Post-Stern SEIU: In Upset, Mary Kay Henry Nails Down Presidency

David Moberg

The crowd of a couple dozen revelers at Pete’s Tavern in downtown Los Angeles got rowdy enough at one point that the manager had to ask them to hold down the noise. But their exuberance was understandable. One of the group – Mary Kay Henry – had just nailed down an upset victory to succeed Andy Stern as president of the Service Employees International Union.

About a week earlier Stern had announced plans to retire in mid-term as the high-profile, controversial, and influential leader of the nation’s second biggest union. He wrote to the union’s international executive board that he was endorsing SEIU secretary-treasurer and long-time personal friend Anna Burger to succeed him.

Henry, an executive vice-president of the union who rose through the staff, mainly in the big healthcare division, had been rumored as a potential dark horse candidate. Then four other executive vice-presidents circulated an endorsement of Henry as someone who could unify SEIU, restore better relations with other unions, and resurrect organizing as a central focus.

One by one, executive board members – some acting on their own, others taking votes of their own local union boards – began taking sides. Burger seemed to have the advantage with building services and the newest division Stern brought in – the breakaway faction of UNITE HERE, as well as a presumptive edge in the East (the union’s membership is concentrated in two states, California and New York). Henry had an advantage in health care and in California.

The turning point came on Thursday, when both candidates appeared before the board of the largest local in the union, United Healthcare Workers-East (a greatly expanded version of the old 1199 hospital local in New York). Despite a plea on behalf of Berger from its former leader, health care division executive vice-president Dennis Rivera, the board strongly endorsed Henry, giving her the momentum of a likely winner and probably tipping the balance on Friday.

That’s when leaders of two other big locals, the New York-based building services local 32-BJ and California long-term care workers’ local, met and endorsed Henry. Then other locals, such as an 80,000-member California public workers local, lined up behind Henry on Friday, and the tipping point appeared to have been passed.

Henry’s victory was in large part a rejection of Burger’s personal style of leadership and an expression of dissatisfaction with the direction Stern has taken in recent years. It was less clearly an endorsement of Henry, nor a clear statement of a new direction for SEIU.

Burger was either not widely liked” or widely disliked,” according to many SEIU officials and staff. Critics saw her as mean” or a bully.” Various reports described her presentations of her candidacy this past week as stiff and arrogant. She was closely identified with Stern, especially his emphasis on political action that has only grown since he led the split of the AFL-CIO to form Change to Win.

Henry is seen as more collegial and solicitous of others’ opinions and is more identified with the organizing activities of SEIU. Her supporters think she will be more likely to resolve the conflict with UNITE HERE that angered many other unions – in both federations – and demoralized SEIU staff. She is also likely to let the pendulum of power swing back in a more decentralized direction after the growing centralization under Stern, and other national leaders should have more of a voice in the union’s decisions.

But Henry seems no more likely than Burger to resolve peacefully the conflict with the former United Health Care Workers-West leaders and members who have formed their own union and are contesting for loyalties of UHW members.

Henry was no dissident under Stern, and there is not likely to be any dramatic shift in direction for the union. But at a time when SEIU is facing a growing number of difficulties, Henry may be a soothing leader for troubled times.

(For excellent coverage of the internal fight and documents from different factions, see Ben Smith’s columns in Politico.) 

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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