Powerful SEIU elects first woman president, successor to Stern

One of the country’s most political powerful unions elected its new president Saturday.

Mary Kay Henry has stepped in as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Henry was the surprise victor who snapped up support quickly among the union’s 73-member international executive board in her campaign for the top spot where she eventually ran uncontested. SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger — the chosen successor of Andy Stern, the former president who announced his resignation last month — bowed out of the race and threw her support behind Henry. 

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“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,” Henry said. “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.”

Henry has been with SEIU for 30 years. Fresh out of Michigan State University, she joined the union in 1979 as a research specialist and later served as organizing director and head of its healthcare division. In 2004, she was elected as executive vice president and will be SEIU’s first woman president.

Henry will inherit one of the most potent forces in liberal politics today. President for 14 years, Stern built SEIU, now with 2.2 million union members, into a juggernaut that has been key to Democratic electoral success as well as the party’s policy accomplishments.

SEIU has the biggest political action committee among labor unions, with close to $11.8 million in cash on hand by the end of 2009, according to Federal Election Commission records. In addition, it spent more than $58 million on its political and lobbying activities in 2009, working with groups as varied as the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America to the National Gay Lesbian Task Force, according to financial disclosure records filed with the Labor Department.

Henry said Saturday the union will keep up its commitment to organizing and politics, announcing Saturday that SEIU will invest $4 million in an innovation fund for nationwide private sector organizing. That is on top of a $44 million political campaign for the 2010 elections, including an additional $4 million in campaign work for governors’ races in states like Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Florida and Ohio, Henry said. 

Henry played a big part in what was probably the union’s greatest victory: passage of the healthcare reform bill this past March. Henry sits on the board of directors of Families USA, a national advocacy group for healthcare consumers that was central to the debate in Washington.

Ron Pollack, executive director for the group, said she was “absolutely invaluable” in the campaign for healthcare reform.

“I have no doubt that she will be a very effective breath of fresh air to the entire labor movement because of the combination of skills and attributes she will bring to this new position,” Pollack said. “She spends a great deal with the rank and file. She is a consummate people person. Even in the context of a difficult, stressful campaign, she has a style and personal way of doing things that make it very easy to work together as a colleague.”

SEIU is also considered to be the closest union to the White House, having played a key role in President Barack Obama’s winning 2008 campaign. Both Burger and Stern have visited the White House dozens of times. But Henry has seemingly only stopped by once, for an April 2009 event with Vice President Joseph Biden, according to White House visitor records released by the administration.  

Henry said Saturday that she has only met Obama once, when he was a candidate on the 2008 campaign trail. In addition, she has not stopped by the White House yet as SEIU president but is working on securing a meeting there soon.

“We want to redouble our efforts from ’08. We are deeply committed to backing this president and pushing this president,” Henry said, adding they want to play a key part in his expected reelection bid in 2012.

In addition, Henry said she plans to discuss SEIU’s support of third-party efforts in New York and North Carolina with the union’s national leadership team. That initiative stems from House Democrats in those states voting against the healthcare reform bill that the union backed.

“We want to fight on behalf of workers and on what they need … For us, it is not about third parties,” Henry said. “It is about how workers can accomplish their goals through the political process.”

While Henry will take control of a political force, she will also have to contend with internal fights in the labor movement left behind by Stern.

There has been a vicious battle with Unite Here, the hotel and garment workers’ union. In addition, SEIU is still fighting with the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which broke off from an SEIU-affiliated union in California.

Sal Rosselli, NUHW president, said he sees little change between Stern and Henry.

“Mary Kay has been accountable to Andy Stern for 30 years. That has been her whole constituency. I can't imagine there will be any major change, no,” Rosselli said.

Henry is not relenting in either of those internal labor fights.

“I have no plan to engage the leadership of the rival organization that was created with our own members,” Henry said, referring to NUHW. 

Henry will also to work to keep up good relationships with other unions, which have often been fraught with turmoil. In 2005, SEIU led the break-off coalition Change to Win from the AFL-CIO, creating some uneasy relations between the two factions.

Nevertheless, Henry has won plaudits from union leaders.

“I have a good relationship with Mary Kay. We have worked together in the past on a number of issues,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told The Hill. “I think she will be a quality leader and I think she will do a great job for SEIU and for their members.”

Henry said Saturday that she will go on a listening campaign with union heads in Change to Win as well as the AFL-CIO. That said, Henry said Change to Win will not rejoin the AFL-CIO but she will work with other union leaders to provide a “united labor voice” in the 2010 elections.