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An Evening with Andy Stern

Cambridge, Mass.

It’s April Fool’s day, plus one, in what Bob Dylan once called “the green pastures of Harvard University.” We’re at the Kennedy School of Government, to be exact, and the guest speaker tonight is not the kind of Washington pol who ends up at the Institute of Politics for a “mid-career” make-over. (One such “Fellow” at the moment is George Bush’s former secretary of labor, the rabidly anti-union Elaine Chao.)  Instead, the IOP is hosting Andy Stern.

Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, is nobody’s April fool. Yet he had, I’m sure, planned to expound upon his  “vision” before a much larger group than the 75 to 100 folks who actually showed up to hear him. After all, even John Sweeney, the aging CEO of the AFL-CIO, packed the same venue a year ago, drawing an audience twice as large as Stern’s. Unfortunately for Andy, there’s a competing attraction for undergraduates this Thursday evening on the other side of the Charles, where some local guy named Chomsky is speaking at a “student labor week of action” forum at Northeastern.

Meanwhile, some of Stern’s own members seem to have opted for the “Labor Seder” now underway at the local janitors hall in downtown Boston. So his crowd is small and composed of local SEIU functionaries (including one just back from trusteeship duty in California), Change To Win staffers, students, professors, and a smattering of Boston labor activists (including this correspondent).  Stern’s talk is titled “A Country That Works,” drawn from his 2006 book which celebrated Change To Win (CTW), the breakaway labor federation.  CTW was promoted, at the time, as an exciting progressive alternative to the dreary internal dysfunction of Sweeney’s AFL-CIO.

But that was then and this is now.  In the run-up to Stern’s Harvard visit, there’s been a major falling out among CTW founding fathers. Once known as the “Three Ivy League Amigos,” this trio included Stern himself (Penn, ’71), needle trades leader Bruce Raynor, a graduate of Cornell, and Yale man John Wilhelm, head of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE), who launched his career on campus in New Haven.  When they forged their “New Unity Partnership” in 2004,” as a prelude to the multi-union defection from the AFL one year later, it was an article of faith among the Amigos that “size matters.” So, to demonstrate to the rest of labor how two “organizing unions” could super-size themselves to grow faster, Raynor and Wilhelm formed 440,000-member UNITE-HERE, amid much joyous rice-throwing by labor-oriented intellectuals.

A mere four years later, the Raynor-Wilhelm nuptials have become the labor marriage from hell; the two “co-presidents” are a real-life version of Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in “War of The Roses.” Since January, when the two weren’t suing each other in preparation for the UNITE-HERE convention in June, they’ve engaged in public dissing, the likes of which should make any future union merger partners think twice before saying their own vows too quickly.

Described by The Times as “hyperarticulate heavyweights,” Raynor and Wilhelm have been acting more like kids in a sandbox not big enough for both. From John, we’ve learned that Bruce is a “dictator” out to “destroy the union”–which he treats as his “personal property”–by “creating chaos and strife.”  Bruce, meanwhile, refuses to “be held captive by a bunch of thugs,” “jerks,” and “hijackers” led by John. He charges the latter with spending too much of their joint money on organizing, with “few recent successes” to show for it. Wilhelm countered with an email blast about Raynor’s own high maintenance costs; for example, Bruce’s car service and other perks added nearly $100,000 to his 2006 salary of $254, 000. (Of course, Wilhelm’s “total compensation” for that same year—a mere $344,000—didn’t lag far behind Raynor’s in a union with many workers, who earn, on average, less than one tenth what the co-presidents do.)

By mid-February, the Bruce-and-John gong show got so embarrassing that one of their colleagues, United Food and Commercial Workers President Joe Hanson, attempted some marriage counseling. Meanwhile, two former colleagues, still serving on the AFL-CIO executive council, tried peer intervention from outside Change To Win. In a letter to Wilhelm and Raynor, Auto Workers president Ron Gettelfinger and Steel Workers president Leo Girard warned that “the continuing public escalation of your internal battle…threatens members’ interests and reforms that would benefit the entire labor community”—a reference to labor’s already troubled Employee Free Choice Act campaign.

