The successor to Andrew Stern as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had come down to his two top aides. Now it’s down to one. Late last week, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger announced that she had dropped out of the race for interim president, virtually assuring that the union’s executive board this week will name Executive Vice President Mary Kay Henry for that position. As each was a Stern ally – he’d referred to them as “lifelong partners” – the race was less about politics than personality and management style. In a letter withdrawing her candidacy, Burger termed Ms. Henry, who also heads the SEIU health care division, her “union sister” and stated she would work closely with her. Burger wrote: “The media is just wrong when they suggest that this contest represents a shift in SEIU’s priorities or a rejection of the Stern/Burger agenda.”
Andrew Stern, as noted here last week, announced at an April 14 Service Employees executive board meeting that he would be stepping down within a month. The move blindsided many observers. But after 14 years of running the union and nearly 25 years before that serving it in various capacities, stepping down may have been Stern’s way of taking a breather from internecine battles borne largely of his aggressive centralizing management style. Last month he won a hollow court victory over Sal Rosselli, head of the huge California SEIU affiliate United Healthcare Workers-West; Rosselli had spun that union off as an independent entity, National Union of Healthcare Workers, triggering an SEIU lawsuit. Progressive-Left activists, who sided with Rosselli, saw a pending Burger-Henry showdown as almost irrelevant, a race between two people possessed of Stern’s view that size takes precedence over sound contracts. An editorial in the union activist-edited monthly periodical Labor Notes sardonically noted that the contest was about “which successor to Stern’s throne would best carry on its mission to quickly expand the union by offering value to corporations.”
The possibilities for reconciliation with Rosselli’s union under Mary Kay Henry may not be good, especially given that she helped suppress the revolt by that union. But they’re probably better than under Stern’s continued leadership. In a campaign memo to union officials, she wrote, “Our local unions and divisions should drive our national priorities, not the other way around.” That message convinced many on the 73-member Service Employees International Union board, especially those associated with the huge New York-based affiliate United Healthcare Workers-East (Local 1199), that she was the right person for the job. “If Anna (Burger) would have gotten the nod, it would have been more of the same,” observed James Sherk, labor policy specialist with The Heritage Foundation. “With Ms. Henry, it’s too soon to say. Her stated platform is ‘back to roots,’ but how much she follows through is yet to be seen. Political influence and power can be addictive.” Andrew Stern’s resignation in some measure was a response to a view among many union members that he was addicted. That perception apparently played a role in Anna Burger’s withdrawal.