Andrew Stern was born November 22, 1950 in West Orange, New Jersey. In the 1960s he gravitated toward New Left politics and became a student activist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a B.A. in Education and Urban Planning in 1971. After graduating, Stern traveled extensively in Europe and then took a job as a caseworker in a Philadelphia welfare office newly established by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He was trained in the tactics of radical activism at the Midwest Academy, which was created by former Students for a Democratic Society members Paul Booth and Heather Booth.
Rising quickly through the SEIU's ranks, Stern was named to the union's executive board in 1980; four years later, John Sweeney, then-SEIU president, placed Stern in charge of the union's organizing efforts.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Stern was a key organizer of SEIU's "Justice for Janitors" campaign demanding added benefits on behalf of cleaning and maintenance workers in Los Angeles. Using (with Sweeney's approval) New Left tactics from the 1960s, Stern and his cohorts led strikers in blocking access to city streets, storming private meetings, filing shareholder resolutions, and instructing employees to report as many health- and safety-code violations as they could against their employers.
In the mid-1990s, Stern expected to succeed Sweeney as SEIU president, but before any election could be held, Sweeney turned the reins of power over to a top lieutenant who promptly fired Stern. Stern responded by mounting a campaign of his own, and in 1996 he was elected SEIU president.
Using the power which that position entailed, Stern decisively steered SEIU toward partisan politics. At the outset of his tenure, he told SEIU members that he expected "every leader at every level of this union -- from the international President to the rank-and-file member -- to devote five working days this year to political action" -- all in support of the Democratic Party.
In a similar spirit, Stern told those attending SEIU's national convention in June 2004: "We're going to build the strongest grassroots political voice in North America." Moreover, he pledged to spend $40 million for more than 2,000 organizers to work full-time against President George W. Bush's re-election bid in 17 key battleground states. That figure was later augmented by an additional $25 million which SEIU spent on voter-registration, voter-education, and get-out-the-vote initiatives. At Stern's behest, the union also supplied some 50,000 "volunteers" from its member rolls to aid the aforementioned organizers during the days and weeks just prior to Election Day.
Under Stern's leadership, SEIU commonly bullied and pressured companies into signing agreements to make SEIU the representative of their employees. When companies resisted joining the union, Stern and his political, media and activist allies conspired to launch "corporate campaigns" featuring boycotts, picket lines, public demonstrations, literature distribution, letter-writing, and negative-publicity initiatives designed to destroy the reputations of the offending entities. Such tactics were consistent with Stern's candidly articulated organizing philosophy: "[We] prefer to use the power of persuasion, but if that doesn't work, we use the persuasion of power."
In 2005 there was infighting among a number of SEIU's member unions, as well as between SEIU and John Sweeney's AFL-CIO. At the heart of the tension was Sweeney's July 2005 announcement that he planned to divert more than $37 million in AFL-CIO funds away from support for the Democratic Party, and into efforts to recruit and organize more union members.
In response, Stern and four other union leaders formed a group called the New Unity Partnership, which opposed Sweeney's reelection. When it became apparent, however, that Sweeney's reelection was inevitable, Stern announced that SEIU would withdraw from the AFL-CIO union federation. In 2005 the New Unity Partnership was dissolved and re-formed as the Stern-founded Change To Win (CTW) alliance.
Stern is a leading figure in the so-called Shadow Party, a nationwide network of leftist unions, non-profit activist groups, and think tanks that are engaged in campaigning for the Democrat Party. In July 2003, Stern -- along with fellow Shadow Party leaders Harold Ickes, Jim Jordan, Ellen Malcolm, and Steve Rosenthal -- formed America Votes, a national coalition of grassroots, get-out-the-vote organizations. Stern also sat on the executive committee of yet another Shadow Party constituent group, the now-defunct America Coming Together.
In 2005 Stern began writing blogs for the Huffington Post.
In 2006 Stern published A Country That Works, wherein he identifies globalization and the widening economic gap between rich and poor as the primary problems facing the world. Calling for unions to be the dominant vehicles for the promotion of comprehensive social reforms such as wealth redistribution, Stern lays out his proposals for increased taxation on high earners and the implementation of universal healthcare.
In a 2006 interview, CBS newswoman Leslie Stahl told Stern: "You like to say, 'Workers of the world, unite.' Which sounds, it is Karl Marx. But that's your, that's your kind of slogan now." Stern replied, "Well, the good news is, Communism is dead. But the truth is the phrase means a lot because all of a sudden workers in London and workers in the United States are working for the same employer and the same owners" -- i.e., multinational corporations.
In 2007 Stern helped organize Working For Us (WFU), a political action committee that seeks to "elect lawmakers who support a progressive political agenda."
In September 2008 Stern was a signatory to a statement demanding that a portion of the $700 billion "bailout bill," enacted by the federal government to preserve the solvency of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, be used instead to fund various social and economic "justice" provisions such as "extending unemployment and food stamps." Fellow signers of this statement included Nan Aron, Brent Blackwelder, Robert Borosage, John Cavanagh, Maude Hurd, John Podesta, John Sweeney, Wade Henderson, and Kevin Zeese.
In 2008 Stern supported Barack Obama's presidential candidacy. His SEIU spent approximately $60.7 million to help elect Obama to the White House, deploying some 100,000 pro-Obama volunteers during the campaign. Stern went on to become an immensely influential advisor to the Obama administration. As of October 30, 2009, Stern had visited the White House 22 times since Obama's inauguration -- more than any other individual.
According to Ryan Lizza, associate editor of The New Republic, SEIU leaders such as Stern "tend to be radical, even socialist." In 2009, Stern proved the veracity of that description when he derided America's "market-worshiping, privatizing, deregulating, trickle-down, union-busting, 'I've-got-mine-so-long-sucker' economy." Stern would revisit this theme at a June 7, 2010 conference of the Campaign for America's Future, where he said: "America needs a 21st century economic plan because we now know the market-worshipping, privatizing, de-regulating, dehumanizing American financial plan has failed and should never be revived, worshipping the market again."
In an April 2, 2009 speech at the Kennedy School of Government, Stern praised President Obama's effort to establish a "new American economic plan, led by the government, not necessarily led by the private sector." Calling for "shared prosperity," Stern said that "clearly government has has a major opportunity to distribute wealth ... through tax policies, through minimum wages, through living wages ... [and through] social benefits like Medicare, Medicaid, children’s health insurance." He also spoke in favor of establishing a "global government."
In February 2010, President Obama appointed Stern, who was an Independent Advisory Council member of the community organization ACORN, to sit on a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
On April 13, 2010 -- two years before the end of his term as SEIU president -- Stern abruptly announced that he was stepping down from that post. It was speculated that his decision may have been related to an ongoing probe by the FBI and the U.S. Labor Department, which were investigating a $175,000 advance that Simon & Schuster had given Stern for his 2006 book, A Country That Works. At issue was the fact that while Stern personally pocketed the entire advance payment, SEIU spent thousands of dollars -- derived from union dues -- to fact-check and promote the book; moreover, the union and its locals purchased -- again, with union dues they had collected -- thousands of copies of the book after it was published. Yet another cloud of scandal hanging over Stern was an allegation that in 2007 he had illegally played a role in approving that SEIU funds be used to pay the salary of former SEIU official Alejandro Stephens for a "no-show" job.
During his 14-year tenure as president, Stern was instrumental in making the SEIU the fastest-growing union in the United States. Under his leadership, the union gained more than a million new members, bringing its total membership to 2.2 million.