Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — Andy Stern, the powerful and polarizing leader of the Service Employees International Union, is expected to step down as soon as this week, a move that could signal a further reconfiguring of the American labor movement.
Several knowledgeable SEIU insiders, speaking on the condition of anonymity because no official announcement had been made, said Tuesday that Stern had decided to retire after 14 years as president of the union. About one-third of the organization's 2.2 million members work in California.
Michelle Ringuette, a union spokeswoman, said only that Stern, 59, will address "speculation" about his future by Thursday, at the end of a meeting in Washington of the SEIU's executive committee.
Stern would be succeeded by his deputy, Anna Burger, who would then face a union election within 30 days.
A possible challenger is Mary Kay Henry, a union executive vice president and champion of healthcare workers, who constitute almost half of the SEIU's membership.
It was unclear why Stern would leave two years before his term expires, though some experts said the timing was propitious, with the pro-union Barack Obama in the White House and healthcare reform, long a labor priority, finally approved.
"He shook up the labor movement and helped to re-energize the labor movement," said Peter Dreier, politics professor at Occidental College. "He helped elect the president of the United States, and he helped to pass healthcare reform. That's not a bad legacy."
During his tenure, Stern, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who began his career as a social worker, backed alliances that challenged the AFL-CIO, merged local chapters and reached out to low-income and immigrant workers once ignored by mainstream unions.
Stern led the SEIU on a mission to organize janitors and security guards in Southern California, while also using its political clout in local and national elections. The union spent some $60 million and deployed tens of thousands of volunteers to help elect President Obama.
Last month, Obama named a former SEIU lawyer, Craig Becker, to the National Labor Relations Board in a recess appointment that drew Republican ire.
But if extolled by backers as a visionary, Stern has also been an incendiary figure within labor circles. He played a central role in several divisive union battles, notably among healthcare workers in California.
"Stern's legacy is that he took control of an organization built by more than a million hard-working janitors, healthcare workers and public servants, and used their resources primarily to secure his own political power," said Sal Rosselli, a former SEIU leader who now heads the rival National Union of Healthcare Workers.
The breakaway group is battling the giant SEIU for the allegiance of tens of thousands of healthcare employees in California.
Stern has also had to deal with the fallout from deep corruption in the SEIU. Tyrone Freeman, Stern's handpicked choice to head California's largest local, was ousted in 2008 after reports in The Times of financial irregularities.
On the national level, Stern has been a lightning rod for criticism from conservative Republicans, especially when it was revealed last year that he was among the most frequent visitors to the White House in the first year of Obama's presidency.
Stern championed the 2005 move that saw the SEIU, the Teamsters and other unions break away from the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest federation, to form the Change to Win coalition.
Many union leaders call the Change to Win experiment a failure and see Stern's departure as a likely sign that the labor movement may be moving toward greater unity.
Stern is also mired in a fight over the breakup of the former Unite Here union, which split amid differences that critics blame on Stern's quest for power.
Despite the controversy, Stern is one of the most influential labor leaders in Washington.
The election of Obama also marked a revitalization of a U.S. labor movement that had been losing members for decades. Fewer than 1 in 5 U.S. workers are now union members.
Friends of the SEIU have been installed at high levels of the executive branch. Obama's political advisor is Patrick Gaspard, a former executive for an SEIU local in New York who has served as the White House's antenna on local races throughout the country.
Obama named Stern to a special commission charged with reducing the country's $12-trillion debt. That appointment holds even with Stern's expected retirement from the SEIU, according to the White House.
Business groups say they see labor's hand in important White House actions, including the recess appointment of former SEIU lawyer Becker to the labor relations board.
"The Becker appointment and the pro-union executive orders clearly indicate that unions have a lot of clout with this White House, and Andy Stern has a lot of that," Randel Johnson, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview.