Mary Kay Henry and Smoke Signals From the Purple Vatican

Steve Early

Mary Kay Henry is poised to serve as the new president of the Service Employees International Union.

Will SEIU’s West Coast War­rior’ be an improve­ment on Pope Andy I?



In a video mes­sage to mem­bers of the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) ear­li­er this month, their long­time pres­i­dent, Andy Stern, tried to assuage any pop­u­lar grief about his forth­com­ing retire­ment. He quot­ed from a Dr. Seuss sto­ry he often read to his chil­dren. Don’t cry because it’s over,” Stern advised. Smile because it happened.”

In the top ranks of the union, lit­tle time has been wast­ed on tears. Like the ever-mis­chie­vous Cat in the Hat,” four SEIU exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dents imme­di­ate­ly start­ed cam­paign­ing to have their 52-year old col­league, Mary Kay Hen­ry, replace Stern, rather than his old­er, more stol­id sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er Anna Burg­er.

Burg­er, in turn, urged the sev­en­ty or more Inter­na­tion­al Exec­u­tive Board (IEB) mem­bers, who will be mak­ing this deci­sion in May, to fol­low Stern’s rec­om­men­da­tion and elect her pres­i­dent. While any con­test­ed vote is wel­come in a union that gen­er­al­ly dis­cour­ages them, the process of replac­ing Stern has been about as trans­par­ent as the Col­lege of Car­di­nals’ method of pick­ing a new pope in Rome. Instead of watch­ing for col­or-cod­ed smoke sig­nals from the Vat­i­can, a wait­ing labor world has been deci­pher­ing mes­sages, from one side or the oth­er, as they get post­ed on the Internet.

In one of these let­ters, SEIU Health­care divi­sion chair Den­nis Rivera appealed, unsuc­cess­ful­ly, for lead­er­ship uni­ty.” By this, he meant that Mary Kay Hen­ry should bide her time and take the sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er job instead, while Burg­er serves out the remain­der of Andy’s unfin­ished term.

But the gang of four EVPs who are pro-Hen­ry — Ger­ry Hud­son, Eliseo Med­i­na, Dave Regan, and Tom Woodruff — took a dif­fer­ent tack when court­ing their board col­leagues. They released a let­ter on April 17 that acknowl­edged grow­ing inter­nal con­cern about SEIU’s loss of focus on real orga­niz­ing (as opposed to poach­ing mem­bers from oth­er unions) and its alien­ation of past labor-com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ers around the country.

Many of you have expressed the need to return to orga­niz­ing as our top priority…We’ve also heard many of you say it’s time to restore our rela­tion­ships with the rest of the union move­ment and our pro­gres­sive allies.

While all four sign­ers helped cre­ate these new­ly-dis­cov­ered orga­ni­za­tion­al chal­lenges, their let­ter tout­ed Hen­ry as just the right helmswoman for a rec­ti­fi­ca­tion cam­paign that would be famil­iar to cit­i­zens in any one-par­ty dic­ta­tor­ship abroad. There — just as in SEIU today – the cor­rect line” can change abrupt­ly, but with­out any for­mal admis­sion that the cen­tral com­mit­tee (or, more impor­tant­ly, any­one cur­rent­ly on it) has ever made a sin­gle polit­i­cal mis­take that needs to be rec­ti­fied.

For her part, Mary Kay Hen­ry has been rapid­ly accu­mu­lat­ing plau­dits that are sim­i­lar­ly dis­con­nect­ed from real­i­ty, although wide­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed by media out­lets rang­ing from Politi­co to The New York Times to our very own In These Times. For exam­ple, it was actu­al­ly sug­gest­ed ear­li­er this week, in The Times, that Hen­ry is some­one fresh and new,” when in fact she is a pro­to­typ­i­cal prod­uct of the SEIU man­age­r­i­al class first recruit­ed and installed by Stern or his pre­de­ces­sor, John Sweeney, sev­er­al decades ago.

The head­line on that same 4/26/10 sto­ry by the Times’ Steven Green­house even referred to Hen­ry as the Grass-Roots Choice” for SEIU pres­i­dent when, in fact, her cam­paign is about as far from the grass­roots as sky-box­es are from astro-turf in any big league sta­di­um.

In Politi­co, Ben Smith mis­tak­en­ly claimed that Hen­ry would be the first woman, and the first open­ly gay leader to head one of America’s largest unions.” In fact, both of these his­toric firsts” have already been accom­plished by Ran­di Wein­garten of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers. More aware of Mary Kay’s impend­ing sec­ond place fin­ish behind Ran­di, for­mer (and per­haps future?) SEIU media con­sul­tant Ray Aber­nathy laud­ed her instead as a pret­ty slick dudette” — a Catholic war­rior for women’s rights and gay and les­bian rights” who has nev­er even threat­ened to leave the church.”

