionized public sector.
In the discreet campaigns currently being waged, according to several SEIU officials, Henry speaks of returning the union to its organizing roots, while Burger points out that many of the union's biggest organizing victories were the result of its political work (for instance, electing governors). "They're both right," says one of the union's leaders. But on some of the most divisive positions the union has taken in recent years -- leaving the AFL-CIO, its war with its onetime Northern California leaders and with UNITE HERE -- neither side has indicated a clear willingness to change directions.
The one SEIU leader who has publicly advocated new directions for labor is Hudson, who did so, several weeks before Stern's announcement, at a Georgetown University forum on labor's future (in which I also participated) that was aired on C-SPAN. Labor's failures over the past year, particularly the Employee Free Choice Act, Hudson argued, was in part the consequence of its failure to build a larger movement with a larger agenda for social change, in which labor would be only one component. There was no way labor could secure major gains in the political sphere by playing an inside game -- which is how he characterized the campaign for EFCA. Only a movement with a broader, more transformative purpose, he argued, could survive the changes that a globalized economy was imposing on workers' lives.
Hudson himself is not a candidate for president. But his remarks at Georgetown stand in sharp contrast to the public silence that the two actual existing candidates for president are observing, even as they and their backers try to line up the votes.
It wasn't always thus within SEIU. In 1995, when then-SEIU President John Sweeney stepped down to assume the presidency of the AFL-CIO, he was succeeded by SEIU's 74-year-old secretary-treasurer, Dick Cordtz, a far more conventional union leader than Sweeney. When Cordtz announced the following year that he would run for a full term, he was challenged by Stern, then the union's 46-year-old organizing director, who had masterminded such groundbreaking unionization efforts as the Justice for Janitors campaign. Stern barnstormed the country laying out a vision for revitalizing SEIU and quickly won the support of two-thirds of the union's locals, at which point Cordtz bowed out of the race.
That's the kind of campaign that SEIU and American labor could profit from just now. The movement's in trouble. Bring on the strategies; let's hear some debate.