Mary Kay Henry, elected today as president of the Service Employees International Union, pledged to spend $4 million organizing employees in businesses such as banks and supermarkets.
“Working people are facing hardships that we haven’t seen in generations,” Henry said on a conference call with reporters after the executive board picked her to replace Andy Stern.
Henry said she has “a fire in her belly” for fighting management interference in labor organizing efforts. Henry said she will fight such efforts by “creating complaints” with the National Labor Relations Board.
Henry, 52, takes over the 2.2-million-member union from Stern, who cultivated close ties to President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress during 14 years as president. Henry said she met Obama two years ago at a Democratic presidential candidates’ forum and is seeking to arrange a meeting with White House officials “but has no idea when that will occur.”
The $4 million fund will be used to organize industries that have traditionally not had employee representation, Henry said. She cited banks, grocery stores, biotechnology companies and independent contractors as prospects, without mentioning specific firms. The union said it spends about $250 million annually to help local officials on organizing.
Private-sector union membership in the U.S. fell to a record low of 7.2 percent of the workforce last year, while Stern helped the SEIU to become the nation’s biggest labor union.
The Washington-based union also will spend $4 million to elect union-friendly candidates in state governor’s offices and legislatures in November, Henry said.
Henry was a union organizer among California nurses before taking over the SEIU. A leader of the union’s health-care division, she pledged to heal rifts that grew as Stern focused on gaining access to politicians including Obama.
Stern, 59, visited the White House 22 times in 2009 during the first six months of Obama’s presidency, making him the most frequent outside visitor.
The new union president today committed to “restoring our relationship with the American labor movement” after Stern led seven unions out of the AFL-CIO in 2005 and created the rival federation Change to Win. Henry said SEIU remains committed to Change to Win, and also wants to be a “full partner” in the U.S. labor movement.
Henry was an executive vice president of SEIU based in Washington. She grew up in the Detroit suburbs and has been an SEIU organizer since 1979. A founder of the union’s gay-and-lesbian caucus, she led organizing drives for health-care workers at Tenet Healthcare Corp. and Beverly Enterprises Inc.
Henry cinched the SEIU presidential race more than a week ago when Stern’s chosen successor, Anna Burger, withdrew her candidacy. Several union leaders endorsed Henry after she promised to heal rifts in the union.
The SEIU spent $85 million to help elect Democrats to the White House and Congress in 2008. Henry pledged to maintain the union’s political clout in campaigns for the November elections even as she placed increased emphasis on grassroots organizing.