Last week, we published a story showing that Andy Stern, the longtime former leader of one of America’s most prominent unions, is now advising a billionaire-funded charter school group that is explicitly determined to fight teacher’s unions. It is just the latest of Stern’s many actions that have rankled the labor movement. Are they ready to cut him off?
Stern led the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for 14 years, from 1996 to 2010. Under his leadership, the union aggressively organized new members and became perhaps the most politically active union in America, making Stern the Obama administration’s favorite union leader. Dissatisfied with the stasis of the AFL-CIO, he led a group of major unions out of the labor federation in 2005 to form their own coalition, Change to Win, dedicated to organizing new union members; fourteen years later, that goal has not been accomplished, as union density in America has continued its steady decline. Since leaving the SEIU almost a decade ago, Stern has become a vocal advocate for a universal basic income and for charter schools, and has served on corporate boards and the board of the Broad Center, an education reform group funded by the billionaire Eli Broad.
Fairly or not, Stern’s post-union career has only intensified the suspicion with which he has long been viewed by traditionalists in the labor movement, who often accused him of “business unionism”—the impression that he was more interested in working closely with corporate and political leaders than with focusing on his own grassroots members. The SEIU’s growth under Stern, impressive though it was, came at the cost of much rancor, with insiders saying he was steamrolling union democracy and outsiders saying he was overly seduced by power and attention. Still, the SEIU’s political influence and organizing efforts have flourished in ways that few other unions can claim. Andy Stern’s record is studded with genuine accomplishments as well as eyebrow-raising decisions that make many of those who should be his natural allies wonder what the hell he’s thinking.
The latest of those eyebrow-raisers has been Stern’s decision to be an official adviser to the National Parents Union, a pro-charter school group that seeks to counter the influence of teacher’s unions on the national stage. The NPU’s founding document states: “In the same manner that teacher strikes and mobilization are commanding headlines, we have a vision of having parent rallies and mobilizations in the spotlight, redirecting the conversation from one about adults to one about students. The teacher unions currently have no countervailing force. We envision the National Parents Union as being able to take on the unions in the national and regional media, and eventually on the ground in advocacy fights.” The fact that Stern is allying himself with the group in his capacity as “President Emeritus, SEIU” has rubbed many unionists the wrong way. Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, told Splinter rather diplomatically, “I urge Andy to take another look at what exactly he’s got himself into.”
The publication of our story last week about Stern and the NPU raised hackles on social media. Charges that Stern is a “scab” or a “rat” were common; other organized labor veterans said it was of a piece with Stern’s “shallow and whimsical” ideas and his role as a “labor accomplice” for non-labor issues; still others called for the SEIU to strip him of his “President Emeritus” title.
We asked the SEIU for its reaction to the anti-teacher’s union activities of its former president.
“SEIU has serious concerns about charter schools. We have seen how, unchecked, some charter school operators put profits over quality education. We see how lack of public oversight can lead to charter schools operating for some of our communities, not all of our communities,” SEIU spokesperson Dan O’Sullivan said in a statement. “Andy Stern spent more than 30 years with SEIU as a member, local president, organizing director, and International President. Under his leadership, more than a million members joined SEIU for the power to improve their jobs and their lives. We are all indebted to Andy for his leadership as SEIU president. We respect Andy’s desire to contribute to improving working people’s lives now that he is no longer SEIU president. We won’t always agree with Andy, and his views are his own—he does not speak on behalf of SEIU’s members.”
After the publication of our story last week, Stern tweeted, “Never will be part of any organization that is antiunion or anti teacher.” The comment was difficult to understand in light of the content of the NPU’s own founding document. In response to questions, Stern told me: “[Not] sure after reading your article you can be considered an inquiring and interested journalist on the issue of equity for poor children and children of color in education. And at a time when there are and need to be real debates of differences even amongst people with shared concerns—as we witnessed with [recently deceased SEIU local leader] Hector Figueroa there can be grace in our disagreements. Not sure if your intention is sensationalism, personalizing complicated issues or really trying to find ways for people like SEIU members children to not be trapped in failing schools.” Stern asked for more time to reply to questions about the stated anti-union aims of the NPU and his role in the group. (I don’t believe there is any reason the questions can’t be answered now. I will publish Stern’s further comments if and when I receive them.)
Stern is a board member of The Hillman Foundation and Open Society Foundation. Neither of those groups responded to questions about Stern’s work with the NPU.
The question that has long loomed over Andy Stern is whether he will one day push it so far that the labor movement will reject him entirely. He boasts one of the most glittering resumes in the union world, but he also developed a reputation for doing things that hardcore believers in unions, steeped in class struggle, find to be beyond the pale. To a large extent, the way that Andy Stern is treated can be used as a barometer for the militancy of the labor movement itself. And by that standard, his work with the NPU may have crossed the line. Sara Nelson, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants and the most visible militant union leader in America today, was unsparing in her assessment of Stern’s latest partnership. “It’s always good when people can finally be themselves. The labor movement doesn’t need climbers or people who think they are owed something. We need serious leaders. Good riddance and thanks for the clarity,” she told Splinter. “The rest of us have serious work to do right here with the people who do the real work that makes this country, this world, run. We know which side we’re on.”