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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.
Common Dreams

Published on Thursday, March 3, 2005 by AriannaOnline.com

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?

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of ten books. Originally from Greece, she moved to England when she was sixteen and graduated from Cambridge University with an M.A. in Economics. At twenty-one she became President of the famed debating society, the Cambridge Union.

homepage: homepage: http://www.commondreams.org/

Ariana's spin isn't all bad . . . 05.Mar.2005 18:29

Democrat Troll

But her spin isn't telling the truth either. It's unfortunately tending to perpetuate the media-driven crap that Hillary Clinton is somehow the annointed one of the Democratic Party. Not that Hillary is held up by Ariana as someone admirable; on the contrary, Ariana relates the facts of the sordid Clinton/McCain Afghanistan romance of last month. But Ariana leaves us with the impression that Hillary is the leader of the Democratic Party, whereas the election of Howard Dean to Chair of the DNC was a defeat of Hillary (and the rest of the DLC crowd).

HOWEVER, I have to thank Ariana for bringing Andy Stern to our attention. Ariana spins the story about Stern, too, but the spin there seems truthful. (About the tragic death of his daughter.)

As for the complaint that Democrats don't make enough noise about Bush administration failures in "homeland security" (particularly port security), if Ariana will only recall the 2004 election she will realize that such a charge is nonsense. Kerry, as sponsor of the Port and Maritime Security Act was well-placed to attack the Republicans on those issues in 2004 and he did so. What happened is, first, the corporate media deliberately failed to give any play to that aspect of the Kerry/Edwards campaign, and, second, they covered it over with their smear against Sandy Berger (and intimidated Berger with a "secret" -- but leaked -- F.B.I. investigation alleging that Berger was guilty of compromising official government secrets). So the problem wasn't that the Democrats didn't understand that the Republicans were vulnerable (rationally speaking) on security issues, or lacked the will to oppose the Republicans -- the problem was corporate media working hand-in-glove with the Rove machine. Ariana KNOWS that!

However, I do not fault OUR Democrats -- the anti-war Democrats -- for failing to make a big thing about homeland security. They know that the greatest threat to the American people is the Bush administration! The analysis that Ariana seems to support is that there are millions of suburban mothers out there, all thoroughly scared-the-pants-off-of, and they (the theory goes) vote for Bush because they know they can count on Bush to do ANYTHING (kill, cheat, torture) to supposedly protect their darling little innocent lily-white children from even the remotest chance that some ethnically strange terrorist will approach an elementary school somewhere in the California suburbs solely for the reason that the terrorist has not yet been deprived of ALL of his constitutional and human rights. But what Ariana doesn't get is that progressive Democrats aren't interested in competing with the Republicans for the Neo-Fascist award of the month, an award that can only go to Republicans anyway, since it is given by corporate media.

I am amazed that Ariana wrote this article without even mentioning the peculiar fact that the last time Homeland Security had us on alert was November 2, 2004! Shouldn't that have been mentioned?

It also seems in all this that Ariana might have mentioned in passing that Dennis Kucinich hasn't quit and hasn't stopped attacking the Republicans on ALL of it, including security issues. Seems like that deserved as least a by-the-way mention. Kucinich, as chair of the Progressive House Caucus, IS clearly a Democratic Party leader (although the caucus isn't a Democratic Party caucus and is open to any who want to join, specifically the one and only Independent in the House is a member). There ARE progressive Democrats in Congress -- not enough, true, but that is all the more reason to support those few. They are the leavening for the Democratic bread. They are systematically ignored by the corporate media, just as Ariana's man, Andy Stern is. But YOU don't need to follow the corporate media and play into their hands by echoing the "conventional wisdom" that Hillary is the leader of the Democratic Party, do you?

The Republicans are counting on people like you to be corralled by their corporate media -- so don't accept that. Focus on the exceptions that disprove their bogus rules! -- whether those exceptional people are Democrats or Greens or just plain Ralph Nader!