The West Coast Upstart Taking Over the SEIU

"Our local unions and divisions should drive our national priorities"

Note to Secret Service agents: Don't expect to see Mary Kay Henry at the White House gate very often.

Henry is poised to become the next Service Employees International Union leader now that Anna Burger, the candidate favored by departing President Andy Stern, dropped out on Apr. 28. In promising to spend less time cultivating Washington and more time healing rifts in the 2.1 million-member union, Henry won support from local presidents representing 60% of the membership. An official vote is set for May 8. "Our local unions and divisions should drive our national priorities, not the other way around," Henry wrote in an Apr. 26 memo to SEIU leaders.

Stern, 59, was at the White House 22 times in the first six months of the Obama Administration, making him its most frequent visitor. He was heavily involved in helping plan legislative strategy to pass the health-care law. Critics within the union accuse Stern, who is stepping down after 14 years, of obsessing about politics, centralizing power, and installing his aides to run locals, says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor history professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Four of the union's nine international vice-presidents endorsed Henry, an organizer since 1979 and a founder of the union's gay and lesbian caucus. Henry, 52, led recruitment drives in California for health-care workers at Tenet Healthcare (THC) and Beverly Enterprises. "She is a somewhat unexpected choice," says Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Henry says she won't abandon politics altogether. She pledged to maintain the union's political clout for the November midterm elections; the SEIU spent $85 million to help elect Democrats in 2008. "It was never an either-or situation," Henry said in her memo.

The bottom line: The successor to Andy Stern, one of the most powerful yet divisive labor leaders of his generation, looks to heal the internal rifts.

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