After 30 years in the trenches, Andy Stern has become the labor movement’s rising star. But can he change unions fast enough to save them?
By Samuel Hughes | Photography by Addison Geary
Andy Stern C’71 takes the microphone. He’s standing in the upstairs room of Fergie’s Pub in Center City Philadelphia, wearing a purple shirt and an expression of relaxed intensity. Watching him over mugs of beer are 60 or 70 men and women, some young, some middle-aged, some union-jacketed.
Given his stature these days, it’s a slightly surprising venue. Stern, the icon-smashing leader of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is the closest thing to a rock star the labor movement has, and his unpredictable brand of brainy populism is reaching audiences far past places like Fergie’s. Earlier in the day he was interviewed by Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, and earlier in the week he was bantering with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report. He’s been profiled by 60 Minutes and The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and as soon as he finishes talking tonight he’ll start signing copies of his new book—A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track (Free Press)—piles of which are stacked on the table behind him.
Stern warms up the crowd by talking about how much the city means to him—how, after he had been “sort of run out of the University of Pennsylvania” (a wry exaggeration that endears him to his audience), he became a unionized social worker here and stumbled onto his life’s mission because he heard there would be free pizza at a union meeting. He lets the crowd know his heart is still in the right place by telling them that he wrote the book for Marvin Parker, a security guard who’s worked at the same office building for nine years and still only makes $7 an hour and can’t get sick leave for an infected eye; for all the women who have been forced to declare bankruptcy because they can’t make ends meet; and for all the college kids who did everything they were supposed to and whose real earnings still dropped by 5 percent in recent years.
But just when it looks like he’s setting up to do the predictable Democratic Debbie Downer routine, he pivots. “I wrote this book because I love America,” he says, and he manages to say it without sounding schmaltzy. “I happen to think America is a gift. And its greatest gift is that for generation after generation, people came to its shores from all over the world. And all they wanted was to work hard, and all they hoped for was that their work would be valued and rewarded. But what they dreamed about was that their kid was going to do better than they did.”
He pauses for a micro-second and pivots again. For the first time in American history, a majority of parents now believe that their kids are going to be worse off, he warns. Wealth is no longer distributed equitably by the market or the government, and he fires off quotes from the likes of Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin and Warren Buffett to back up the assertion. Then he hits the power chord that sparks a throaty cheer:
“The only other way America has effectively distributed wealth has been through unions. No matter what you think about unions, they work. They’ve actually been the best getting-out-of-poverty program, best health-care program, pension program, Affirmative Action program, health-and-safety program America’s ever had. And here’s the good news: It didn’t cost the government a dime.”
Then, just as he has the crowd in the palm of his hand, he turns on the reality house-lights.
“Unions, unfortunately, forgot to change when the world changed,” he says, and that change is the “most profound, the most transformative, the most significant economic revolution in the history of the world. Now we’re trying to catch up with what we need to do. We need to be modern, dynamic, 21st-century unions.”
And once again, he’s off and running.
When you cut through all the rhetoric and media hype, you could make a case that Stern’s remarkable labor career boils down to the three words that he utters in the middle of a 45-minute phone interview from Miami International Airport:
“I hate failure.”
If that strikes you as motivational-seminar hooey (who doesn’t hate failure?), consider again. Unions have been hemorrhaging membership for decades. Many Americans view them as irrelevant at best and an impediment to progress at worst. As Stern sees it—and he has the vision thing down pretty well—it’s a matter of change or die.
“It’s hard to live life in any institution where almost every other day you’re losing your ability to do what you were formed to do and what your members are counting on you to do to help them,” he says, as the last-call-for-boarding announcements blare in the background. “I hate failure, so when things aren’t working, you need to do something differently.”
Even Stern’s enemies—and he does have a few—would probably concede that he’s not just blowing smoke. Stern is gentle-spoken over the phone, but when it comes to making decisions and planning strategy, he is both highly imaginative and brutally realistic.
