Working In These Times
Mary Kay Henry Interview: New SEIU Leader Sets Ambitious Organizing, Political Goals
Union will spend $250 million on organizing this year, she says
Mary Kay Henry, the new Service Employees union (SEIU) president, hopes to oversee a large increase in her union’s organizing of workers in both the private and public sector, potentially adding more than one million new members to the 1.9-member union in the next four to five years.
At the same time, she wants SEIU to expand its support for community-based organizations—and the progressive movement more generally—to strengthen the labor movement’s political clout.
Rather than count on labor law reform coming soon to help unions organize, she believes that unions will first have to escalate dramatically their organizing to create grassroots pressure on legislators for change. “We think we can’t pursue the [Employee] Free Choice Act or federal change unless we get the rubber to hit the road across the country and have the labor movement get organizing back as the top priority of our agenda,” she said in an interview with In These Times. “I think more pressure from the bottom up is going to help us make the case for change nationally.”
But she worries about whether union leaders are ready for that fight. As part of her transition to succeed Andy Stern, she says,
I’m trying to meet with every leader of the union to find out what they think, understand what their experience has been, figure out if we can forge a path forward to address the crisis of working people. I’m struck by the number of leaders in the am lab movement who are in survival mode and are having a hard time shaking themselves out of that and thinking forward with hope about we can accomplish.
While SEIU has been a leader in organizing, its track record is not spotless: Last year its net growth slipped to a little over 50,000 (though still one of the top performances), and it still has organized only a small, stable share of its growing core industries.
But this year, Henry says, SEIU hopes to organize 120,000 new members, using its bargaining influence to expand membership in partly organized companies and its political clout to organize workers linked to public funding.
Although SEIU has criticized other unions for failing to organize in the private sector, much of its own recent organizing has been among public or publicly-funded workers, including large swaths of home healthcare or child-care workers who are not traditional workers and are organized in large part through political clout. Indeed, Henry predicts that SEIU will organize 800,000 home child-care workers over the next four to five years, then turn them into a force advocating child care for children of all working parents who need it.
This year SEIU locals and the international will spend $250 million on organizing, she says, divided among healthcare, building services and public workers, with $40 million in a union-wide growth fund and $4 million in an innovation fund.
The growth fund permits SEIU international officers to “double down in a particular area, [for example], because we want to help the South/Southwest pubic worker organizing expand, because it matters to all our members nationally that we increase union strength in states that have such a strong effect on the direction of national politics that matters for all workers in this country,” she says.
The innovation fund will encourage risk-taking in private sector organizing–giving financial or staff help to groups like those currently organizing taxi drivers, freelance workers, or domestic workers (but not retail workers, as she intimated in a previous press conference). SEIU doesn’t expect to get its money back, but rather will benefit from a broader labor and progressive movement, Henry says.
Henry expects that the union will be able to take advantage of the influx of money and new patients into the healthcare industry as a result of the reforms Congress approved this year to improve conditions for organizing. “When you look at the history of the industry,” she says, “whenever there’s been a financing change we’ve seen a spurt of organizing.”
She expects that a global agreement with the Swedish-based services firm, Securitas, will ease security organizing, and that the union will expand organizing of both private sector workers in universities and healthcare settings and of contracted-out public jobs that are the province of the multi-service giants, Compass, Sodexho and Aramark.
SEIU’s previous organizing agreements with multi-service companies were criticized as weak, concessionary and ineffective, but since much of that work previously was covered by joint organizing with UNITE HERE, SEIU’s determination to organize these workers could continue to inflame relations between the two unions. (One faction of UNITE HERE broke away under former president Bruce Raynor’s leadership, then as Workers United joined SEIU, which tried to gain control of all of UNITE HERE).
Nevertheless, she hopes to resolve that fight soon. “I think there’s a huge imperative in SEIU and amongst our Workers United leaders to settle the UNITE HERE dispute,” she says, “and I’m going to put my full attention to trying to get this dispute behind us so we can move forward on the crisis for working people in this country and out of this internal dispute.” But Henry says she will not investigate or take action against Raynor, who was found to have misused union funds by a UNITE HERE public review board, until the Department of Justice acts on the findings from the UNITE HERE panel.
Henry also anticipates that her talks with other labor leaders, including AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka (whom she called early in her tenure to invite his cooperation on a boycott of Arizona over its new laws aimed at undocumented immigrants), will be a first step toward
trying to understand where the labor movement is, forging a common agenda for working people and then reaching out to our allies--because the labor movement isn’t enough by itself to drive change for people in this country. We need a progressive movement grounded in every state, and that we need to build community organizations that more permanently address the need for change and not just have our members’ money move in and out based on election cycles....We should be building a lasting relationship with communities in order to force a change at the top in this country.
Although SEIU mainly intends to support existing organizations, it may have to “kick start” creation of community groups in some areas, Henry says, drawing on indigenous leadership.
Henry is agnostic about the use of third parties, like the one launched at the initiative of SEIU leaders in North Carolina angry with Democratic members of Congress who voted against healthcare reform. “A lot of local union leaders, as I traveled around the country in the last four weeks, asked me about the third party movement in North Carolina, because they’re sick of having two bad choices,” she says. “We want to figure out by the November-December period, once we see an outcome in North Carolina, if we should invest in additional efforts like this around the country, in addition to fusion voting our New York members have pioneered [through Working Families Party] and now are trying to export into other states.”
But for all her openness to some political challenges to Democrats, she calls on circling the wagons in defense of President Obama. “I think there is a huge power struggle in this country and an employer camp against this president,” Henry says.
We need to get serious as a labor movement, linking arms with our allies in the progressive movement to push back on the opposition attack on this president and members of Congress who want to stand with working people. For us it’s not just about the two parties. It’s more about the unbridled attack that has come on us from people who want to maintain the status quo, that like the concentration of wealth, that think things are just fine, thank you very much, and want the market to set hours and wages. It’s just not working. I think that we have to be a more aggressive force pushing for the demands that help working people.
Henry faces challenges restoring relations with other unions, with allies, and with some members, many of whom have seen the union in recent years as an increasingly undemocratic bully, not SEIU’s self-image as progressive leader. But more fundamentally she and other leaders will need to reassess how to combine the union’s strengths with much more grass-roots involvement and power.
Even as a challenger to Stern’s chosen successor, Henry was still a close ally and student of Stern. But she also claims her main inspirations to join, then continue in, the labor movement came from grassroots leaders, mainly women, not from historical figures such as John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, or even Mother Jones. For example, as part of a Catholic social justice project, she worked one summer with a Quaker-run project on Detroit’s east side. She recalls one of the organizers telling her to listen to two nuns Henry admired in her high school, who shared the view that “we’re going to turn this community and Detroit around through good jobs, and the way to create good jobs is through the unions.”
“So she connected the dots for me when I was 16,” Henry says. And more dots were connected when in college she joined a group of UAW women lobbying about reproductive hazards at work, and when she worked with nursing home workers or nurses forming an organizing committee at work, and by her mentor when she joined the SEIU staff, an early woman leader in the union from a Los Angeles public workers local, Elinor Glenn.
“She called on my first day of work at SEIU and said if you ever have a question or a problem working inside our union, call me,” Henry recalls. “And I need you to promise that you won’t quit till you have a conversation with me. It was her way of trying to protect young women coming into our union to make sure that she acted as a blocker and tackler for us. She’s somebody whose shoulders I stand on.”
Ultimately, if Henry succeeds, it will because she also remembers to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those workers who organized the union.