In any crisis, there is opportunity, however. Where there’s a divorce, a marriage “on the rebound” may be just around the corner (although it’s not usually recommended). With family jewels up for grabs (in the form of UNITE-HERE’s $4.5 billion Amalgamated Bank), guess which Purple Knight stood ready to unite with either or both of the estranged partners, as long the bank was part of the deal.

Rejected by Wilhelm (who is still litigating Amalgamated ownership issues), Andy rushed Bruce back to the altar instead. First, he spent heavily to help “liberate” a claimed 140,000 members from UNITE-HERE, mainly from its garment worker side so they could join SEIU instead. Then, at a hastily-convened meeting in Philadelphia on March 21, a new Raynor-led, SEIU-affiliated entity called “Workers United” (WU) was unveiled.

A divorcee himself in his much-publicized personal life, Stern waxed philosophical at WU’s founding convention of 450 people. He noted that,  “like most bad marriages, the disagreements” between John and Bruce developed gradually “over the last two or three years.” In retrospect, Stern suggested, UNITE and HERE might not have been right for each other from the very beginning (although that’s not what he said at the time they merged). But then, Stern was not in Philly to dwell on the unpleasantness of the past or the unpredictability of the future.  “I’m here, “ he said, “to talk about how we can build a partnership to organize more workers.”

Of no small concern to Brother Wilhelm is just who some of those additional workers might be. He says Stern is now planning is to compete with HERE in hotels, casinos, and cafeterias, where any union recruiter faces stiff management resistance.  Wilhelm’s executive board majority rightly fears that Stern will seek to represent culinary and hospitality workers through “partnerships” with their employers. The resulting “sweetheart deals” would undercut gains made by HERE through years of strikes, boycotts, and patient workplace committee-building by its tightly-disciplined cadre of organizers, some of whom also hail from Yale.

The latest Wilhelm press releases are thus directed at the “messianic mindset” of “Czar Stern.” Andy now stands accused by his one-time “New Unity Partner” of “brazen interference” and “breathtaking  imperialism.” According to Wilhelm, the Stern-backed “Raynor splinter group” exited without taking any kind of valid membership vote and is now attempting a “hostile take-over of UNITE-HERE jurisdiction,” using millions of dollars from SEIU. “This is not democracy,” Wilhelm declared. “This is electoral fraud. We’re not going to let this happen.” (He’s also not going to stay in Change to Win any longer, having applied for readmission to the AFL.)

All of which brings us back to Stern’s talk at Harvard, an event ripe with duplicitous declamation. The show begins at the JFK School with exciting, big-screen video footage of SEIU’s convention last June in Puerto Rico, Not surprisingly, it’s all interior shots of the delegates listening to Stern speak—we don’t get to see the San Juan riot squad outside, holding back angry, picketing PR teachers, who accused Andy of “labor imperialism” seven months before Wilhelm did. Having been jostled by a few Puerto Rican cops on that occasion, I start to look around and wonder, why are there so many campus police stationed here in this hall? Does it really take five, plus an even larger retinue of hovering Harvard civilians, to maintain order at the Institute of Politics?

Apparently, the organizers feared a sudden influx of local Wilhelmites. Sadly, this intervention failed to materialize, despite the fact that Boston HERE Local 26 is among those opposed to WU’s defection, and the New England Joint Board of UNITE is the only one in the country not following Raynor’s lead. In retaliation for spurning Stern, reports one Joint Board advisor, “SEIU is pouring money and people into causing trouble in the N.E. Joint Council’s shops, particularly at the TJX warehouses—Marshall’s, T.J. Maxx, and A.J. Wright—where there are thousands of workers.” According to this Boston source, “ Some employers are more or less aiding and colluding with Raynor and SEIU by giving them access.”