“Our movement is going out of existence, and yet too many labor leaders go and shake their heads and say they’ll do something, and then they go back and do the same thing the next day,” Stern told The New York Times Sunday Magazine early last year. “I don’t have a lot of time to mince words, because I don’t think workers in our country have a lot of time left if we don’t change.”
And so he force-feeds them change. In doing so he has helped build the janitors and nursing-home workers and phone operators of the SEIU into the fastest-growing union in the country, with a membership (including retirees) of 1.8 million. Last year, he pulled the union out of the AFL-CIO, charging the leadership with having “failed to make the hard decisions and take the necessary steps to make the union movement grow again”—then, with six other national unions (including the Teamsters), formed a six-million-member coalition called Change to Win. It was a dramatic move, one that recalled John L. Lewis’ 1938 decision to pull the Congress of Industrial Organizations out of the American Federation of Labor, and it shook the labor movement to its core.
Whether it was a healthy kick in the pants for labor or another nail in its coffin remains to be seen, but the break solidified Stern’s reputation as a maverick, especially in the press, which has taken a professional fancy to this “new breed of union boss.”
In the Information Age, a media-savvy leader has a distinct advantage over rivals. Stern is not only articulate, innovative, and personable; he also knows the value of catchy symbols. His chosen color is purple, which is now the official hue of the SEIU, and to help keep the brand in the public eye he has started an SEIU blog called PurpleOcean.org. Go to the SEIU website (www.seiu.org) and you can find, along with more information about the union than you ever wanted to know, a cache of serious stories about Andy Stern.
The media valentines don’t just come from the usual left-leaning suspects. Conservative commentator George Will devoted an admiring column to Stern last year, and pronounced him “today’s most important—perhaps the only really important—labor leader.” BusinessWeekhailed him as “Labor’s New Face,” and cautiously opined that if his new strategies succeed, “labor’s future may look brighter than it has in years.” After hearing Stern speak at a dinner, a Fortunereporter concluded: “Stern left some people thinking he should drop this union thing and run for President.” (For the record, Stern says he has absolutely no interest. But still.)
Not everyone in the labor movement is thrilled with Stern’s tactics or his talent for generating publicity. “A rather small peacock,” is how Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists, described him, according to The New York Times. “He’s trying to corporatize the labor movement. When you listen to him talk, it’s all about market share. It’s about loss and gain. It’s about producers and consumers. I think he’s enamored of all the glitz and hype of the Wall Street types. He must be a fan of Donald Trump. I think he wants his own TV show.”
Buffenbarger comes off as something of a dinosaur in the Times piece, so it’s not surprising that when I call the IAM to request an interview, its communications director hears the name Andy Sternand has a one-word answer. “No.” Pressed for a reason, he sighs: “I guess the best way to say it is, we’re sort of tired of the self-promotion. Enjoy your alum.”
Stern doesn’t particularly enjoy being called names, but he’s got bigger fish to fry. “If I don’t have the courage to do what my members put me here to do, then how do I ask a janitor or a child-care worker to go in and see a private-sector employer and say, ‘We want to have a union in this place’?” Stern told the Times. “What’s my risk? That some people won’t like me? Their risk is that they lose their jobs.”
He puts it another way at Fergie’s: “Change is inevitable. Progress is optional.”
Given the overall state of the labor union, change sounds good. But what does it mean?
For starters, it means keeping up with the widening gyre of globalism. Stern has been pounding the concept of global unions, and has been working with unions in traditional labor strongholds like Britain as well as traveling to China to meet with that nation’s government-controlled union—even talking about “outsourcing” strikes and other labor actions. ($10,000 will go a lot farther to sustain a janitors’ strike against a multinational corporation in Indonesia than it will against the same company in the U.S.) Whether that’s a feasible approach—and whether he will be able to convince the rank and file of its wisdom—remains to be seen. But in a world where more of the 100 largest economic entities are companies (52) than countries (48), a new set of rules will inevitably apply.