Mean­while, my fel­low WITT con­trib­u­tor David Moberg report­ed that Mary Kay is more col­le­gial and solic­i­tous of oth­ers’ opin­ions” than the stiff and arro­gant” Anna Burg­er. In trou­bled times” when SEIU is fac­ing a grow­ing num­ber of dif­fi­cul­ties, Hen­ry may be a sooth­ing leader,” the ever-hope­ful Moberg sur­mised.

In the spir­it of Krem­li­nol­o­gy-past (and Vat­i­can-watch­ing today), let me pro­vide a few more salient bio­graph­i­cal details about Sis­ter Mary Kay, the appar­ent suc­ces­sor to Andy Stern:

Unlike Stern and Burg­er — but like a major­i­ty of those ele­vat­ed to high posi­tions by them — Hen­ry has nev­er been a work­ing mem­ber of SEIU. She joined the union staff as a researcher in 1979. She man­aged to get on the IEB, as a Stern appointee, 17 years lat­er with­out ever hav­ing been elect­ed to any local union posi­tion — not shop stew­ard, nego­tia­tor, e‑board mem­ber, or pres­i­dent. She has nev­er even run a local union as a Stern-appoint­ed trustee (the usu­al path to upward mobil­i­ty in SEIU for col­lege-edu­cat­ed staffers hired from the out­side).

Over the years, Hen­ry has been involved in much head­quar­ters strate­giz­ing about and region­al coor­di­na­tion of SEIU health care orga­niz­ing. She has also dealt with sev­er­al major employ­ers about orga­niz­ing rights agree­ments and labor-man­age­ment part­ner­ship pro­grams. But long­time SEIU co-work­ers say she has had very lit­tle direct involve­ment in actu­al col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing (as in per­son­al­ly chair­ing any large elect­ed union nego­ti­at­ing com­mit­tees con­fronting man­age­ment across the table). She’s report­ed­ly much bet­ter at con­duct­ing staff con­fer­ence calls than under­stand­ing or sup­port­ing work­place strug­gles. And, these crit­ics note, SEIU’s health­care divi­sion mem­ber­ship achieved far greater growth under her pre­de­ces­sor, Lar­ry Fox, who was pushed aside by Stern to make way for an up-and-com­ing Mary Kay.

Henry’s behind-the-scenes role with employ­ers like Tenet Health­care Cor­po­ra­tion has been quite con­tro­ver­sial, to say the least. As my friend Cal Winslow reports in his new PM Press pam­phlet, Labor’s Civ­il Wars in Cal­i­for­nia,” Hen­ry was among those top SEIU staffers who com­man­deered nego­ti­a­tions” with Tenet three years ago, by-pass­ing the elect­ed bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee structure:

In Decem­ber 2006, SEIU announced they had reached a ten­ta­tive agree­ment with Tenet for orga­niz­ing rights at 23 hos­pi­tals through­out the Unit­ed States. What had they giv­en up? SEIU rep­re­sen­ta­tives agreed to give up work­ers’ right to strike in Cal­i­for­nia for ten years, to allow the com­pa­ny to sub­con­tract up to 12 per­cent of the work­force at any time, and to give away job secu­ri­ty pro­vi­sions already con­tained in the con­tract. Most exist­ing SEIU dues-pay­ers at Tenet belong to UHW and they weren’t hap­py about this deal.

As Winslow reports, Tenet was soon faced with the oppo­si­tion of thou­sands of mobi­lized UHW mem­bers in Cal­i­for­nia” and, in the end, with­drew its con­ces­sion­ary demands.” Left behind, how­ev­er, was a major inter­nal union rift over bar­gain­ing and orga­niz­ing strat­e­gy that led direct­ly to Stern’s dis­as­trous Jan­u­ary 2008 takeover of UHW.

Hen­ry has done not just one, but two rel­e­vant tours of duty in SEIU trustee­ships over the same Cal­i­for­nia health­care union— orig­i­nal­ly known as Local 250 and more recent­ly renamed Unit­ed Health­care Work­ers-West (or UHW). Her track record in such assign­ments reveals a lot about what kind of pur­ple appa­ratchik may be soon be wield­ing Andy’s scepter in Wash­ing­ton.

In her first go-round in the Bay Area, Hen­ry was part of a head­quar­ters crew installed by then-SEIU pres­i­dent John Sweeney to run the affairs of Local 250 after it was bank­rupt­ed by a long Kaiser strike and local lead­ers asked to be put under trustee­ship.

Mary Kay worked under SEIU orga­niz­er Mark Splain, who was hand-picked by Sweeney to become, in the usu­al SEIU fash­ion, pres­i­dent of the local when the first post-trustee­ship elec­tion of offi­cers was held in 1988. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for the Inter­na­tion­al union, the mem­ber­ship — then, as now — had oth­er ideas about who their lead­ers should be.

