SEIU to refocus under Henry

SEIU to refocus under Henry

The new president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) said Tuesday that her group will not support Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) even if she wins her contested primary race next week.

Mary Kay Henry, elected on Saturday by the union’s international executive board, said her union members will back candidates not based on their party label but on their positions on “working people’s issues.”

“Our belief is Blanche Lincoln has been on the side of Wall Street and insurance companies and that she does not stand to protect and defend working people,” Henry said. In turn, SEIU and other labor groups have gotten behind Lincoln’s Democratic primary opponent, Bill Halter.

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Asked if SEIU would back Lincoln in the general election if she defeats Halter on May 18, Henry simply said, “No.”

Her response is reflective of a new, more aggressive tack by SEIU that has left an increasing number of Democratic candidates targets of the politically powerful union. On Tuesday, SEIU released an ad accusing Lincoln of siding with insurance companies during the healthcare reform debate, part of a $1 million independent expenditure campaign in Arkansas alone.

Henry said the effort against Lincoln and other Democrats was a continuation of SEIU’s long-held belief that politicians of both parties must be judged on their support of workers’ rights, including letting people organize into unions.

“This is not about being Republican or Democrat,” Henry said. “We want to begin to train ourselves and our rank-and-file leaders to keep evaluating people based on working people’s issues.”

Henry, hardly as well-known as her predecessor, Andy Stern, was the surprise winner over Stern’s chosen pick, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger. Stern announced his resignation last month. Henry was able to round up support quickly and Burger bowed out of the race, allowing Henry to win the SEIU presidency uncontested.

But Henry indicated Tuesday that she would continue Stern’s work, rather than change course. She described the 14-year president’s mark on SEIU as “everlasting.”

“I don’t think I will do things differently. I think I will renew the core mission for our mission that he established,” Henry said. “I think it will be more renewing the core values that he set in place when he first took office.”

Henry said her three priorities would be renewing SEIU’s commitment to union organizing, refocusing the group’s political programs at the national and grassroots levels to work together and restoring its relationships with the rest of the labor movement.

The new SEIU president said she wants to continue the union’s organizing efforts in the healthcare and property service sectors — such as security guards and janitors — and is working on launching a new union of early education professionals. With a heavy SEIU presence on the coasts, Henry said she will invest more to expand the union’s membership in the Midwest and Southwest.

One area Henry is backing away from is Stern’s dispute with Unite Here, the hotel and garment workers union; a breakaway faction joined the SEIU. Henry said she has heard from union leaders who want the conflict resolved.

“I think it will help unleash a lot of talent and resources to focus on the core mission of the union,” Henry said. “It could be a great moment and reset the table to get this done.”

But Henry is not relenting in the matter of the union’s battle with the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which broke off from an SEIU-affiliated union in California.

With the healthcare reform bill now signed into law, Henry said the union’s top legislative priority is moving comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

Calling SEIU a “union of immigrants,” Henry said passing immigration reform would boost the economy by allowing more people to contribute to the U.S. economy and stop exploitation of immigrant workers by employers. In addition, Arizona’s new immigration law, which requires that police question anyone they suspect may be in the state illegally, has lit a fire with union members.

“Our members are burning about the law they signed in Arizona. They want to take action and stop it now,” Henry said. SEIU has announced a boycott of the state.

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Henry said SEIU still considers the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would make union organizing much easier, a main plank of its legislative platform. But the bill has stalled in the Senate.

Henry said a vote on it would be welcome, but that’s unlikely this year as Democrats no longer have the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

“Any action that helps make the case about why non-union workers need to be able to freely form unions without employer interference is a good thing,” Henry said. “If we can have a vote on that question, and began to have that debate about why workers need unions in order to address the economic crisis in this country, that’s a good thing.”