“Workers of the world, unite! is not a slogan or ideology,” he tells his audience at Fergie’s. “It’s about a simple fact of life that, when you work for the same employer, those workers only have strength when they unite together. We don’t get it in the U.S.; we still don’t get it in our own labor union, but at the meeting we’re having [this] month in Geneva, we’re going to try to start the first vestiges of global unionism in security and property service—and it needs to spread like wildfire throughout the world.”
Change also means getting real with employers. Though Stern is no stranger to old-fashioned power tactics like strikes and “shaming” techniques (he started Wal-Mart Watch in order to force the giant corporation to improve its wages and health-care benefits), he freely admits that the old “class-struggle mentality” is often a “vestige of an earlier, rough era of industrial unions.” (After years of bad blood between the SEIU and Kaiser Permanente Health Care, he called Kaiser CEO David Lawrence on the phone and said simply: “We need to change our relationship.” They did.) Now he asks questions like, “How could we build relationships with employers that added value to their businesses as well as to our workers’ paychecks?”
Sometimes change comes in the form of ideas that are revolutionary only in their practicality. Stern envisions a new organization that he describes as a kind of “AARP for workers,” which would offer “advocacy on things like debt and college loans” and allow members to buy their own health care and manage their retirement collectively; it would be funded through dues and service fees.
Health care is a huge issue for Stern, and one that could conceivably win him a following among employers as well as employees. He recently wrote an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal, “Horse and Buggy Health Coverage,” in which he basically challenged the nation’s CEOs to start lobbying for the one reform that could save them from the death-spiral of health-care costs: national health care. (“I understand why CEOs are afraid of health-care costs. What I don’t understand is why they are so timid about doing something about them.”) The article, which he also sent out in the form of a letter to the CEOs of every Fortune 500 company, touched a responsive chord among the nation’s most powerful employers, some of whom contacted him personally.
“The truth is that employer-based health care will not work,” he says. “We cannot ask American employers to put the cost of health care on the cost of their products, and then compete with countries around the world that don’t.”
His notion of change also crosses party lines. Though hardly a Republican by temperament or philosophy, his disillusionment with the stagnant elements of the Democratic Party has led him to build some bridges to the GOP. In 2004 the SEIU was the “largest contributor to both the Democratic andthe Republican Governors’ Associations, a fact that confused both party establishments,” he notes, adding that his union regularly employs Republican advisors. And while he worked hard on behalf of John Kerry in 2004, he encouraged the SEIU’s locals to endorse Howard Dean before the primaries, and was quoted in The Washington Post as saying that it might be better for the party and the unions if Kerry lost the election.
But for all the big ideas and talk of change, Stern still walks the walk as a vigorous, tenacious organizer who likes to get his hands dirty doing the basic union stuff: organizing new workers, speaking at rallies, walking picket lines, and leading campaigns with names like Justice for Janitors; Dignity, Rights, and Respect; and We’re Worth It! That sort of grass-roots action he views as “essential” to staying in touch with the issues confronted by the rank and file. It also gives him a certain street cred, in the eyes of both the union employees and the press.
“The trade-union movement has become moribund, and I think it’s a good story to see a latter-day John L. Lewis pick up the pieces and build new momentum,” says Dr. Walter Licht, professor of history, who has spent much of his professional career studying the labor movement. “He’s got all the characteristics the press can take to—he’s young, good-looking, energetic, with an Ivy League degree no less. He’s also interested in organizing the seemingly unorganizable—the minorities in the lower service-level positions. It’s not a movement where you can find many figures like that.
“But in spite of the great press, I don’t think he’s made a great mark on the public realm,” Licht says. “In the past, when you had a John L. Lewis, the press corps followed him and everyone knew who he was. Today, if you took a poll and asked, ‘Who’s Andy Stern?’—would 10 percent of the American public even know who he is?”
