The New Face of SEIU

Mary Kay Henry takes the helm of America’s second-biggest union, as Andy Stern departs.

David Moberg

In Andover, Mass., IBEW members at the defense contractor Raytheon yell at workers crossing the picket line during a strike over job security and benefits.

During his 14 years as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Andy Stern catapulted the union and himself into national prominence. Consequently, his announcement on April 14 that he would retire midterm set off intense speculation about where the union – and organized labor – is heading in a post-Stern world.

Painful as it may be to hear, Henry would do well to revive the union’s organizing by combining member involvement and decision-making with political and comprehensive campaigning.

SEIU, the nation’s second-biggest union, is not only one of the most active in politics and organizing, it is also embroiled in serious conflicts with other unions and intense debate about its strategy.

On the positive side, says former SEIU staffer and author Bill Fletcher, Stern understood the importance of organizing and greatly expanded SEIU’s global work, even if he too often sought structural solutions for nonstructural problems, such as creating bigger locals to address union weakness confronting employers. And in an interview with In These Times, Stern himself concludes, We got late to the right decision, which was that the union couldn’t be just about us. It really had to be about justice for all.” This choice is now expressed in the union’s political work, from its early support of Obama to its controversial role in pushing through healthcare reform.

Another former SEIU official, who spoke anonymously to avoid friction with his current union, is not so kind: Andy failed to live up to his potential. At the end of the day, he was a huge failure. It’s true the union grew dramatically, but it’s not as good a union or as much a force for good. Though there are more members, the members are not as integrated into the union or as well served as before.”

Stern, 59, rose from insurgent leader of a Pennsylvania social service local to organizing director, then the successful challenger to former president John Sweeney’s choice as successor. Now Stern has experienced his own political turnabout after endorsing SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger as his successor.

Executive vice-president and healthcare leader Mary Kay Henry, backed by many of the union’s top officers, quickly lined up the majority of executive board votes, prompting Burger to withdraw her candidacy in late April. Apparently the board disliked Burger’s leadership style and abrasive personality and calculated that Henry would be more collegial and willing to share power. Both were Stern loyalists with few ideological differences. 

But the vote, made official by executive board members on May 8, was a rebuff to Stern and a reflection of discontent with his legacy even at the top. Four executive vice-presidents who backed Henry, the first openly gay president of SEIU, wrote to the executive board that many of them wanted to return to organizing as our top priority…[and] to restore our relationships with the rest of the union movement and our progressive allies” through a team effort.”

Stern leadership

Stern initially restructured SEIU (by centralizing power and increasing dues) into an international union focusing on organizing by industry. Using trusteeships, he initially took out corrupt local union barons but later abused that power. Then he consolidated smaller unions into large industrially unified locals” that were controlled by his appointees. But his repeated calls for consolidation of unions into a few large jurisdictions drew little support, even from some allies in Change To Win, the federation of unions Stern led out of the AFL-CIO in 2005, which is now in decline.

Under Stern, SEIU nearly doubled to a reported 1.86 million members (the 2.2 million SEIU claims includes nonmembers required to pay union fees). But most of that growth came from mergers and organizing – through political clout – large blocs of home health- or child-care aides, quasi-public workers paid from government funds.

Stern, who had criticized the AFL-CIO for focusing too much on politics, turned SEIU into labor’s biggest political spender, partly to help organize. While promoting progressive goals like universal healthcare (though not single-payer), Stern was quicker to compromise and more likely to seek corporate allies in his political work than many other labor leaders.

SEIU organizing relied more and more on comprehensive campaigns to win neutrality or contracts from employers by attacking their financial, political and public-relations vulnerabilities. Sometimes workers were minimally involved in the campaigns, and the deals struck for neutrality often gave away worker rights and delivered weak gains. Arguing that SEIU was bringing concrete improvements to more workers than other unions, Stern dismissed old notions of class struggle in favor of win-win” agreements with CEOs, even those at Wal-Mart.

We consciously, thoughtfully tried to create a union that would change people’s lives,” he says. While struggle is important, while mobilizing is good, while fighting the good fight is heroic, changing people’s lives is why people build these organizations. … The union made a decision in 1996 that it wanted to be a union that won for its members and not just tried.” 

Those union members, he said, did not want the intellectual, ideological, academic conception of what democracy is” propounded by critics of SEIU. I would say there are very few issues raised by our members in big or small locals that mirror the issues raised by people not in our union,” he says. Like parents seeking out their PTA leader, he says, members are happy to know they have a place to go and exercise their concerns.” 

But as Stern centralized control, discontent over democracy did arise – most forcefully, but not exclusively, in the ongoing fight with the dissident National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which is currently contesting elections to represent SEIU’s United Healthcare West members. 

Many SEIU staff and members objected to Stern’s takeover of United Healtcare West, which had been one of SEIU’s fastest-growing locals. They – along with most of the labor movement – were even more disturbed by Stern’s efforts to take over UNITE HERE’s members, organizing jurisdictions and resources (including Amalgamated Bank).

Ironically, though SEIU under Stern used growth – at almost any price – as justification for its strategies, the union did not make significant progress in increasing the share of union members in its core private industries. Compared to other unions it benefited from organizing industries like healthcare that have grown even in the recession. But last year it grew by only 50,000 members, or 2.8 percent.

Growth slowed partly because the union delayed organizing in anticipation of labor law reform. There were also deep cuts in organizing staff, although SEIU says some organizers moved to locals or political work. Stern critics say the 2009 cuts were needed to fix serious budget problems that emerged in 2008 when local union dues payments declined and the international union recorded tens of millions of dollars in debt owed by locals. Many of them, including several locals involved with scandals, may have difficulty paying. SEIU spokesperson Michelle Ringuette denies that the 2008 dues dip and local union debts endanger the union’s finances, which critics regard as shaky, if strengthened. Ringuette says the union expects to grow by 120,000 this year, but critics contend that financial problems could threaten SEIU’s strategy – growth.

Henry vs. Rosselli

Henry, who rose through SEIU’s ranks via appointed staff positions, will likely restore an emphasis on organizing, quickly settle with UNITE HERE and reach out to other unions (possibly moving toward rejoining the AFL-CIO). She will probably consult with her fellow SEIU leaders before making any bold moves. But she is likely to continue to battle NUHW and its leader Sal Rosselli (with whom she has often fought) as vigorously as Stern.

Painful as it may be to hear, Henry would do well to revive the union’s organizing more along the model of locals such as the old Rosselli-led UHW by combining intense member involvement and decision-making with vigorous political and comprehensive campaigning.

She would also do well to heed SEIU strategist Stephen Lerner, who argues in the New Labor Forum that the goals of labor organizing must be linked to community needs and organizations. This labor-community alliance would work for worker rights and organization as part of what he calls a visionary and transformative” reconstruction of sectors of the economy.

Much as Henry can build on her predecessor’s commitment to organizing, global unionism, and justice for all” politics, for the sake of SEIU and organized labor she will also need to shift course dramatically from the direction Stern steered the union. For someone so close to Stern for many years, that may be hard for her to do, in the unlikely event that is part of her as yet undeclared plan.

Henry is not likely to become as much a high-profile figure as Stern. But if she really turns to local leaders for more advice (as she has promised), and devolves more power to members (which she has not mentioned), she could deliver some of the promise Stern once brought, and then, sadly, lost. 

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. 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 received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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