A Tale of Two Leadership Styles

After seeing the young Bruce Springsteen in concert, rock critic Jon Landau famously wrote: "I have seen the future of rock and roll, and its name is Bruce Springsteen."

Well, I've just had a Springsteen moment. After spending some time last week with Andy Stern, the groundbreaking president of the Service Employees International Union, I'm ready to declare: I have seen the future of progressive leadership in America, and its name is Andy Stern.

You'll forgive me if I temporarily trade my critic's platform for a cheerleader's megaphone, but I've spent the better part of my adult life obsessing over the dwarfish nature of modern political leadership. (I even wrote an entire book about it in my mid-20s, and watched while it was rejected by 36 publishers before it finally saw the light of day.) So when I see the real deal, I react like a starving woman being escorted to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Now, I suspected that Stern was the real deal even before I met him, having followed his fight to pull the American labor movement out of its decades-long death spiral. But what indisputably come across in person are his fire and passion for the 1.8 million janitors, nurses, social workers, security guards and home health care aides he represents -- and, by extension, for all working Americans.

When he talks about their lives and their struggle to provide for their families, he so clearly connects with their plight that he invests it with an urgency sorely lacking in our contemporary political discourse. What Stern wants to do is nothing less than create a vibrant 21st-century labor movement, which he considers "America's best anti-poverty program"; turn the tide against the Wal-Martization of our economy; and, while he's at it, help save the Democratic Party.

So how is he doing it? For starters, with a leadership style that is bold, innovative and fearless -- and that has recently landed him on the covers of both Business Week and the New York Times Magazine. It was in full display this week as leaders of the AFL-CIO met in Las Vegas to debate labor's future. Like all transformational leaders, Stern knows that the real battle begins not with your enemies but with those on your side of the fence. To this end, Stern has issued an ultimatum to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney: Implement a slate of specific reforms that, in Stern's words, would "build something stronger that really changes workers' lives" or he and his members will leave and continue the process they started on their own.

Bold actions like this have not exactly endeared Stern to his fellow union leaders -- a fact that doesn't seem to trouble him a bit. As my compatriot Pericles used to say, "Courage is the knowledge of what is not to be feared." Stern's courage has been very hard-earned, the result of the tragic loss of his 14-year-old daughter, Cassie, who died in his arms just over two years ago, following what was supposed to be a routine operation. The experience devastated him -- but also galvanized his resolve. "Things you think you are scared of become insignificant," he told me. "It suddenly hits you: Why am I so afraid to say what I really think?"

And so that's exactly what he does, shaking things up with his reform-or-else threat to break up the AFL-CIO; with a campaign to bring Wal-Mart to its knees; and with his pledge to "pay back" politicians, "no matter who they are or what party they come from ... who looked us in the eye and said they were for us -- but then went out and betrayed us." But Stern is far more than just a fearless fighter; he is also a brilliant and innovative thinker and strategist. "To lead is to choose," he says, "and it is unacceptable in these extraordinary times to ignore the choices facing us. I want the SEIU to be the leading political force in our country that moves our leaders to face the difficult choices."

Compare that with the pale rhetoric and feeble resistance being offered by Democratic leaders in Washington these days. Sure, they've landed some heavy blows playing defense on the president's proposal to overhaul Social Security. But is this the only issue they are able to wrap their minds around? Are they just too exhausted to use their political muscle and imagination for anything else -- including what should be the great political debate of our time, Iraq and the war on terror?

The latest Zogby poll shows that even in the aftermath of the post-Iraq election euphoria, just 39 percent of Americans think the war has been worth the lives lost fighting it. And Monday's 120-plus death toll (the bloodiest single attack since the war began) will only drive that number lower. But all we're hearing from Democratic leaders on Iraq are sentiments like those expressed by Hillary Clinton, who returned from her most recent trip sounding like, well, President Bush, explaining that suicide bombers are "an indication" of the "failure" of the insurgency, and that much of Iraq is "functioning quite well." She must have been visiting downtown Potemkin Village, where they take all U.S. dignitaries. Or maybe the Halliburton courtesy tent in the Green Zone.

President Bush keeps giving Democrats opening after opening on national security -- including porous ports, insufficiently protected nuclear and chemical plants, and diminished numbers of first responders -- yet all they can do is brood over whether they should follow Hillary's Zell Miller impersonation and embrace their inner red stater.

Figuring out how to talk about God and morality is all well and good, but the Democrats will never return to power until they can figure out how to take the national security cudgel out of the GOP's hands -- while developing an economic message that, in Stern's words, "appeals to workers, not to entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and intellectuals." (But, as Stern pointed out to me, when John Kerry was accepting his party's nomination, sitting in the seat of honor in his box, right next to Teresa, was Bob Rubin, not anyone representing America's working class.)

Which is why, along with working to remake the future of American labor, Stern is working hard and spending lavishly to help remake the Democratic Party. SEIU donated an astounding $65 million in 2004 to organizations such as America Coming Together, Mi Familia Vota, Voting Is Power and the New Democratic Network. That kind of money should get you more than a seat at the table; you should be picking the freakin' menu.

Unions and Democrats go back a long way, but Stern feels that many of the problems dogging the labor movement are also dogging the Party: complacency, timidity, an inability to adapt to a changing world. So while continuing his fight for the soul of the labor movement, Stern is also working to push for a new, more progressive, more worker-oriented economic agenda. "The Democratic message is not strong enough," he says. "If there's going to be a viable progressive movement, its main goal has to be to change the lives of people who go to work every day. Democrats need to ask, 'Are we addressing their concerns? Do they have health care? Do they have a secure retirement? Can their kids go to college?' This is the core test for America. And right now, we're failing the test."

"My responsibility," Stern told me, "is to be a voice for 1.8 million people who don't have a voice on their own, and to help them improve their lives. When leaders start thinking it's about their own lives, that's when they lose their purpose."

Andy Stern was well on the way to being Andy Stern even before his daughter's tragic death. But it took that cruel experience to convince him that it was time to put aside his fear, take the leap of leadership -- and let the chips fall where they may. What is it going to take for Democrats to do the same?

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