Something’s Rotten Inside SEIU: A Loyalist Laments the Ouster of Stephen Lerner
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
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 Washington, DC 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
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. U.S.
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
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. U.S.
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