Meet the New Union Boss

Mary Kay Henry, upset winner in the race to take over the SEIU, is about to become one of the most powerful women in progressive politics. Dana Goldstein on the female takeover of the labor movement.

Last week, labor leader Andy Stern’s handpicked successor, Anna Burger, dropped out of the race to succeed him as president of the SEIU, the nation’s fastest growing union and the one closest to the Obama administration. The surprising change of guard installs Mary Kay Henry, head of the SEIU’s health-care division, in the corner office, carried there by a wave of locals' discontent with Stern’s charismatic but Beltway-focused leadership style.

Stern presided over a union engaged in a number of divisive, internecine battles with its own locals and rival labor coalition the AFL-CIO. There is now hope that Henry can heal these not-so-old wounds, and even lead the SEIU and its parent, the Change to Win coalition, back into a partnership with the AFL, from which it split in 2005.

“Women are more likely to vote for unions than men, particularly women of color,” says labor historian Kate Bronfenbrenner. “Women have been socialized to do networking.”

A reunification of Big Labor would be big news in progressive politics, potentially giving the movement a stronger voice in upcoming battles on immigration reform and financial regulation. But even if those hopes are dashed, Henry’s ascension is historic: For the first time, a major union leadership battle came down to two women, and ended rather peacefully, with Burger releasing a statement saying, “We women have a special knack for putting our egos aside and keeping our eye on the bigger picture and the common good. I am a union sister of Mary Kay’s in the truest sense of the term.”

Now, with the exception of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, arguably all of the nation’s most visible and politically powerful union leaders are women: Henry, Burger (who remains the chairwoman of Change to Win), and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. Two of them—Henry and Weingarten—are also out lesbians.

The first test of Henry’s promised no-drama, bottom-up strategy will be immigration reform, which took center stage in Washington after the Arizona legislature passed a harsh new law targeting undocumented workers.

“A lot of the new members coming into the labor movement are immigrants and are women,” says Cornell University Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, whose research on the workforce is influential within unions. “And somebody like Mary Kay Henry, who has been working in the health-care sector, knows this. She could be an extremely important spokesperson on the immigration bill.”

Indeed, if the labor movement is to expand, women workers, soon expected to become the majority of the American workforce, will be key. At a time of high unemployment for the working class—up to 20 percent in some manufacturing sectors—the few growing professions are ones dominated by immigrant women and ripe for organizing because of their lack of good benefits and working conditions: the “pink collar” fields of nursing, home health care, early child care, and hospitality.

The change is significant because organized labor has traditionally been—especially at the leadership level—one of the most male-dominated institutions in American life. Though about half of unionized workers are now women, at most unions, only about a third of lead organizers are female, according to Bronfenbrenner’s research. In the executive suite at blue-collar unions such as the Auto Workers and Teamsters, women are practically nonexistent.

The SEIU, where Henry will take the reins, likes to think it bucks that trend. In a statement to The Daily Beast, Stern said, “SEIU has long been home to workers that other unions didn’t want—women, immigrants, and people of color.”

The feminization of organized labor could be considered a step forward for the movement. “Women are more likely to vote for unions than men, particularly women of color,” Bronfenbrenner says. “Women have been socialized to do networking.”

Women are also accustomed to facing challenges on the job, from trouble balancing work and family responsibilities, to sexual harassment, to—as recent news about Walmart demonstrates—outright discrimination in wages and promotions, practices that seem better suited to the 19th century, but are alive and well in 21st-century America.

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Karen See, national president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and a former postal worker, puts it this way: “Women have gone through more in the workplace than men have ever dreamed about.”

Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women's issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.