“If you cannot relate your past, the history through which you lived and that you helped make, to the present, then how can you expect those whose total experience is in the present to relate it to a past they do not know?”
—Al Richmond in A Long View from the Left
It was a convention full of “contradictions,” as radicals used to say (and some still do). It evoked the glories of labor’s past and excitement about possibilities for the future. Held four decades after the penultimate year of the 1960s, the gala 2008 gathering of delegates from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, showcased all that’s good and bad, right and wrong, hopeful and unhelpful, about sixties-inspired efforts to change American labor.
Long applauded as our “most dynamic, fastest growing, and (many would argue) most progressive union,” SEIU has certainly become the nation’s most highly visible one. Its own transformation began in the 1970s, after thousands of veterans of antiwar activity, the civil rights movement, feminism, and community organizing migrated to workplaces and union halls with the professed goal of challenging the labor establishment. As I reported in the Nation in 1984, this generational cohort constituted “the largest radical presence in unions since the 1930s, when members of the Communist Party and other left-wing groups played a key role in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).”
Among those who shifted from campus to labor activism, in the wake of the sixties, was SEIU president Andy Stern, who was by 2008 “America’s most powerful union boss,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The son of a lawyer from West Orange, New Jersey, Stern entered the University of Pennsylvania to study business at the Wharton School but soon “discovered the civil rights movement, the anti-war protests, women’s liberation, the environmental and consumer movements and the counter culture.” Thanks to the events of that era and 1968 in particular, “Marketing turned out not to be my top priority,” he explained many years later. The future SEIU president ended up studying education and urban planning instead. After graduation, he became a welfare department case worker and member of the Pennsylvania Social Services Union (PSSU), affiliated with SEIU as Local 668.
In PSSU, Stern was a militant shop steward and critic of the union leadership, who supported a three-day wildcat strike “to reject a statewide contract as a ‘sell-out.’” Not long after that membership rebellion, Stern was elected PSSU president, a position later occupied by his fellow activist Anna Burger, later secretary-treasurer of SEIU. In 1984, Stern became SEIU organizing director and moved to its national union headquarters in Washington, D.C. There, according to Business Week, his background “as a bushy-haired young left-winger in the student movement led him to experiment with the in-your-face tactics that first put SEIU on the map.” In 1996, Stern became SEIU president and, a decade later, the driving force behind Change to Win (CTW)—a five-million-member union coalition that broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Burger became CTW chairperson and the first woman to head a labor federation in America.