One of nation's most politically powerful — and polarizing — union leaders is preparing to step down from his post.
Andy Stern, president of the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union, plans to resign, a senior union official told employees in an e-mail on Monday.
The message from the official, Diane Sosne, was obtained by The Associated Press. She is a member of the union's board and president of an SEIU local based in Seattle.
Stern, 59, is one of President Barack Obama's closest political allies and a major force in Democratic politics. His union spent about $60 million to help Obama win the presidency and millions more on House and Senate races around the country.
He is also one of the most frequent visitors to the White House, showing up more than 20 times last year, according to official logs. Stern has served as a popular punching bag for conservatives who accuse him of using political largesse to push union causes like health care overhaul and stimulus spending.
Stern's current term is scheduled to end in 2012, but another SEIU official confirmed that Stern would be stepping down soon. The official requested anonymity so as not to overshadow a formal announcement.
SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said only that Stern plans to address "speculation" that he would leave his post later this week, at the close of the union's executive committee meeting in Washington.
This year, Stern saw the passage of the massive health care bill, one of his longtime goals, but failed to win legislation making it easier to organize unions.
News of his pending resignation surprised many SEIU officials reached late Monda. They had not yet officially been informed of the move.
Anna Burger, the union's secretary-treasurer, is widely seen as the leading candidate to succeed Stern, but others are expected to challenge her.
Stern's plans to resign were first reported by Politico.com.
Since 1996, when he became president of the SEIU, Stern has led the union to grow faster than any other, adding more than 800,000 members in the last decade.
Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, called Stern a groundbreaking labor leader who challenged conventional wisdom by organizing groups of workers "that nobody thought could be organized."
He organized tens of thousands of janitors, home health care workers, recent immigrants and undocumented workers that other unions had deemed too risky.
He famously led his union and several others to break away from the AFL-CIO — the nation's largest labor federation — to form the rival Change to Win federation. He complained that the older federation focused too much on political campaigns and not enough on recruiting new members.
Stern was hailed by many at the time as labor's most innovative and creative leader, one who could bring union membership back from decades of decline. The new federation has helped its affiliates, including the Teamsters and Laborers unions, mobilize new members, but has failed to live up to expectations as a unifying labor force.
While Stern has swelled his union's ranks with aggressive, hard-driving tactics, his topdown management style has rankled many. He forced smaller SEIU locals to merge with other locals to become massive organizations that increased their bargaining and political power. Some members complained that Stern negotiated deals with employers that limited benefits for the rank and file in return for a pledge not to oppose new membership drives.
His union also faced scandal in 2008 after the presidents of two Los Angeles area SEIU locals were forced to step down after they were discovered misusing union funds.
Stern has spent millions of dollars fighting with ousted leaders of a Northern California local who are trying to peel off tens of thousands of SEIU members to form a new union.
"He made a mistake to not just let them go," Bronfenbrenner said. "They spent all these resources, it's just tied up all their energy."
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