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.”

FEATURE:
Workers of the World, Adapt! By Samuel Hughes

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/10/06