SEIU elects health-care organizer Henry as president
By Alec MacGillis
The Service Employees International Union, the country's fastest-growing and most politically influential union, on Saturday elected as its new leader a veteran health-care organizer who signaled that she would carry on the legacy of retiring leader Andrew L. Stern while also trying to repair some of the rifts that he created within the labor movement.
The union's 72-member executive board elected as the new president Mary Kay Henry, who grew up in a family of 10 children in the Detroit suburbs and worked her way up through the union's ranks over the past two decades, most recently serving as head of the union's health-care division. Many had expected the presidency to go to Stern's longtime lieutenant, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger. But Henry's challenge drew a rush of support from other national officials and key locals around the country, forcing Burger to concede the race.
The rejection of Stern's anointed successor has led some labor observers to wonder whether there was a desire in the 1.8 million-member union to take it in a sharply different direction, possibly by scaling back the union's heavy political involvement to focus more on traditional organizing. But in a conference call with reporters Saturday, Henry said she intends to redouble the union's organizing efforts -- by, for instance, launching a $4 million "innovation fund" for private-sector organizing -- while keeping up its efforts in trying to elect labor-friendly politicians.
"I feel incredibly invigorated to build on the success of our union under Andy ... and take SEIU to the next level where we can make an even bigger difference," she said.
Henry hinted that she would take a different tack than Stern in one area, SEIU's fraught relationship with other unions. The highly ambitious and independent-minded Stern has had a polarizing effect on the labor movement. In 2005, he led SEIU and several other major unions out of the AFL-CIO, declaring it moribund, but his new federation, Change to Win, has fallen short of expectations. More recently, Stern has riled many others in the movement with his decision to try to capitalize on the nasty break-up of UNITE, the garment-workers union, and HERE, the hotel and restaurant workers union.
Henry said that one of her three main goals, alongside organizing and political involvement, would be "restoring our relationships with the labor movement."
"We can't go it alone," she said. "We are committed to functioning as full partners within the American labor movement."
But even this shift might have limits. Henry said there have been "no discussions" about SEIU's returning to the AFL-CIO, as several other unions in Change to Win are considering. She said the union was hoping to negotiate a settlement in the UNITE-HERE fight, but she made clear that she has every intention of continuing the union's battle with a large breakaway chapter in California that has cost SEIU heavily both in dollars and reputation within the labor movement.
Henry is SEIU's first female president and one of a handful of openly gay union leaders in the country. She also comes into the job with one very clear difference with her predecessor. Whereas Stern has been at the Obama White House more than three dozen times -- making him one of the most frequent visitors -- Henry said she had met Obama only once, at a labor event more than a year ago.
May 8, 2010; 5:24 PM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency | Tags: Andy Stern, Mary Kay Henry, Service Employees International Union, Trade union
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