Saturday, January 21, 2012

Something’s Rotten Inside SEIU: A Loyalist Laments the Ouster of Stephen Lerner

Something’s Rotten Inside SEIU: A Loyalist Laments the Ouster of Stephen Lerner

By Anonymous

Stephen Lerner, the long-time SEIU leader and staffer who was the architect of the union’s signature Justice for Janitors campaign, has been ousted by Mary Kay Henry, SEIU’s newish president.  His ouster exposes the culture of fear, rigidity, and conformism that has taken root inside the union since she became its leader less than 2 years ago.

I am a career SEIU staffer, with many years at the International.  I am in the labor movement to help make a difference in the lives of working people, and I am excited to go to work every day because I continue to believe the labor movement is the best hope we have for turning the tide of injustice that has washed up in the United States over the last 35 years or so, leaving the shore littered with the worst income inequality since the 1920s.  I have maintained this faith (definition: firm belief in something for which there is no proof) despite the fact that the labor movement as a whole has been in a seemingly unstoppable decline as long as I have been a member.  And yet, I have taken pride in the accomplishments of SEIU, which has grown to 2 million members even as the rest of the labor movement has declined, and serves as a progressive voice nationally and in many state and local battles against injustice.

SEIU has been attacked in recent years from the right and the left.  I think the rightwing attacks are the result of SEIU's effectiveness in organizing, politics, and policy fights.  The leftwing attacks escalated with the International's trusteeship of left darling Sal Roselli and his leadership at Bay Area-based United Healthcare Workers West in 2009, and increased with Andy Stern's wrong-headed intervention in the dispute between Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm at Unite Here in 2010. 

Through it all, I have remained a loyal SEIU staffer, playing my role, signing up for extra assignments, and enthusiastically supporting the election of Mary Kay Henry to take Andy Stern's place as SEIU president in 2010.  But despite her winning public personality and progressive positions, the internal culture at SEIU under Mary Kay has taken a turn toward the dark side.  Jokes about the purple Kool-Aid at SEIU headquarters in Washington, DC are plentiful, but unfortunately, as with all the best jokes, there is a dark truth underlying them that threatens to undermine what I believe is the best hope the labor movement has to remain relevant in the U.S.

SEIU, as most vibrant unions and political organizations, operates under the basic principles of democratic centralism.  Decision-making bodies (generally the board) make democratic decisions after vigorous internal debate and hearing of all sides, and then everybody consolidates around those decisions and carries out the agreed-upon program.  This process served SEIU extremely well during the presidencies of John Sweeney and Andy Stern, a 30-year period that saw SEIU undertake tremendous internal change in order to transform itself into the most dynamic labor union in the country.  When I arrived at the International, I found an energetic internal culture that embraced diversity, welcomed debate, and encouraged the honest exchange of ideas and criticism among staff and leaders.  Big changes in direction followed months, sometimes years of meetings, debate, and struggle, among rank-and-file, local and international staff and leaders, and resulted in programs that had strong and deep support across the union.

This culture faded in the last years of the Andy Stern era, as major initiatives came absent the careful internal process that had characterized earlier major decisions.  As a result, the union was not as unified behind these initiatives, and people learned that voicing their concerns or opposition to them resulted in their being excluded from future discussions and decision-making.  Stern's inner circle became a bubble populated with yes-people, with those offering criticism shunted to the outside.

When Stern retired and Mary Kay Henry won a quick insurgent victory against his designated successor, Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, most of us believed that the vibrant culture we had once known would return.  On the contrary, despite Henry's kinder and gentler personality, she has presided over a drastic tightening of the spigot of debate inside the union.  Henry's signature campaign, the Fight for a Fair Economy, was designed to change the U.S. political environment to focus on job creation.  It came to nothing until the abrupt emergence of Occupy Wall Street, which has succeeded at changing the political environment by focusing public attention on economic inequality.

But the Fight for a Fair Economy was conceived by a handful of Henry's trusted lieutenants, led by an organizer named Scott Courtney, who headed healthcare organizing when Henry led the union's healthcare division, and who managed her successful campaign for the SEIU presidency when Stern retired.  Courtney has clamped down on dissent, with Henry's evident approval, and there is no case that illustrates this development more than the treatment of Stephen Lerner (although some might argue that the marginalization of Executive Vice President Jerry Hudson is equally illustrative).

Lerner is the long-time leader of SEIU's organizing among property service workers, the architect of the signature Justice for Janitors campaign that began under Sweeney and continued under Stern, and one of the strongest voices for a smarter and more strategic approach to organizing in the private sector in the labor movement. He is a visionary who is constantly churning out ideas for progressive activism.  And after decades in the labor movement, he has a deep and broad network of connections to progressive activists in many communities and walks of life.  For recent articles that illustrate Lerner’s vision and accomplishments, see this Alternet interview, and this Harold Meyerson column. 

