Working In These Times
New SEIU Chief, Mary Kay Henry, Charts Her Path for Union
Mary Kay Henry, elected Saturday as successor to Service Employees union (SEIU) president Andy Stern by the union’s executive board, pledged to expand the union’s organizing and political work while reaching out to other unions to unite on strategy.
“We can’t go it alone,” she said, referring both to the need for workers to organize and for SEIU to work more collaboratively with other unions. SEIU, she said, wants “to be full partners inside American labor because we can’t turn around this country as SEIU alone.”
Henry indicated she hoped to negotiate a settlement of SEIU’s fight with UNITE HERE, which originated with Stern’s attempt to take advantage of UNITE HERE internal tensions to gain control over the entire union. (One faction of UNITE HERE did split and join SEIU.)
But she has “no plans whatsoever to engage the leadership of a rival organization,” the National Union of Healthcare Workers, a group of former union members, staff, and officers who broke away from SEIU's 150,000-member California healthcare local after Stern put it in trusteeship. The two unions are now battling for loyalties of the local’s members.
She expressed interest in closer work with unions in both the AFL-CIO and Change To Win, the new union group that Stern led out of the older union federation in 2005. Henry said she will soon “begin a listen and learn series of conversations with heads of all affiliates of both the AFL-CIO and Change To Win. We think the crisis for working people is so profound we need a unified voice.”
But Henry made it clear she was thinking more about unifying strategically than about rejoining the AFL-CIO. “We don’t think it’s about how the labor movement is structured but about what unions decide to do,” she said. “That’s the way we restore unity–by winning for workers.”
Henry, 52, a Catholic, a long-time union staff member, and a founder of the union’s gay and lesbian caucus, announced two new initiatives on politics and organizing that had been planned over many weeks but also approved Saturday by the executive board. In addition to the $40 million that SEIU had already budgeted for the 2010 elections, the union appropriated another $4 million for targeted races, especially for governors (in AZ, CA, CT, FL, IL, NY, OH), but also for senators in some states (CO, IL, NV, PA) and other races in states with critical redistricting issues (FL, MI, NH, TX).
Henry hopes to intensify SEIU’s efforts to mobilize grass-roots political campaigns on issues between elections. But she said the union also intends to expand into community organizing, most likely in African-American, Latino and Filipino neighborhoods to start, in order to reach non-union neighbors of many of their members.
SEIU also decided to put $4 million into an organizing innovation fund. The aim, Henry said, is to investigate how to spur growth in “any sector” and how to make decisions about how and when to invest in organizing, not to target a particular industry. She said the new fund would address several types of questions. For example, it would examine how to open up organizing with another partner, like organizing in retail with the United Food and Commercial Workers. Both unions have in the past run public relations pressure campaigns on Wal-Mart, although SEIU dropped its formal organization last year, and the UFCW has already launched a quiet drive to organize Wal-Mart.
As another example of innovation, Henry said SEIU was interested in more campaigns to organize and raise standards of low-wage workers, perhaps expanding into banking. SEIU is also interested in working with community-based labor organizations, such as recently formed organizations of taxi drivers, free-lance workers, and domestic workers. It’s not clear to what extent SEIU simply intends to help other organizations or whether it wants to lay the foundation for mergers, one of the main sources of the union’s growth to 1.9 million members.
In an oblique acknowledgment that unions have little reason to hope for passage any time soon of the Employee Free Choice Act to ease organizing, Henry said SEIU will look for help in organizing through state laws, administrative initiatives, and complaints to the National Labor Relations Board, which now has a clear majority sympathetic to workers and unions.