He is not your Central Casting labor leader.Growing up in a white-collar Jewish family in West Orange, New Jersey, Stern assumed he would become a lawyer like his father and grandfather. Apart from spending one summer serving water and picking up trash at a local swim club, which taught him that “service workers at the beck and call of others are largely invisible and are expected to suffer indignities in silence,” his upbringing was not exactly working-class. His Ivy League education still prompts some snickers from old-school union guys, and in his book Stern admits that not having a humble union background sometimes makes him feel “inadequate” when he’s around other labor leaders swapping stories about their roots.
When he was 13, the celebratory mood of his bar mitzvah was dampened by the fact that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated two days before. And by the time he arrived at Penn in the fall of 1967, the times were a-changin’, even if the University wasn’t always keeping up.
“Penn required its male students to wear ties to dinner, and students were served by student waiters wearing white gloves,” he recalls in his book. “The idea of being waited on by my peers made me squirm.” When some of the more politically oriented freshmen tore off their ties and demanded less formal and privileged meals, Stern was “all too happy to join them.”
He took part in another protest to stop a parking lot proposed for an open green space near Superblock. His self-described role? “Food vendors to the revolutionaries.” The food co-op he had co-founded supplied food to the protestors, and he and his confreres “took shifts squatting in tents on the construction site to prevent the workers from bulldozing the site or the police from cordoning off the area.”
One of Stern’s closest friends and roommates at Penn was Andrew Gilman C’73 GEd’73, who has since been a lawyer and journalist and is now president of CommCore Consulting Group in Washington. “It wasn’t just that we wanted to protest,” says Gilman. There were a lot of very positive things we were trying to do, and many different ways in which we were trying” to effect change.
“Andy can outwork anyone I know,” Gilman adds. “He has unbelievable energy—from the way he threw his organizing energy into the food co-op to the way he organized our camping trips to the way he put the house together when there were several people living under one roof.”
“I should have applied some of that energy to my studies,” Stern admits in his book. “The University was happy to see me graduate with the informal distinction of having attended the least number of classes in Penn’s undergraduate history.” He now says he wishes he had “paid more attention” to business during his brief time at Wharton, because “it’s taken the union movement and myself a long time to appreciate what they’re teaching at Wharton—what are the challenges facing business leaders, particularly now in a global economy.”
I ask Gilman if he’s at all surprised by Stern’s remarkable success in a difficult field.
“No,” he responds quickly. “It goes back to: One, you have someone with an idea, a vision. Two, he’s a very smart guy. Three, he has the ability to work harder than anybody else. Four, he’s a nice guy, and he gets people who want to work with him. Put all those things together and you’re going to end up with someone who’s successful, whether it’s a union leader or a business leader or a not-for-profit leader.”
After graduating from Penn and bumming around Europe and New England, Stern returned to Philadelphia and landed a job as a social worker in the Vine District Welfare Office. What he assumed would be his last stop before law school turned out to be the beginning of his life’s work.
As a caseworker, he automatically became a member of Local 668 of the Pennsylvania Social Service Union (PSSU), a chartered affiliate of SEIU. At a lunchtime PSSU meeting, which he attended at least partly because of the free pizza, Stern kept eating and listening as most of the employees drifted out. The union’s staff representative came over and asked Stern his name, whispered something in the shop steward’s ear, and announced that nominations for the post of assistant shop steward were open. Then, Stern writes: “Without asking for my approval, he nominated me, called immediately for the vote, and, within moments, declared my election unanimous. In less than 10 seconds my most profound work-life decision had been made.”
Pennsylvania was fertile territory for a would-be labor leader, with a rich and sometimes-bloody labor history—and an industrial landscape that was gradually becoming post-industrial. Stern threw himself into his new avocation, going to meetings, helping to write and produce the chapter newsletter, and becoming a member of the countywide labor-management team. At night, he audited labor-law courses at Temple University.
As an upstart who did not shy away from a fight, he soon found the union structure to be authoritarian and stifling. One day, he and the Philadelphia chapter’s officers were suspended without notice from their staff jobs and charged with “fabricated accusations of promoting disaffiliation from SEIU and financial improprieties,” he recalls. Though they were exonerated and reinstated, “the message was clear: promoting change wasn’t welcomed.” Stern, accompanied by more than a hundred rank-and-file members, descended on Harrisburg for a raucous hearing. The SEIU president, he writes, “wisely chose to reinstate all of the officers and cancel my suspension.”
