Last Friday’s stunning Purple Palace Coup at the SEIU (that is the rejection of the Queen of Labor and frequent White House visitor Anna Burger as the next SEIU president) seems to be a story filled with intrigue and back-room politicking among former friends-turned-bitter enemies.
Wade Rathke, (pictured at right) most famous for his role as the co-founder of the now-disgraced Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), is also the “Chief Organizer” for SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans. On his blog, Rathke lays the reason for Burger’s rejection squarely at Burger’s own power-hungry feet.
According to Rathke, the engineer for Burger’s defeat may have been SEIU EVP Tom Woodruff. Woodruff, according to Rathke, had gone ‘ballistic’ a couple of years ago when Burger tried to do become a multiple-term president of the Change to Win federation by changing its charter rules.
When Woodruff caught wind of this, he went ballistic! This was treachery in his view. A line had been breached even in Tom’s organizing principles. After confronting Anna and demanding that she back off of this amendment and allow leadership change and failing to convince her, the contest then became whether or not Stern would step in and get Anna to do right or not. Woodruff threatened Stern that he would resign if Stern did not honor the original C2W governance provisions and direct Anna to step back from this power grab. Caught in the crossfire between Anna, his old comrade back to his earliest days in Pennsylvania and Tom Woodruff, who had been the architect of much of Andy’s vaunted organizing successes, Stern backed Burger effectively calling Woodruff’s bluff. My buddies in the secretarial pool described the atmosphere as icy on the [SEIU’s eighth] floor with weeks going by and top leaders clearly not speaking
Anna should have known then that if Tom stayed she now had a mortal enemy. With this leadership shift, Woodruff undoubtedly had been organizing an “anybody but Anna” coalition for the last two years as well. He also knows something that even the most disciplined of unions sometimes forget: unions are political institutions and union leaders are fundamentally all politicians.
Anna Burger, according to Rathke, also had more than her hunger for power that dragged her down: She had Stern fatigue pulling her down as well as deficiencies in style:
Anna Burger is nothing if not able, but she is also prickly to work with, brusque to some, and having been a Stern wannabe would have been trying to out-Stern Stern in molding herself to a chance at president. The big locals would not have felt they owed her much of anything, and would have chafed at the prospect.
Anna was efficient, tough, and managerial. She is not charismatic, she always speaks so quickly even from the dais that she can often not be understood, and she did not have a long term, loyal base of followers on her team, despite her years of effective and totally committed service.
While Rathke states that the most able leader would have been 1199’s Dennis Rivera, he would have also suffered from the wake of Andy Stern’s divisive, top-down style:
Probably the most able leader in SEIU with Stern out of the picture would have been Dennis Rivera, the charismatic and wildly effective 1199 veteran, who played critical, early behind the scenes work in assembling the coalition to win health care reform. At the same time Rivera is person who sucks up all of the air in the room, and there seemed to have been “stern exhaustion.” The big locals created top down over the last decade and more all owed their existence and in most cases, other than [former SEIU-UHW leader Sal] Rosselli, their very positions to Stern often as appointed trustees or beneficiaries of master marriages. On a successor question they were going to get a voice, and they seem to have wanted a voice.
Rathke writes that Mary Kay Henry is a “fantastic choice.” In the end, he says:
She is not divisive, and there is huge pushback within SEIU now, growing over recent years, that some of the bare knuckles moves led by Stern, and often orchestrated by many, including Woodruff leading to C2W, and since then with UNITE-HERE and many internal messes, have heard the brand of the union that should be heralded as one of the few modern labor success stories. May Kay may not always deliver for you, but always makes you happy to see her, always has a hug for you, always a good word and a question about your partners and children. It is hard to believe that she was not the perfect compromise candidate.
This may be Tom’s revenge, but she will not be anyone’s puppet.
This is going to be interesting for all of us who care about labor and may just help unite SEIU again and eventually the entire labor movement.
Read the rest of Rathke’s blog here.