Labor's New Look A maverick union leader has endorsed an unorthodox presidential candidate. The move could change the campaign--and the fate of unions.
By John Heilemann

(Business 2.0) – Back in 1996, around the time Bill Clinton was cruising toward reelection against Bob Dole, I had a conversation with Labor Secretary Robert Reich about the pathetic state of America's unions. Reich is an old and dear friend of mine. During his tenure in Washington, he butted heads repeatedly with organized labor, and especially with the AFL-CIO's free-trade-hating boss, Lane Kirkland, whose conception of the U.S. economy--like that of most union bosses--seemed to have been frozen in the 1960s. I asked Reich if there was any hope at all, if there was any union chief who understood the new economy, any smart, progressive, switched-on figure who might be a force for modernization in a labor movement that desperately needed it. "Actually, there is," Reich replied. "His name is Andy Stern, and he just got elected head of the service-workers union."

Our conversation came flooding back to me in November, when Stern and his soldiers--the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)--grabbed headlines with their endorsement of Howard Dean for the Democratic presidential nomination. In the political world, this was a big deal, coming in tandem with a Dean endorsement from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The SEIU and AFSCME are two of the largest and most politically potent unions in the country. By throwing their money and organizing prowess behind Dean, they may have changed his nomination from highly likely to virtually inevitable.

But as big as the SEIU's endorsement is for Dean, it's also no small thing for Andy Stern. Already one of the most influential Democratic players, Stern now has the chance to be a kingmaker, a role that would help him mightily in pursuing what seems to be his long-term objective: becoming the AFL-CIO's next president. And while he faces obstacles, if Stern gets there, I think it would be a big deal indeed for the future of organized labor.

Visiting Stern in his office in Washington, you quickly figure out that he isn't exactly your father's labor leader; he's more like Union Boss 2.0. No pinkie ring, no potbelly, no overripe cologne. Instead, Stern is a well-coiffed, 53-year-old graduate of Penn in a pair of trendy black ankle boots, who fluently speaks the language of business and candidly acknowledges labor's myriad infirmities. "I've said to our members, 'The world changed, and we didn't,'" Stern says. "I said, 'You can go on being comfortable losing the old way. You can blame the Democratic Party for not supporting unions sufficiently. You can blame our members for being apathetic. You can blame globalization for hurting our wages or blame immigrants for stealing our jobs. But I don't want to join that chorus.'"

Stern became SEIU president in April 1996. With union membership in steady decline for decades (having fallen from 35 percent of the private-sector workforce in the 1950s to 8 percent today), he decided his first priority was growth. In contrast with other unions, which typically spend less than 5 percent of their budgets on organizing new members, Stern dedicated nearly half of the SEIU's resources to the cause of beefing up its ranks.

The results have been remarkable. Under Stern, the SEIU has swelled by 89 percent to 1.6 million members, making it the only union that's appreciably growing. He has also put the SEIU through what he calls a corporate-style "restructuring," focusing on "core markets" (health care, building services, and public sector employees), shedding workers that didn't fit (in utilities, for example), merging fragmented local unions into a more consolidated structure (melding seven New York health-care unions into two), and hiking dues for what he refers to as a "kind of venture capital fund, to finance the campaigns we've always dreamed of doing."

Stern's approach and accomplishments have "put us at odds with much of organized labor," he says without regret. "It bugs them that we've been successful, because we take away their excuses for not succeeding and raise questions about the reasons they give for why things can't be done."

On policy and politics too, Stern and the SEIU have parted from labor's stale orthodoxies. Where other union bigwigs fear an incursion of foreign-born workers, Stern is avidly pro-immigration, reflecting that many of his members hail from abroad. (An estimated 5 to 7 percent of the SEIU's people are undocumented immigrants.) Where other unionists fear the fallout from globalization, Stern expresses only mild concern about free trade. And where much of the rest of organized labor is, as he puts it, "an adjunct to the Democratic Party," Stern works happily with Republicans when their interests coincide, readily praising GOP pooh-bahs such as Sens. Chuck Hagel (on immigration) and John McCain (on Medicare).

Given the pragmatism Stern brings to his liberalism, it struck me at first as fairly surprising that the SEIU was backing Howard Dean. And, it turns out, Stern himself was surprised. Until recently, his preference was for the union to stay neutral in the primaries. But in the course of the group's yearlong endorsement process--in which the candidates had repeated opportunities to pitch its members--Dean swept the SEIU off its feet. "By the end," Stern says, "our members were treating him like a rock star."

It's not hard to see why, I realize now, because the Dean campaign and the SEIU are a perfect fit. Stern's success has come largely through grassroots organizing. "The SEIU," Reich observes, "is the closest we have to a 'movement' union." The Dean operation shares that orientation, priding itself on being a "movement" campaign. There's also the fact that Dean is a doctor, with a creditable record on health care--a key issue for SEIU members, nearly half of whom work in that industry. There's Dean's stance against the war in Iraq, which is echoed by many SEIU leaders. And then there's Dean's combative personality, which Stern says is a major plus, especially for black and Latino members: "People of color are angry with Bush. They like a guy who talks tough and tells it like it is."

For Dean, the importance of the endorsement cannot be overstated. The support of a union composed of low-wage workers, more than a third of whom are minorities, helps counter the perception that Dean is the candidate of latte liberals. More important, his campaign will get a boost in crucial primary states that are SEIU strongholds: California, New York, and Florida, not to mention New Hampshire, where the SEIU is the state's biggest union.

Among political professionals, the consensus now is that the nomination is Dean's to lose. He has the most money, the best organization, and the only message that's caught fire with hard-core Democrats. And by winning over the SEIU and AFSCME, he delivered a crippling blow to the candidate I'd argue was his most dangerous rival, longtime union favorite Dick Gephardt. The larger question, though, is how Dean would fare against Bush in the fall--and here the consensus among Democratic pros is broadly, at times despairingly, pessimistic.

When I asked Stern for his assessment, he allowed that electability is a concern, but then made the case that Dean is more plausible than the insiders believe. "In order to win, you have to stand for something," he said. "We tried Bush Lite in 2000 and got run over. You have to have money, which he clearly does. And you have to be able to energize the Democratic base and attract new voters, which he demonstrated he could do with our union." Stern paused. "I had my doubts, but he's growing on me. And I don't see anyone else who has a chance."

If Dean secures the Democratic nomination--even if he's then trounced by Bush--Stern's standing in the labor movement will inevitably be enhanced. That's what happened in 1992, when AFSCME president Gerry McEntee came out early for Bill Clinton. McEntee is Stern's main rival to become the next head of the AFL-CIO. But although McEntee is backing Dean, he's seen as having clambered aboard the train simply because it was leaving the station. With the SEIU's continuing growth, and with Stern likely having the support of current AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, who ran the SEIU before Stern and was his mentor, Stern would be the clear front-runner to become organized labor's next Maximum Leader.

For those who care about the future of labor, beating Bush is the brass ring. But if the elevation of Stern turns out to be the consolation prize, then nominating Dean will have had at least one virtue.