Mary Kay Henry Elected New SEIU President

It may have been a formality, but the executive board of the Service Employees International Union this past Saturday overwhelmingly named SEIU Executive Vice President Mary Kay Henry to succeed Andrew Stern as the labor organization’s next president. The 73-member governing body met in Washington, D.C. to select Ms. Henry, who ran unopposed after Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger dropped out of the race a little over a week earlier. Henry, like Burger, is a Stern loyalist. And she provided a strong seconding of Stern-style Left-populism in her acceptance statement: “This moment marks a renewed commitment to our union’s core mission: to improve the lives of all workers who are struggling to make ends meet in this economy. Working people are facing hardships we haven’t seen in generations, and we believe SEIU can be an even more effective vehicle for change to help them improve their lives and the lives of the people they serve.”

Andrew Stern some three weeks ago had announced his intent to step down from the top spot after 14 years heading a union which now represents some 2.2 million employees, about double from when he took over. Now anointed with the title SEIU President Emeritus, he expressed confidence that his union is in good hands. “I have worked side by side with Mary Kay Henry and witnessed her extraordinary passion for justice and the natural gift that can only be called her way with people,” he said. “From her earliest days organizing workers to her partnership in growing the strength of SEIU, Mary Kay’s leadership has always been marked by her singular ability to connect with each and every person she meets to bring out their best.” With an endorsement like that, it’s clear any rivalry between her and Anna Burger is cosmetic.

The Service Employees International Union has been Mary Kay Henry’s whole career. A native of the Detroit area, Ms. Henry, now 52, grew up in a family of ten children, joining the union as a researcher in 1979 following graduation from Michigan State University with a degree in industrial labor relations. After spending a year in California working on child care and public-sector bargaining issues, she arrived in the Twin Cities area, where she participated in various aspects of organizing, bargaining and legislative advocacy. She won a position on the executive board in 1996 when Andy Stern became president, and eventually became executive vice president in 2004. In recent years Henry has led the union on health care issues, playing a central role in commandeering collective bargaining agreements with major hospital chains such as Beverly Enterprises, Catholic Healthcare West, Tenet and HCA. Ever aligned with Andrew Stern, she helped the SEIU wrest control of the now 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West from rival Sal Rosselli. She also helped create the labor-management partnership at the nation’s largest HMO, Kaiser Permanente.

If Mary Kay Henry has any free-market impulses, she must keep them well-hidden. She was behind much of organized labor’s pressure on Congress to expand coverage of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and then, in the mother of all health care battles, enact the health insurance overhaul. Like predecessors John Sweeney and Andrew Stern, she sees almost limitless possibilities for government intervention. According to the SEIU website, “Mary Kay envisions a U.S. healthcare system that provides universal coverage and gives front-line caregivers a real voice in patient care.” Put another way, she views the trillions of dollars in public expenditures projected to insure an estimated 33 million uninsured persons as a first step toward British-style nationalization. A few other relevant facts: Like Sweeney, her progressivism is informed by a Catholic sensibility. She cites her religious faith as a reason why she became a union organizer; for a time she had advised the U.S. Conference of Bishops’ Subcommittee on Catholic Health Care. Ms. Henry is also a mass immigration booster, viewing low-wage Third World immigrants as good organizing fodder. And as an avowed lesbian, she’s a founding member of the SEIU Lavender Caucus, which seeks a higher profile for gay and lesbian issues within the union.

While many on the Left are cheered by Henry becoming SEIU president, some are not. They tend to view her as a chip off Andy Stern’s block, a greenhorn willing to deliver substandard contracts for rank and file in return for expanding their numbers. One such critic is veteran telecom industry union organizer and negotiator Steve Early. In the online version of the progressive monthly, Labor Notes, he observed:

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 [International Executive Board] 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 partnering. But longtime SEIU co-workers say she has had very little direct involvement in actual collective bargaining…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 than under her predecessor, Larry Fox, who was pushed aside by Stern to make way for an up-and-coming Mary Kay.

Mary Kay Henry is known to many in her union as a real ‘people’ person, someone willing to work side by side with members, walk picket lines, and take the lead in contract talks. But her effectiveness in winning tangible gains remains an open question. The next year should test her mettle.