With this unseemly Change To Win cannibalism in mind, not to mention so nearby, I patiently await the question period to ask Brother Stern what he thinks about it. But first, we must listen as ex-United Farm Worker staffer (and longtime organizing guru) Marshall Gans, a Kennedy School fixture, lauds our guest speaker for “leading the way in introducing young people to the labor movement.” The mustachioed Marshall gives way to Jake Waxman, a lanky young Emory graduate, now getting a masters at Harvard after taking time off to toil for SEIU.  Jake reports that he “will never forget” an inspiring hospital worker  named “Donna” whom he met during a southern California contract campaign in 2006-7. (What Jake neglects to mention is that Donna and her co-workers at Riverside Community Hospital are part of United Healthcare Workers-West, the SEIU affiliate where tens of thousands of members—perhaps Donna next?—are trying to flee SEIU because  Stern removed all their elected leaders in January and put the entire 150,000-member local under trusteeship.)

Not to be outdone in the flaunting of personal connections to the rank-and-file, Stern opens his talk by calling up to the stage a member of his “union family.” This turns out to be Shirley Cheeseboro, an African-American woman from the Bronx who works in Brooklyn. Shirley’s been a Crown Heights laundry worker for 28 years, she tells me later. She started out as a member of the Laundry & Dry Cleaning Workers Union, which then became part of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, which later became UNITE, which then became UNITE-HERE, which has now split into the UNITE-HERE majority faction, led by Wilhelm, and Workers United, led by Raynor, which just affiliated with SEIU. Shirley’s bargaining unit stuck with Raynor so she went to the Philadelphia meeting that created WU. Andy Stern has been her national union president for about 12 days.

That’s just fine with Andy because, in his introduction of Shirley, he omits the entire organizational history above. His new member testifies convincingly that “a union is important, it helps a lot, and takes you a long way”—leading many in the audience to think that she was just involved in  SEIU organizing, rather than the top-down acquisition of a group unionized for decades. This “victory” notwithstanding, it remains unclear where Shirley’s shop or WU overall fits into SEIU’s “core jurisdiction”–property services, health care, and government employment.

So, when it comes time for questions, I hit the mike with a gentle reminder that  Stern’s four-year old federation, Change To Win, seems to have forgotten one of its founding principles—namely, that unions should stick to their own “jurisdiction,” instead of poaching on the turf of others? Could Stern’s current designs on hotels, casinos, and other culinary work sites be the reason why his former partner is now calling him a brazen, imperialistic, messianic union czar?

Stern jokes that this is just what John “calls me on a good day.” He then explains, in unconvincing fashion, that a recent convergence in corporate ownership of hotels and other commercial real estate properties had created a jurisdictional overlap between Wilhelm’s organization and his own. With a look of total innocence and sincerity, Stern professes “no desire to compete in organizing hotels.” Instead, he envisions a bright future in which SEIU and what’s left of Wilhelm’s union will work together cooperatively, “just as we do with AFSCME in home care.” (Since there was only one question/statement per customer–and Stern seemed eager to change the subject—I don’t get the chance to point out that SEIU and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees –AFSCME–have, in fact, battled over home-based workers in California, Illinois, Iowa, and other states.)

In response to later queries from the floor, Stern does equally well in the unintended humor department. For example, a student asks him what makes for a good union.  First on Andy’s list: “If I was being hypothetical, I’d say democracy”—an answer that produced not a titter of laughter, although it should have elicited major guffawing, given how hypothetical democracy is in SEIU today. Several questions later, a Harvard worker, employed at the law school, hits the jackpot with a question about Stern’s stance on salary cuts for Harvard bosses, including its new president Drew Gilpin Faust. Like her predecessor Larry Summers, Faust earns nearly $600,000 a year—not as much as Raynor and Wilhelm combined, but close. Rather than laying off SEIU janitors, as Harvard is doing now, shouldn’t the university cut costs by paying its top brass less, the worker wants to know. Thinking perhaps of future Harvard invitations—or maybe just a longer stint, someday, at the Kennedy School– Stern refuses to play populist with the president’s pay. “I really don’t like pitting people against each other, “ he asserts demurely, a statement that John Wilhelm and others may find hard to believe.

STEVE EARLY, in his 27 years with the Communication Workers of America, worked on mergers and affiliations involving a dozen other labor organizations. None ended in divorce, although maybe some should have. He’s now the author of Embedded With Organized Labor (available from Monthly Review in May) and is working on a second book called, Purple Haze: Andy Stern, Anna Burger, and The Civil Wars in American Labor. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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