Robert "Robby" Stern
Robert Fred Stern was a leader of SDS and other new left activist organizations in the 1960s and early 1970s. He was first married to Susan Stern whom he met at Syracuse University and later married his current wife, Dina Burstein, with whom he has two children. He left his law office in 1993 and gained a position at the Washington State Labor Council where he served as Lead Lobbyist and Special Assistant to the President until his retirement in April 2008.
Early life and education
Robert Stern, the son of Holocaust survivors, was born on March 11, 1944 in Charlotte, North Carolina. He graduated 97th of 430 from Myers Park High School in Charlotte on May 31, 1961. During September 1961, Stern began attending Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. At Syracuse, he became involved in student politics ultimately being elected Speaker of the Syracuse University Student Senate. He also became involved with the growing civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movement blending those interests into his role as Speaker of the Student Senate. On June 6, 1965 he graduated with a BA Degree from the College of Liberal Arts where he majored in Political Science and studied Sociology. He went on to Graduate School at Syracuse University beginning in the summer of 1965 and attended two terms from 1965 to 1966. During this time, he was working towards a Master's Degree in Sociology and also served as a teaching assistant. At the beginning of the 1966/1967 school year, he enrolled in the University of Washington's Law School in Seattle, Washington. In 1967-1968, while working towards his Law Degree, he took a job as a part-time evening instructor at Seattle Community College.
Start of Activism
He began his activism at Syracuse University, where he combined activism in student politics with his growing commitment to the civil rights movement and the movement against the war in Vietnam. When he began attending law school at the University of Washington, he became a boisterous and visible leader, acting on behalf of many student-led organizations. In the spring of 1967 the FBI noted that Stern was a leading activist in "new left" organizations and programs, and took particular interest in his involvement in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). On December 12, 1968, the FBI documented their concerns on whether or not he should be included in "Category I of the Security Index" due to the threat they perceived he posed to national security. The FBI documented that during February 1968 he distributed SDS leaflets at a high school in Seattle, Washington and a short time later appeared at Yakima Valley Community College with the intentions of starting a chapter of SDS there.
His involvement with SDS spread across the state, as he was active in scheduling an anti-Vietnam War speaker to speak at Western Washington State College in Bellingham, Washington in October 1968. The FBI determined that he held a leadership position in the University District Movement in a letter addressed from the United States Department of Justice on January 30, 1969. In the same document, it was noted that he was a member of the "Steering Committee" of the University of Washington's chapter of SDS and was active in Free University of Seattle (FUS). Free in this context is referring to "academic freedom" where students and teachers should come together and collaborate on course content and curriculum. FUS was against the departmentalization and rigid standardization of higher education.
On February 25, 1969 Stern participated in disruptive protest at Loew Hall on the University of Washington campus which resulted in a suspension from school for two quarters. It is also believed that as a primary leader of the Seattle chapter of SDS, he attended the national SDS convention in Chicago, Illinois in 1969. As his involvement in SDS and other prominent movements became more intense, the FBI's interest became deeper. In a letter sent on March 5, 1969, the FBI began to heighten their investigation into his every move as they aimed to become aware of his "day to day" activities, monitor his bank accounts, and watch whether or not he was traveling abroad.
During his period of activism in SDS at the University of Washington, he was arrested in a nonviolent protest to uphold the treaty rights of the Nisqually Indians to fish in the "usual and accustomed places" as was granted in the treaty language. (This right was ultimately upheld in the Boldt decision.) He was also arrested when he was involved in a picket line in support of photo finishers who were on strike against an employer who was trying to eliminate their union. In October 1969 he reportedly left Seattle to move to San Francisco, California to join friends who were actively involved in organizing factory workers against the war in Vietnam. As addressed in a letter to the director of the FBI, he was no longer the key activist in the Seattle chapter of SDS and was believed, by the FBI, to be a member within Weatherman.