One would think that this profile would put Lerner at the center of Henry's effort to change the U.S. political environment.  Instead, Scott Courtney evidently felt threatened by Lerner's personality, vision, success, public profile, and who knows what else. Rather than figure out how to harness Lerner’s energy and creativity to help make the Fight for a Fair Economy a success, for the last year Courtney has pushed Lerner to the side, with Henry’s evident approval, sending a clear message to other staff to toe the line or face a similar fate.
The major difference between Lerner and Courtney appears to be that Lerner continues to argue that Wall Street and the banks make a terrific target for campaigning, while Courtney evidently thinks they distract from the fight for good jobs.  Since Occupy Wall Street has succeeded by targeting Wall Street and the banks as the 1% that have wrongfully taken from the 99%, and since SEIU has adopted the Occupy Wall Street frame as its mantra (sample headline from SEIU website: Congress: Represent the People, Not Just the 1%), one would think that this would be a distinction without a difference, but one would be wrong.  Lerner just submitted his resignation rather than get fired.

The real problem is that many SEIU locals have not bought into the Fight for a Fair Economy, or have done so half-heartedly at best, including some of the largest locals in the union.  At the same time, they have enthusiastically endorsed and supported the Occupy movement, as has SEIU as a whole.  The idea that Lerner is responsible for the lack of enthusiasm of many SEIU locals is laughable.  But the thought that SEIU is using locals’ lukewarm reception to the International program to justify ousting one of its smartest and most successful organizers, rather than figuring out how to put his talent to work to help get us out of our rut, is just sad and infuriating.  It exemplifies the brittle current state of the internal culture at SEIU, and it makes me fear for the future of my union, the labor movement as a whole, and the struggle for a just society in the U.S.


  1. For more on Courtney, see

  2. Hey Purple Union Jo-
    Boy are you a slow learner or a poor smeller?--it took the purge of LIttle Stephen to expose "something rotten in SEIU"--to wit, "a culture of fear, rigidity, and conformism." Lerner's past slavish devotion to Stern and all his works has been justly rewarded. The "dark truth' about SEIU you seem to have only recently discovered has been plain for many to see and personally experience in CNA, FMPR, UHW, and Unite Here for quite a while now. Thanks so much, though, for confirming, as a union insider, my own account of "the last years of the Stern era" and the likely trajectory of his successor in The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, published last year by Haymarket books.
    Keep up the anonymous, published hand-wringing about whatever happened to the good ld days of SEIU "democratic centralism"--your new blog is almost as sad, funny, and revealing as any post on Sternburgerwithfries! Fraternally, Steve Early

  3. If you aren't Stephen Lerner than you have to be one of his former loyal and now disgruntled staffers. As a former insider looking out and now as an outsider looking in I must say your vision has been quite blurred by the purple smoke emanating from whatever it is your superiors have you smoking. Its blogs like this that remind me how different it really is behind the walls of the castle. If you really believed what you are spewing here you wouldn't be anonymous.


    Jed Smith

  4. Thanks, Anonymous, for bringing forward information and insights into what is going on in the top circles of SEIU as we begin 2012. I worked for SEIU Local 660, later 721, in Los Angeles for many years and saw first hand the unprincipled and harmful practices by Andy Stern, especially in his later years as president. I also saw the role that Mary Kay Henry and Stephen Lerner played in helping Stern carry out the bullying of others, and the sell-out deals to further Stern's own agenda (whether it helped workers or not, and in the later years it mostly did not.) What good the three of them did in their earlier years has been seriously undermined by the damage done to SEIU and its members, other unions and millions of workers, and the turmoil and disunity Sternism caused in the labor movement as a whole. Thanks again for your post, and keep them coming.

    Paul Krehbiel

  5. Seiu is a sad union. Organizer's live in fear of getting fired at anytime.

  6. I am 15 year worker for Kaiser Permanente. I was once a shop steward, the Local 250 days, attended meetings, discussed contract negotiations, went to rallies, etc. SEIU had a lot of promise and it seemed strong amongst other unions in the country. Then the takeover began and all we saw were various people throughout the hospitals and clinics who we didn't know. They set up their tables and asked for signatures and showed colorful pamphlets promising to "rescue" us and touting their greatness. They asked us questions about what we wanted to see changed and took surveys however nothing ever came about. Once the first election between SEIU and NUHW took place everyone disappeared. Which was a relief because people were becoming rather annoying. A few times I claimed to be part of CNA just to avoid talking to union reps. I can honestly say that there is a strong feeling of anger with SEIU and their scare tactics. They want us to feel lucky because of the economic situation even though Kaiser brings in record profits. Our Union President and minions make more money then the surgeons and and doctors, yet we are told that we have to make a sacrifice for the sake of better care. Nobody wants SEIU, except the inexperienced union reps that were left behind, and you can't find any help when you are in need. SEIU has become a bosses union and along the way I voted against the uniting of one huge California union in UHW and against the labor/managment partnership. You could see from years ago the central leadership taking over and the clipping of the wings by management. Unions are suppose to out fear into managers not go hand in hand. Now it seems that we are stuck within a crumbling castle that is just a complete joke in the minds of the workers. I know someone who has printed out paperwork and is going worker to worker, clinic to clinic, in Northern California, getting people to sign off on not paying union dues all together. If you must join them at least don't give them your money. We spend over $1000 yearly to be part of SEIU and haven't seen anyone for a year and a half. Even prisoners get to see their jailers everyday. SEIU will one day be a footnote in Americas labor movement and it doesn't seem the mention will be that kind.

  7. SEIU destroys staff unions

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  9. It appears Mary Kay Henry gets rid of anyone in her way. I applaud you for releasing this piece. Who knows how she will react. Thats were it starts...bravery. Exposing without fear of reprisal.
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