Andy Stern

Forget about politics as usual and forget about business as usual says this unionleader, who learned political organizing skills on campusduring the Vietnam War.

Photo by Jim Tynen


The president of America’s largest and fastest-growing labor union was once a Wharton student, studying to get ahead in business.

“After a year I realized it wasn’t the place for me,” laughs Andy Stern (C’72), international president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents more than 1.4 million service-industry employees across the United States.

The young Stern soon switched to the College, where he did an independent major involving education and urban planning, and got involved in community organizing.
Over the phone from SEIU headquarters in Washington, D.C., Stern talked about his progression from student activist to union leader.

Q. What was your time at Penn like?
When I went to school, there were three different things going on. One, it was the era of urban unrest, Black Panther parties, community-university tensions. Two was it was the Vietnam war, and three was the University was in a major cultural change. My class was the one that ended having to wear ties to meals and being served by waiters with white gloves. That was our first organizing activity.

I organized a food co-op over by the high-rises [in the Carriage House]. Upstairs, there was a community center where we tried to do work with mostly youth in the neighborhood. [Penn was] trying to build a parking garage on a park at 40th and Chestnut. We were trying to preserve the open space. We held on for about 15 years.

Q. How did you get involved in the labor movement?
The year was 1973. I was a social worker in Philadelphia. I had no idea what I wanted to do — I was resisting being a lawyer, because it didn’t seem like you could really change enough people’s lives quickly enough that way.

I was the last person in the room at a meeting when they were holding elections for assistant shop steward. I was new, and there was a lack of candidates. That began my union career.

Q. How did you move from the local level to the national?
[Then-president of SEIU, now AFL-CIO President] John Sweeney in 1983 called me the day after I decided to get married and was having a great vacation in New Hampshire, and he asked me to come to work for the national union to help bargaining and organizing.

The world was changing in terms of national nursing companies like Beverly Enterprises, national janitorial companies instead of local ones. The union was just not prepared, and the locals were just not prepared, for the kind of corporate challenges they faced. So we began to build a national staff for helping people bargain contracts as well as begin to think about organizing in a much bigger way.

We launched in 1985 this national Justice for Janitors campaign, which we’ve sustained now for 15 years with some enormously great victories. Especially this year. In Los Angeles we struck for three weeks, won the janitors over $2-an-hour wage increases. Full family health care in Los Angeles and Chicago, full-time jobs for the workers in Cleveland, and our local in New York was the first local in history to bargain computers for their janitors.

Q. The Justice for Janitors campaign was very controversial for the confrontational tactics it used. I remember they blocked a bridge in D.C.
For janitors, who tend to be very invisible to most people, it’s enormously hard to get the attention of owners in the community by traditional tactics. So we used a whole wide array of creative, non-violent tactics including civil disobedience.

These workers were as deserving as anyone in this society of some justice. We’ve grown by about 50,000 new janitorial workers since we began the campaign. More importantly, many cities now are making these jobs ones where you can raise a family, that are full time, that have health care, that have benefits, that pay people a living wage.

We’ve also spent the past 10 years organizing home care workers, who are predominantly women and people of color who take care of our parents and grandparents in their homes, without a voice at work, without a union. They all make minimum wage, no benefits. Last year we won the largest organizing drive in the country since 1937, when 74,000 home care workers in Los Angeles voted to join SEIU. We’ve passed a bill that will raise their wages to $11.50 by 2004 from $5.75 a year ago. Organizing works.

Q. What are the greatest advances SEIU and the labor movement have made in the past six years?
One was electing new leadership, from John Sweeney on down, who have gotten us talking to our members about issues in political elections, who’ve changed our policy on immigration, who’ve got unions out spending money to organize non-union workers.

We’ve gone from the back pages to the front pages of the American political scene, including all the work we’ve done to change the discussion about trade, workers’ rights, environmental rights and not just corporate rights in the world economy. We’re no longer irrelevant. Al Gore’s election — People will credit one of the [deciding] moments as when he got the endorsement of the labor movement in October 1999.

Two is changing the lives of low-wage workers. To allow people an organization where they can fight for themselves and have a chance of winning has always been the purpose of the labor movement. I just think at times we forgot it.

Q. What’s in the future for the labor movement?
We really do need to stop wringing our hands about immigrants and start extending them — the labor movement was built in the ’20s and ’30s by immigrant workers. Its next wave of growth is dependent upon joining hands with people who’ve come to this country, and seeing them as our allies, not our enemies. Our workers in Stamford, Conn. — we’ve been pressing the building owners there to raise their wages. One of the contractors decided to call everybody in and check their papers, which was a message about control and consequences for exercising your right to have a union.

It’s about changing the culture in America and the laws in America, about making the right to a voice at work or the right to organize be the workers’ choice. There’s an unfair advantage in this country, the ability for employers to coerce and intimidate people because they want to have their own independent voice.

It’s about holding politicians accountable to our issues, and not just being about Democrats and Republicans, but have politics be about issues that are important to our members. Stop telling them how to vote, but giving them the information they need to make up their own mind.

And finally it is building a global community, where trade and globalization lift everyone up and where the rights of people and the quality of our environment get the same kind of standing as intellectual property rights and corporate profits.

Q. What keeps you going?
To see home care workers who for 20 years worked for minimum wage who have a chance of making $11 an hour with health care, to see people go from three part-time jobs to one full-time job and have a sense of security and stability in their life — changing people’s lives by giving them the opportunity to fight for themselves — and win! I think in the last five years our members have experienced winning. It’s a privilege for me to have the opportunities to help make that happen.

Trying is nice. Winning is the real deal.

Originally published on November 9, 2000