He continued his work supporting organized workers and was arrested in 1970 on a picket line when he was involved in supporting members of the United Electrical Workers union when they were on strike against GE. He also participated in demonstrations at UC Berkeley in 1970. On May 2, 1970 he surrendered himself in response to a charge of possession of a dangerous weapon. However, the original charges were said to be for "criminal conspiracy." These charges were dismissed by the District Court in Berkeley, but on appeal, they were reinstated and he ultimately pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Later Years to Present
He has been an attorney since 1974. Upon passing the Bar exam, he became a gardener at the University of Washington, where he became active in the Washington Federation of State Employees Local 1488. During this time, he also taught courses at Seattle Central Community College and became a member of the Washington Federation of Teachers. In 1977, he began his career as a pipefitter/welder working first at Todd Shipyards and then for Washington Natural Gas for ten years from 1979 to 1989. During that time, Stern became an active member of his union, Local 32 of the United Association of Plumbers & Pipefitters. He was elected to various positions within the union, including Sergeant at Arms and delegate to the King County Labor Council, and the Seattle/King County Building & Construction Trades Council.
In 1989, he left Washington Natural Gas to help build the house in which his family still resides. After completing the house, he re-took the Bar exam and after passing it, he opened a one-person practice in Seattle. He was hired, on a part-time basis, to do policy development and community coalition organizing on behalf of the King County Labor Council. In 1993 he closed his law practice to join the Washington State Labor Council. He held the position of Lead Lobbyist and Special Assistant to the President of the Washington State Labor Council from April 1, 1994 until his retirement in May 2008.
During the last three decades, he has been working as a champion for a fair minimum and livable wage, and has been influential in Health Care policy, Workers Compensation policy and Employment Standards. In 1998, he was a lead organizer in the passage of Initiative 688, which increased Washington's minimum wage to the highest in the U.S. and also indexed the minimum wage to the cost of living. This was the first time any minimum wage in the U.S. had been indexed to the cost of living, automatically rising each year the cost of living rises. In November, 1999, he played an organizing role in the World Trade Organization demonstrations that became known at the "Battle in Seattle". He served as the point person for the organization of marshalls for the labor portion of the WTO demonstration.
He has also worked with Peace Without Borders, and Chairs the Healthy Washington Coalition, where he has been a major advocate for health care reform. At the WFSE/AFSCME Biennial Convention on October 7, 2000, he was the recipient of an award for "Public Affairs Honoree." This honor was awarded "In appreciation for his years of consistent, sincere, public and vocal support of WFSE/AFSCME members, especially assisting the alliance between WFSE/AFSCME and the locked-out United Steel Workers of America members at Kaiser Aluminum." He has also received many other recognitions and awards including awards from United Food & Commercial Workers Local 21, the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council, the Washington chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, Washington Community Action Network, and International Electrical Workers Union Local 77.
Governor Christine Gregoire declared May 2, 2008 Robby Stern Day in the state of Washington to honor him for his "...lifelong commitment to labor and working families..." in the State of Washington. Mayor Greg Nickels declared May 10, 2008, "Robby Stern 'Power To The People' Day" in the City of Seattle for Robby's dedication of "his life to social and economic justice..." Stern, in retirement, chaired the Healthy Washington Coalition until December, 2009. He also serves on the Board of Washington Community Action Network and the Advisory Board for the Real Change newspaper. He also served on the Executive Board of the Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action and in December, 2009, he was elected its President. He can still be seen participating in rallies, speaking out and advocating for the various causes he believes in including working to unite the generations to build a secure and dignified retirement for all .
- FBI Files, Stern 4/6
- David T. Courtwright, No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010, p. 104
- FBI Files, WUO
- Stern Papers 3/28
- Stern Papers 1/6
- Awards and Certificates, box 1 folder 6, Robert F. Stern Papers, 5528-001, University of Washington Libraries.
- Retirement Party, box 3 folder 28, Robert F. Stern Papers, 5528-001, University of Washington Libraries.
- United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, box 4 folder 6, Robert F. Stern Papers, 5528-001, University of Washington Libraries.
- 94th Congress, 1st Session, The Weather Underground Report of the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee of the Judiciary United States Senate, ninety-fourth Congress, First Session, January 1975. U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington: 1975 (FBI Files, WUO)
- http://www.wslc.org/bios/stern.htm Biographical information via the Washington State Labor Council