Andy Stern canvassing in Ohio

SEIU President Andy Stern canvasses for Barack Obama in Parma, Ohio in 2008 (photo by Lisa DeJong via SEIU on Flickr)

Ben Smith dropped a bombshell this evening with his report that SEIU President Andy Stern will resign. Stern, president of one of the country’s biggest unions since 1996, reportedly plans to resign before the end of his term in 2012.

A local president of SEIU in Seattle spread the news in an email today that worked its way back to DC and exploded on the Internet this evening. SEIU’s Executive Committee, a group of local leaders that meets several times a year to discuss and make decisions on strategy, union business, and other items, is currently in session in DC this week. Word probably spread from that committee this morning and already worked its way back.

It makes sense why Stern would want to resign: after a brutal health care battle and the loss of the Employee Free Choice Act, there’s little left for him to continue to exert his energy as head of the union. Indeed, health care reform is one of Stern’s major personal goals, and he probably sees he’s done as much as he can from atop SEIU.

The Change to Win coalition Stern led out of the AFL-CIO in 2005 has largely fallen apart. CtW’s executive director left very recently, and its communications and online teams were gutted because of funding problems. Reunification talks between the two federations began in 2009 but quickly fell apart; expect to hear talk of those restarting close to, or after, the 2010 elections in time for the 2013 AFL-CIO convention.

Talk otherwise about Stern’s departure should be treated with great skepticism, particularly any rumors of ties to the decision against the breakaway NUHW that came down this week. The timing may look suspicious, but it’s just not a reason for Stern to leave. If anything, the decision vindicates his vision of how labor unions should be organized.

It’s worthwhile noting that while both the New York Times and Huffington Post assume that SEIU Secretary Treasurer and Change to Win President Anna Burger will naturally step up to fill the presidency, it’s not set in stone. SEIU Executive VP Mary Kay Henry is also interested in the post, and speculation on a contested presidency was evident as I spoke with folks this evening. The Wall Street Journal is also reporting the possible contest (paid sub req’d):

A member of SEIU’s executive board said he received a phone call from SEIU’s second highest ranking officer, Anna Burger, asking for his support as she sought to succeed Mr. Stern. “He is resigning. They haven’t given an exact date,” said the board member.

The board member said that Mary Kay Henry, an SEIU executive vice president who oversees the union’s long-term care division, is also seeking to lead the union. “Right now it looks like it’s between Anna Burger and Mary Kay Henry,” he said.

Burger would be the assumed favorite as the second-highest ranking official, and I don’t know how and when Henry could mount a challenge for the vacancy. Stern will address the matter by the end of this week, but his successor won’t be immediately chosen. SEIU’s constitution says the International Executive Board – the top leaders among the union outside of its officers – will elect a new president within 30 days of Stern’s resignation. Even if Burger is elected president for the remainder of Stern’s term, there should be a significant race for a full term at SEIU’s next convention in 2012.

Get the popcorn, we’re about to see history be made this week.

Full disclosure: I worked for the Service Employees International Union for parts of 2008 and 2009.