When Stern was elected president of the local union the following year, his running mate was a young staff member (and future Friends of the Earth president) from central Pennsylvania named Jane Perkins. A decade later they married, and over the next 20 years raised their two children, Cassie and Matt, together. (The couple has since divorced.)
“I led and won and lost some of the longest strikes in public-sector history in Pennsylvania, and learned a lot the hard way,” he writes, including a “valuable lesson about the disgraceful pressures sometimes brought to bear against workers” who “simply want to select their own representative to work with management on behalf of their issues.”
The fact that Stern came up through the ranks at a time when labor’s tectonic plates were shifting clearly shaped him, as did labor’s tangled political connections to the Democratic Party.
“Here’s a guy who comes into trade unionism in the mid-to-late ’70s, then begins to find a career in leadership in the ’80s,” says Walter Licht. “He’s coming of age in a period when you had this beginning break in what had been a very strong link between the Democratic Party and labor. That link was not just ideological but personal. Their leaders would go drinking together, go to the same clubs together. He’s coming of age when that whole dynamic is absolutely gone.”
After he became president of the SEIU’s political council in 1980 and got a seat on the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO’s executive board, Stern tried to make some changes in the state AFL-CIO, convening a meeting with some of the state’s most powerful union leaders. But as soon as they realized that they had enough votes to replace the AFL-CIO’s leadership, he says, the new leaders shunted him aside, and he watched as their conversation “devolved into the divvying up of officer positions, side deals, and promises, rather than a discussion of how to benefit workers.”
One reason behind the union’s declining membership was that they had neglected to take seriously the role of organizing new workers, which had become, in Stern’s words, a “low-prestige function.” Organizing the SEIU’s janitors and other cleaning-service personnel—many of them immigrants—was a significant challenge. When John Sweeney, then president of the SEIU, offered Stern the chance to head the union’s national-organizing and field-services activities, Stern went at it with gusto. For the next 12 years, with Sweeney’s full support, Stern helped the SEIU grow from less than 600,000 members to more than a million.
But the realities of the marketplace weren’t always compatible with his goals. When unionized cleaning contractors complained they were losing accounts to nonunion competitors who didn’t have to pay union wages and benefits, a light-bulb went on over Stern’s head. Instead of forcing unionized employers into a competitive disadvantage with their nonunion counterparts, he concluded, “our priority should be to contribute to employers’ success by organizing alltheir competitors.” If wages become like electricity bills and employers all pay the same rates, “then efficiency, innovation, and quality will drive success.”
Though it seemed like an obvious, win-win solution to him, “finding employers to meet us halfway or even part of the way was nearly impossible,” he admits. Which led him back to those old-school tactics—or some new variations on them. While he and the other SEIU leadership “preferred to lead with the power of persuasion,” he notes, “with many resistant employers we were often left no choice but to use the persuasion of power.”
Dr. Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at Penn, first noticed Stern when he was starting the Justice for Janitors campaign.
“My initial impression was that he was taking a pretty aggressive and savvy sort of approach,” says Cappelli. “The labor movement was not exactly full of innovative thinkers then; most of them were stuck in the old models of collective bargaining, and just getting the heck beat out of them by employers. What’s particularly novel about his leadership is his effort to not just confront employers and put pressure on them but to grab the moral high ground. In that sense it’s a throwback to the United Farm Workers approach, but whereas the farm-workers’ approach was relying on guilt, this is more sophisticated.”
