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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