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posted Friday, April 30, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 18
Lesbian to lead Service Employees International Union 'The most powerful Lesbian in the country'
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Lesbian to lead Service Employees International Union 'The most powerful Lesbian in the country'

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Mary Kay Henry, out Lesbian and an executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), will almost certainly be elected president of the powerful union on May 8.

She will succeed retiring president Andy Stern, beating out current SEIU secretary-treasurer Anna Burger, who was Stern's hand-picked choice to succeed him.

Burger announced she was dropping out of the race to succeed Stern on April 28. There are no other candidates for the post.

Seattle-area labor leaders who have worked with Henry describe her in glowing terms.

"I've worked with her for the better part of 19 years," said David Rolf, president of SEIU 775 and one of SEIU's international vice presidents, "and I couldn't be more thrilled. She's an inspiring leader."

"She's an inspiration - a great leader and an amazing organizer," agreed Kim Cook, president of SEIU 925. "I've worked with her for 25 years, through a lot of organizing."

"It's so exciting she's a woman - and a Lesbian," Cook added. "I guess she'll be the most powerful Lesbian in the country."

Henry began her SEIU career in 1979 and rose to become the union's chief healthcare strategist. She was elected to the International Executive Board in 1996.

She has served as an executive vice president of SEIU since June 2004.

Henry is also a founding member of the SEIU Lavender Caucus, the union's LGBT member organization.

A lightning campaign for leadership
Her lightning campaign for leadership of the union was dramatic and surprising.

Stern announced his retirement and his support for Burger in an April 13 e-mail to SEIU leaders. Burger was a longtime associate and personal friend of Stern.

Henry emerged as a dark horse candidate when four other executive vice presidents of the union began circulating a statement of support for her.

The tipping point in the contest for leadership of SEIU came on April 23, when both candidates made presentations to the executive board of the union's largest local, 1199 United Healthcare Workers East. SEIU 1199 represents 300,000 workers - about 15% of SEIU's total membership.

In spite of a strong pitch for Burger by the local's former president and current SEIU Executive Vice President Dennis Rivera, the board endorsed Henry by an overwhelming margin.

She reportedly won over the local's mid-level leaders after its current president, George Gresham, indicated he would remain neutral.

The next day, two other big locals, one in New York and another in California, met and endorsed Henry.

Henry's own local is based in California, and she already had the support of most West Coast SEIU leaders. Winning significant East Coast support gave her a virtual lock on the SEIU presidency.

"I'm so proud of SEIU not to do the expected," Cook told SGN, "not to just assume the succession."

SEIU will remain a political powerhouse
SEIU is one of the country's largest labor unions, with some 2.2 million members. Under Stern's leadership it also became a political powerhouse, investing money and staff time in national Democratic political campaigns.

The investment paid off for Stern, who has been a frequent guest at the Obama White House.

SEIU's Washington State Council was a key supporter of Gov. Christine Gregoire, and a major contributor to the Approve Referendum 71 campaign.

Media observers have asserted that Henry plans to scale back SEIU's political profile and refocus the union on organizing workers, but both Rolf and Cook say this is not true.

"There are some 'factoids' out there that are a little odd," Rolf said. "I don't know where people get some of this stuff - especially Ben Smith [of Politico.com]."

Rolf told SGN that Henry had sent an e-mail to SEIU leaders to "address misconceptions" about her plans for the union's political work.

According to Rolf, Henry committed to "build on our past successes, strengthen our political work, and expand our efforts in national political campaigns."

"Anyone who leads this union will be a political leader," Rolf concluded.

Cook agreed.

"This is not a repudiation of what Andy has been doing," she told SGN. "[Henry] will challenge us to do both [politics and organizing] and do both better, with even more passion."

Peace in the labor movement
Stern was a controversial figure in the U.S. labor movement. In 2005, he led SEIU and five other unions out of the AFL-CIO to form the Change To Win labor federation.

Stern also became embroiled in conflicts with UNITE HERE, the California Nurses Association, and the National United Healthcare Workers (NUHW), formerly an SEIU local.

Henry will take the helm at SEIU with a mandate to repair her union's relations with the rest of the labor movement.

The statement circulated on her behalf by four of the union's executive vice presidents said flatly that "it's time to restore our relationships with the rest of the union movement and our progressive allies."

Henry's election may be good news for SEIU, for Democrats, and for other labor leaders.

It is probably very bad news for Bruce Raynor, former co-president of UNITE HERE, the hospitality and food service union.

Stern's personal friendship with Raynor led him to involve SEIU in a long and nasty fight between Raynor and his UNITE HERE co-president, John Wilhelm.

When Raynor was overwhelmingly voted out of his union office in April 2009, Stern tried to split off some UNITE HERE locals to create a new SEIU-affiliated union for him.

The resulting war between SEIU and UNITE HERE ate up substantial financial, legal, and staff resources on both sides, and turned most labor leaders against Stern.

Ultimately 27 national union presidents signed a solidarity pledge backing UNITE HERE against SEIU. Twenty-nine Central Labor Councils passed resolutions against SEIU raiding UNITE HERE locals. Even the other Change To Win unions would not support Stern.

UNITE HERE left Change To Win and re-affiliated with the AFL-CIO in September 2009.

Both Rolf and Cook agree that Henry will try to bring a measure of cooperation to SEIU's relations with other labor organizations.

"We need to settle with UNITE HERE so we can all get on with our work," Rolf said.

"It would surprise me if we go back into the AFL-CIO," he added, "but everyone wants better cooperation."

"We need to heal the wounds," Cook said. "We couldn't do that with the present leadership. It means outreach, and a new sort of thinking."

UNITE HERE has accused Raynor of stealing tens of millions of dollars from union funds. His Workers United union is affiliated with SEIU and remains heavily dependant on SEIU support.

It remains to be seen what resources SEIU will be prepared to commit to Raynor under Henry's leadership.

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