So is his political maneuvering. After he helped run Sweeney’s successful 1995 campaign for president of the AFL-CIO, “the brash and ambitious Stern maneuvered to replace him as head of the SEIU,” wrote Matt Bai in his Times Sunday Magazineprofile. “Before an election could be held, Sweeney left the [SEIU] in the hands of a top lieutenant [Dick Cordtz], who wasted no time in firing Stern and having him escorted from the building. As Stern tells the story, he vowed that he wouldn’t set foot back in the L Street headquarters unless he was moving into the president’s fifth-floor offices. Six weeks later, his reform-minded allies in the locals helped get him elected, and he became, at 45, the youngest president in the union’s history.”
Since some of Stern’s tactics have caused his detractors to accuse him of creating a “cult of personality,” I ask Cappelli if it’s important for the labor movement to have a face or personality that people can associate with the movement.
“I think it is important to have a spokesperson,” he says. “Whether it’s important to have somebody who becomes the personification of it is a little trickier. It’s sort of hard for that not to happen, when you have to have someone to comment on events. Putting a face to the argument you’re making is much more powerful than just having a press secretary issue a statement. It’s part of modern marketing—it just makes sense for them to do it.”
And as cults of personality go, this one seems pretty tame, says Walter Licht. “He certainly loves attention, and he’s been very adept at bringing attention to himself in the vacuum of leadership. But I think any criticism of a ‘cult of personality’ is overblown, especially compared to the union leadership figures of the past.”
Stern says he has plenty of people around him who keep his head from getting too swollen. “One of the nice things about our union is, if you’re around our members enough, it’s a profound grounding experience—or, if you’re around my son enough, it’s even more profound,” he says, then quickly reframes the discussion. “My question is always, ‘How is what I do and say not just my voice, but the voice of 1.9 million people who are so often unheard in our society?’ It’s not about who I am. It’s really about who I represent.”
When Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO in 1995, it represented an “energetic moment,” in Walter Licht’s words. Sweeney was not known for his charisma, but he was considered a forward-looking leader. “He called for a new dynamism, reached out to young unionists and academics, and pushed the recruitment of college kids,” says Licht. “But Stern is sort of right there, and you get the feeling that he’s pushing Sweeney’s buttons.”
Stern himself acknowledges that for a time after Sweeney’s election, “it seemed that the AFL-CIO was heading in the right direction.” It revamped its political strategies and regained some of its once-formidable political clout, and by the 2000 presidential election, union households produced 26 percent of the nation’s voters, despite representing only 15 percent of the electorate. Politicians noticed.
But it wasn’t enough for Stern, and at the SEIU’s 2004 convention in San Francisco, he threw down the gauntlet: “Either change the AFL-CIO, or build something stronger.” The AFL-CIO, he argued, had failed to “confront its own underlying structural impediments and those of its affiliates,” failed to refocus on membership growth, and failed to “modernize its strategic approaches to employers in order to take into account their competitive business needs.”
When the changes weren’t forthcoming a year later, the SEIU pulled out of the mother federation and joined with six other major unions to create the Change to Win Coalition.
Stern’s walkout “is being cast as a clash of egos, the latest death knell for organized labor, or trouble for the Democrats,” wrote Matt Miller in Fortuneshortly after the split. “The truth is, Stern’s move is possibly the most significant economic event of the year,” partly because he is “in the early stages of something truly ambitious: forging new organizing models and public policies to reward work fairly.”
“The political tragedy of this, which is Shakespearean in its dimensions, is that John Sweeney came into the AFL-CIO as a kind of reformer, and was now seen as the conservative,” says Peter Cappelli. “But the dispute was really important and meaningful—and it had better be, if you’re going to do something as drastic” as pull out of the AFL-CIO.
The dispute boiled down to money and strategy. Stern wanted to put his money into organizing new workers. Sweeney, who had given Stern the go-ahead to do just that back when he was head of the SEIU, believed that the AFL-CIO’s top priority should be supporting political candidates. (He did not respond to an interview request.)
While there are “great reasons to support and be sympathetic” to Stern’s desire to focus on organizing and mobilizing, says Licht, “Sweeney has a good point—that the trade-union movement has only succeeded when it has the political power to get sympathetic figures into office. That kind of political fight takes funds—giving to politicians who are pro-labor. But the conundrum then is that the center is holding too much money when the money could be used in organizing.”
