President of SEIU 'the most powerful Lesbian in the country'
by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Mary Kay Henry has been described as 'the most powerful Lesbian in the country.'
In May, she was elected president of the 2.2 million-member SEIU (Service Employees International Union), one of the largest, fastest growing, and most influential unions in the country.
In Seattle to meet with local SEIU leaders after an SEIU 925 conference in Yakima, Henry spoke exclusively with SGN about her union, its role in a broader social justice movement, and the future of LGBT activism.
She also revealed new initiatives to repair relations with other unions - relations that were often strained to the breaking point under her SEIU predecessor, Andy Stern.
THE PURPLE OCEAN
Henry was instantly recognizable in a purple shirt - purple being the signature color of SEIU. In fact, SEIU has been called "the purple ocean" because of its ability to turn out hundreds of purple-clad members at labor rallies and political events.
"Once in a while I have dared not to wear purple," she laughs, "and people always give me a hard time about it."
Henry believes that her union's strong public image - SEIU is arguably better branded than many corporate employers - helps foster a sense of solidarity among her members.
"It creates an identity," she says, "which comes with plusses and minuses. When I joined SEIU in 1980, no one knew who the union was. It was like 'SEIU - who?' This is a huge advance."
Although SEIU has added 1 million new members since 1996, "there is a unity of purpose" among her members, Henry says, because of their strong sense of identity.
"Unity of purpose" is an idea that Henry will return to again and again in her conversation with SGN.
Henry has a very clear idea of what she wants to do with the political power that comes from her 2 million members' sense of solidarity.
"I want to be clear that I stand on the shoulders of leaders who saw their mission - the mission of the labor movement - as being about economic and social justice," she says.
"I hope to build on that incredible foundation, to use our power and strength to rebalance the economy, to put people back to work, to rebuild the union movement, and redress income inequality - which is growing for the first time in recent memory."
Henry was a founding member of the SEIU Lavender Caucus, the union's LGBT member organization, and she talked with SGN about the apparent stall in the community's political agenda.
While Henry expresses some frustration with the Obama administration's slow progress on LGBT equality, she is careful not to endorse a strategy targeting the president.
"My members all tell me 'we want you to back this president. Support him. Back his play,'" she says. "I think he's trying to figure out how to move his agenda. But we need a different public strategy."
Asked if "a different public strategy" meant backing away from the very public acts of civil disobedience favored by Dan Choi or Get Equal, Henry shot back, "No, no. One of the best things about the LGBT movement was ACT UP. Think of the difference they made! And people said to them, 'Be nice, be polite, be quiet, blah, blah, blah&.'"
"We need to have a united public front," she continued, "and then push the shit out of [Pres. Obama] on the inside."
To achieve the broad unity she believes is necessary, Henry says LGBT activists need to talk about our concerns in a way that other communities can understand and identify with them.
"We [in SEIU] try to link marriage equality - for example - to the idea of justice for all," Henry says. "Many activists in our [LGBT] community want the marriage equality debate to be about our liberation as a people. We [in SEIU] try to talk about marriage as a civil instrument that conveys specific economic rights that everyone should have.
"The fight against oppression is a series of steps - ENDA, marriage equality - we can use it as an opportunity to educate each other. That's the beauty of the labor movement. It's a forum where people who might otherwise be pitted against each other can build unity."
New cooperation in the labor movement
While Henry's predecessor, Andy Stern, nearly doubled SEIU's membership and turned the union into a political powerhouse, he was also a deeply controversial figure in the US 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 National Nurses United (formerly the California Nurses Association), his former Change To Win partner UNITE HERE, and the National United Healthcare Workers (NUHW), once an SEIU local.
Henry was elected to head SEIU with a mandate to repair the union's relations with the rest of the labor movement, a charge she readily accepted.
"That's one of my top priorities," she tells SGN. "In my first weeks as president, I went around and I listened to the other unions. I wanted to know what pissed them off about SEIU, what scared them about SEIU, what could we do to make things better."
On July 27, SEIU and UNITE HERE - which represents hospitality and food service workers - announced a settlement of their nasty 18-month-long turf war.
For Henry, repairing relations with other unions is not just about making peace with former rivals. She is actively pushing an aggressive political agenda that requires cooperation with other unions.
"We are going to have a 2010 coordinated political program," she tells SGN. "We just moved on a written proposal from Change To Win to [AFL-CIO President] Rich Trumka. It will be announced Friday [July 30]."
"This project," she continues, "will be based on a new level of unity - real unity of purpose - in federal races. It will be launched on Labor Day," the traditional start of the campaign season.
In the longer term, Henry says, "we want to hold a retreat with other unions - both Change To Win and AFL-CIO unions - to figure out a much more aggressive organizing strategy in the private sector. And then we'll surface with a campaign to outreach to private sector workers."
Although private sector workers make up the majority of the U.S. work force, organizing them has been particularly problematic for unions in the recent past. While fully one third of private sector workers had union representation at the end of World War II, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, today less than 8% do.
For Henry, a unionization drive is not just about membership, it is about building political power.
"We want to build a progressive majority," she says. "We want the voices of working people to be heard - the people who don't control the wealth to give us the level of influence that some people enjoy."
"The progressive movement has to be invested in the growth of unions," Henry says flatly.
Henry tells SGN that she is optimistic about the future.
"I've had the privilege of working for 15 of my 30 years in labor trying to build the union in non-union work places," she says. "The great thing about working people is we persevere, we take the long view, we rally in times of crisis."
Asked if she had any fears about the future, Henry was silent for a long time.
At last she said, "I'm afraid that my sense of confidence that we can change might not be shared. I'm afraid that when we try to reach unity within the progressive movement we'll find we don't have unity on what's wrong. And I'm afraid that my union might be consumed with defensive fights to preserve what our members already have."
After another pause, she added. "I'm afraid we're missing the moment of opportunity in Obama's election. Because that's the question. How do we use that? How do we galvanize public opinion and allow the silent majority to emerge?"
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