A group of rank-and-fil­ers and staff put togeth­er a com­pet­ing slate, head­ed by Sal Rossel­li. He was then fired, along with oth­er sup­port­ers on the local pay-roll, and the trustee­ship extend­ed for many months to give Splain more time to win. Hen­ry was a key fig­ure in the bit­ter strug­gle to keep Local 250 in head­quar­ters-approved hands. She had plen­ty of help in the form of 50 paid staffers, almost all of whom backed Splain. When the bal­lots were final­ly count­ed (a much con­test­ed process as well), Rossel­li beat Splain by a mar­gin of 49 to 46 per­cent.

By the time of Stern’s take over of UHW and ouster of Rossel­li and oth­er elect­ed lead­ers 20 years lat­er, Local 250 had grown, through merg­ers and new orga­niz­ing, into SEIU’s third largest affil­i­ate, 150,000 mem­bers-strong. In 2008 – 9, Hen­ry was a major cheer­leader for the occu­pa­tion army of staffers, assem­bled at great cost from around the coun­try, to seize and dis­man­tle UHW. At one infa­mous trustee­ship plan­ning meet­ing held in Las Vegas in Jan­u­ary 2008, she applaud­ed the soon-to-be UHW invaders as war­riors” for the SEIU cause

Work­ing on the front lines of the con­tin­u­ing UHW trustee­ship has not made Mary Kay a more sooth­ing” pres­ence since then. In fact, she’s been a real war­rior” her­self, albeit with spe­cial pro­tec­tion not afford­ed to most of the troops under her com­mand. (It was recent­ly dis­closed, in fed­er­al court, that SEIU paid for four months of cost­ly 24-hour guard­ing of her home, by a cor­po­rate secu­ri­ty firm, in case any irate UHW mem­bers stopped by, unin­vit­ed, for a chat last year.)

When Hen­ry has vis­it­ed UHW work­places where mem­bers are over­whelm­ing­ly opposed to the trustee­ship and have signed peti­tions to join SEIU’s new rival — the Nation­al Union of Health­care Work­ers (NUHW) — she has been quick to invoke mar­tial law per­son­al­ly.

As PerezStern, the SEIU-watch­ing blog­ger report­ed last March, Hen­ry vis­it­ed Kaiser’s Wal­nut Creek Med­ical Cen­ter with anoth­er staffer right after Lover Joyce, an African-Amer­i­can med­ical assis­tant at the hos­pi­tal, had been removed as stew­ard, along with a co-work­er. In response, their fel­low stew­ards had called an emer­gency meet­ing and passed a res­o­lu­tion refus­ing to rec­og­nize SEIU’s dis­missal of elect­ed shop floor lead­ers. (That unprece­dent­ed statewide purge has now affect­ed hun­dreds of stew­ards at Kaiser, who have either quit in dis­gust or been removed for refus­ing to sign an SEIU-required loy­al­ty oath.”)

When Mary Kay showed up for the Wal­nut Creek stew­ards’ next month­ly meet­ing, Lover came in to the hos­pi­tal, on his day off, so he could par­tic­i­pate as well. He was told he couldn’t and the Wal­nut Creek Police Depart­ment was called for back-up. As Perez report­ed last March 20:

For­tu­nate­ly, the police had a far bet­ter under­stand­ing of union democ­ra­cy than Mary Kay or her assis­tant. After hear­ing what hap­pened, the police report­ed­ly told the SEIU staffers: We can’t arrest this guy. He works here at the hos­pi­tal. And he’s a union mem­ber. How can we arrest him for com­ing to a union meeting?’ 

At a Labor Notes con­fer­ence the year before, Lover deliv­ered a very mov­ing speech to 1,000 oth­er trade union­ists about what the old UHW meant to him and many oth­er work­ers. In a prophet­ic pre-trustee­ship obser­va­tion, he not­ed that when you have peo­ple who are appoint­ed to things, their loy­al­ty isn’t to the mem­ber­ship, it’s to the peo­ple who appoint­ed them.” 

On the ground this sum­mer at Kaiser, where NUHW will be com­pet­ing with SEIU for the hearts and minds of 45,000 work­ers like Lover Joyce, the mem­o­ry of Mary Kay Hen­ry may help car­ry the day for NUHW — regard­less of Henry’s own upcom­ing win among top SEIU offi­cials in Wash­ing­ton.

Steve Ear­ly has been con­demned to SEIU-watch­ing, like oth­ers scru­ti­nize the Vat­i­can, for rea­sons that may have to do with his youth­ful fail­ings as an altar boy. His longer account of Who Rules SEIU?” will appear as a chap­ter in The Civ­il Wars in U.S. Labor, forth­com­ing next win­ter from Hay­mar­ket Books. A union orga­niz­er, strike coor­di­na­tor, and con­tract nego­tia­tor in the tele­com indus­try for 27 years, he is also the author of Embed­ded With Orga­nized Labor: Jour­nal­is­tic Reflec­tions on the Class War at Home (Month­ly Review Press, 2009).

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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