Former SEIU member on Stern: ‘Not brutish enough’

Mike Riggs Contributor
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Writing at the Awl, Natasha Vargas-Cooper, formerly of the SEIU, complains that Andy Stern wasn’t ‘brutish’ enough to reform the mega union:

With such merciless ambition, it was feared—really, it was prophesied—that Stern would roll over for employers just as long as he was able to grow the ranks of union membership. Weak contracts or not, the goal, whether for virtuous or ignoble reasons, was to organize workers by any means necessary.

If only.

I quit working for SEIU because Stern wasn’t brutish enough. The blood bath of indolent staffers and dinosaur union bosses never happened on the scale it was supposed to. We never got the controversial or “watered-down” contracts with mega-employers because the union was constantly fighting off rival unions or rogue local chapters. When we weren’t spending our resources on state-by-state skirmishes with other unions, we were fighting off decertification campaigns from within. From 2007 to 2009, SEIU largely stopped organizing workers at all. If anything, Stern’s last years in office proved that the individual determinism and zealotry of one man, though charismatic and influential, was no match against labor’s warring chieftains.

Vargas-Cooper goes on to detail the kinds of distractions Stern faced:

In the most frigid days of December, the national EFCA campaign coordinator and I camped outside of Stern’s office so we could beg for more staff to put in the field. He arrived from a day of meetings around 8 p.m., looking beleaguered. We made the case for beefing up the ground game. He picked up a memo that was on his desk. It was a 14-page health and safety report from the internal staff union of the SEIU, complaining about their office chairs, keyboards and the specter of carpal tunnel.

“They work in a beautiful five-story building built off the wages of janitors,” I remember Stern saying. “We’re broke from funding Obama, we have to pass EFCA, then health care reform. No one on the Hill will take us seriously because we’ve never moved policy like this before. And I can’t talk to you about staff right now because I have to respond to this memo.”

The irony is that the union members bitching about chairs are the same types of people Vargas-Cooper would be fighting for on the Hill. If Stern couldn’t whip those people into shape over the last decade and a half, who in the hell can do it going forward?