Mary Kay Henry has been appointed the new president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the fastest-growing union, and the one representing janitors, homecare workers, and security guards—a huge number of whom are people of color. Her predecessor Andy Stern leaves behind a conflicting, often troubled legacy. Under his 14-year reign, the union embraced the populations that organized labor has historically excluded — people of color, domestic workers, and undocumented immigrants. But it has also undermined transparency and democracy within the union and tread into the turf of another union, UNITE HERE.
Henry’s ascension to the presidency surprised many, who expected Stern’s chosen successor, Anna Burger, to win the office. Some suggest that Henry’s victory points to internal divisions over SEIU’s direction under Stern. A letter written by four executive vice presidents in support of Henry cited her strength in building consensus to “unite our union, from top to bottom and across divisions” and “to re-establish SEIU as an important partner in the labor and progressive community.”
That’s a tall order for Henry, who was never a rank and file member of the union, but started instead as a staff researcher 30 years ago, and worked her way up the union hierarchy. She cut her teeth running campaigns against large hospital chains in the West, such as Catholic Healthcare West. When Stern became president, he named her an organizing director and head of the healthcare division. She’s the first female and openly gay leader of SEIU, founding the union’s LGBTQ Lavender Caucus.
Leon Chow, homecare director at SEIU United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) and board chair of the Chinese Progressive Association, told ColorLines that “as a female labor leader of a big union, Mary Kay Henry can empathize with what my homecare worker’s issues are.” Chow has been an organizer with UHW for 12 years, three in his present position; before working at UHW, he organized immigrant garment workers with HERE.