Tom Cronin, president of the Philadelphia-based District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), doesn’t buy some of Stern’s reasons.
“One thing [Stern] was saying is that too much money was being given to the Democratic Party or to politicians—yet the SEIU is one of the leading unions in giving money to politicians,” says Cronin, whose union is still a part of the AFL-CIO. “The other issue is organizing. Some of the other Change to Win unions also had made complaints about organizing, but how much do the Teamsters organize or want to organize?
“I think history has to see whether some of the reasons [Stern] gave turn out to be accurate or an improvement,” he adds. “But I’m clear and firm on my position that these people leaving the AFL-CIO is not a good thing at this particular point in our history.”
The split “could have shattered the trade-union movement,” Licht notes. “You could have had blood in the streets, both verbal and literal. Sixty, seventy years ago, there would have been literal blood. In this case it is remarkable how soft the split has been. There’s been a critique, in some ways well-warranted, but I expected a much more venomous critique. All sides are being careful not to go on the attack.”
The AFL-CIO’s shrinkage caused some union workers to lose their jobs. While Stern has said bluntly that a union’s function is not to provide employment, he acknowledges that the move was not without a downside.
“The positive result is that we formed an organization with seven unions who know that the old ways aren’t going to take us successfully into the future, to represent 50 million jobs in the service sector that will be a significant part of the new economy, that are not as likely to be offshore, and that will have a lot to do with whether the American Dream will survive,” he says. “The negative consequence would be that we’re not as big as when we were together with other unions in the AFL-CIO.”
At the same time, though, “we realize that you don’t have to be in the same organization to share the same goals and to work on certain things together,” says Stern. “A model of unionism that relies upon Democrats taking power or upon externalizing change—rather than dealing with what can be changed on your own—has a limited future.”
“I did not make the decision to force the issue of reform lightly,” he writes in A Country That Works. “I had enormous respect for John Sweeney, his union career, and his many accomplishments. The decision was excruciating.”What gave him some of the strength to make that decision was an event that he describes in anguished detail as “the most devastating loss in my life.”
“Four years ago, at age 13, my daughter, Cassie, died in my arms and shattered my world,” writes Stern. He talks about his daughter lovingly in his book, which he dedicates to her and to his son, Matt. Cassie had difficult health issues all her life, he notes, including scoliosis and a difficulty gaining weight or height. But she “compensated for her small size by being the most determined person I have ever met. She would ask anything, argue about everything, and she never gave ground.”
Her death “was a life-altering moment of a most profound nature—one of those nightmares you hope you only dream about and never live through,” he says. “It makes you understand what’s important in a very fundamental way, and it makes you cherish the relationships you have, whether with family, partners, friends, in a very different way. It was just completely life-altering.”
In his book, he says that Cassie’s death “challenged me to look deeply inside myself and ask hard questions about my beliefs and my fears. That questioning made me more determined to confront challenges head-on, and to make the most of the gift of living and to fight with that much more determination for the things that really matter in life.”
And yet, fighting is not something new for Andy Stern.
“He’s not afraid of raising conflict or doing something different,” says his old friend Andy Gilman. “Anybody who thinks this is a newfound aspect of him is kidding themselves. He’s been looking to do things positively for everybody in every situation he’s been involved in.”
Back at Fergie’s Pub,Stern is still talking about change. His audience is still listening. Raptly.
“The best way to change perception is to change reality,” he says, “and the truth is the labor movement needs to change a lot of reality before it changes perception.
“We are the winds of change. America is at the most important, critical economic point in its history, and we can make the difference. I have a kid who’s 20 years old, and I think: What have I done my whole life? Because my legacy is: Will I leave an America where my kid is worse off than me?
“The question right now is: Are we going to have progress?” Stern asks. The question seems to hang in the air, shimmering. “And I will say this to you: If we all put our minds to it, if we all lift our voices, we’re at a moment in history where people are looking for leadership—and we are its leaders.”