Mary Kay Henry, newly tapped as president of the SEIU, is now one of the most powerful women in liberal politics. In an exclusive interview, Dana Goldstein talks to Henry about the battle over immigration, whether it’s fair to speculate if Elena Kagan is gay—and why one of her first meetings was with child-care workers. Plus, read our full coverage of Elena Kagan
On Saturday, after much internal wrangling and whispering, Mary Kay Henry took the reins of the nation's fastest growing and most politically influential union, the Service Employees International Union. At the top of her agenda is the battle for immigration reform, which has gained momentum since Arizona passed a harsh new law targeting illegal immigrants, but will still require artful maneuvering—and plenty of pressure from advocates—to pass through a Congress stymied on issues ranging from financial regulation to climate change.
A health-care expert who has worked for the 2.2 million-member union since the early 1980s, Henry emerged in recent weeks as an alternative to Anna Burger, the successor hand-picked by the SEIU's departing president, consummate Washington insider Andy Stern. Henry promised to retain the union's national political presence while embracing a more bottom-up, collaborative relationship with union locals across the country—and maybe even heal the mega-rift that in 2005 split the SEIU from the AFL-CIO. Openly lesbian, Henry's ascension means three of the most powerful labor leaders in America are now women. Here, she talks to Dana Goldstein about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, efforts to organize childcare workers, and her vow to pursue immigration reform from the "grassroots" up,—drawing an implicit comparison between her own style and that of her predecessor.
"I was totally outraged," Henry said of the Arizona immigration law. "These are millions of our members. It's like are you kidding me? It's 2010!"
One of the progressive wish-list items for the Supreme Court is a justice who's willing to question corporate prerogatives. How do you assess the nomination of Elena Kagan in terms of workers' and consumers' interests, since she doesn't have any public record on these issues?
The way we think about the Elena Kagan nomination is we're incredibly supportive. She has a tradition of building bridges between people of diverse viewpoints, and so we think that quality and perspective are necessary on the Court.
You're open about your sexuality as a lesbian. How do you feel about the discussions in the media about whether or not Kagan is gay? Is it reasonable to expect to know the sexual orientation of someone serving in a public office?
I think we should allow people to individually decide that question and not speculate and call them out.
Do you think it's meaningful for the American labor movement that so many of its most visible leaders at this timeyourself, Anna Burger at Change to Win, Randi Weingarten at the American Federation of Teachers are women?
Yes, I do. I have to tell you, I've had two introductions in the past two days. One with our headquarters staff and one with our child-care provider members. And there's something about how heartfelt the applause is that reminds me that being a woman is incredibly powerful to our members.
What female-dominated, or "pink collar" professions do you lose the most sleep over, in terms of thinking: Wow, these women workers really need help?
I think the low-wage sectors are the ones I lose the most sleep over. People work their butts off as child-care providers in their homes, or as home-care providers with the elderly and disabled, and they need a shot at having their work rewarded in a way that allows them to just do one job as opposed to three jobs to make ends meet.
I was meeting with a roomful of women this morning who are child-care providers who do family child care, Head Start, or center-based care. Their top issue was income eligibility for parents who enroll their children in day care, because they want the children to get nutritious meals. And I was just reminded about how most of our female members and members across our union are driven by a sense of service to the people they care for first, and that it's always much more important than their own wage or health care benefit in retirement.
Many of our child-care members have to volunteer their own time because the childrens' parents' public assistance [which they use to pay child-care costs] is being cut. The provider agrees to care for them for free.
What was your reaction to the Arizona anti-immigrant law, which makes it legal for police to stop and detain any person whom they suspect might be an illegal immigrant?
I was outraged. I was totally outraged! These are millions of our members. It's likeare you kidding me? It's 2010! On Saturday we passed a resolution calling for a boycott. We have many members who want to go into Arizona and ride with their coworkers in case they get stopped, so we can protest the enforcement of a law we think is unconstitutional. We've joined with other organizations to sue the governor for signing it into law.
Even some Republicans on the national stage, such as Karl Rove and Jeb Bush, have spoken out against the law.
Yes. That was a really good indicator that there is in fact a line that people in our country feel should not be crossed in terms of a moral and ethical standard. And now we need to seal the deal with comprehensive immigration reform.
You're a health care expert. What lessons did you learn from the health reform fight that you can now apply to upcoming legislative battles on immigration, financial reform, or the Employee Free Choice Act?
One of things we've concluded in our union is we want to be able to keep the pressure on in the districts in a sustained way. We want to build a movement from the grassroots in addition to being active here in Washington.
Because the grassroots, Tea Party movement against health care reform came so close to derailing the entire process?
It did. But the other thing I would say about it is our members...went into overdrive in 14 states to hold members of Congress' feet to the fire. While the grassroots support in August [against reform] may have sounded the alarm, the support [in favor of reform] this past March brought it home.
Is there room in the legislative agenda for Employee Free-Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to form unions? So many of the president's priorities, from reauthorizing NCLB to climate change, appear pushed to the back burner, and it was never clear whether Obama would prioritize EFCA at all. What's the political pathway there?
Our members told us in 2008 at our convention that there were three key priorities: health care, immigration, and making it easier to join a union. We will continue to make the case to why the crisis for workers can be addressed through unions. For us it's not just about a political pathway, it's about standing up for what's right for workers and figuring out all the different ways to win rights. It's about making the case that workers need a way to form a union.
What strategies will you use to make that case?
We will put organizing back at the top of this union's agenda and more vigorously reach out to non-union workers. We will make it clear in the political campaigns this fall that we are invested in building communities of non-union workers and connecting those workers to ways to address unionization. And we will shine a spotlight on employer opposition in the campaigns we do run, so the entire public can see how ridiculous it is how employers react when workers try to form a union. We will be relentless. We will not give up.
What do you mean when you use the term "crisis for workers?"
I'm thinking about how we are working harder and earning less. That there are foreclosures, evictions, and an inability of working people to put their kids through college. That workers can't figure out how to buy a home. The whole way in which we expect to have work rewarded and live a quality of life has been completely eroded.
In some unionized sectors, such as teaching, public opinion seems to be turning against unions. People are blaming unionization for many of the problems facing urban public schools. How do you fight back against anti-union perceptions?
Well, we think there are a few ways to do it: First, for our members to tell more stories directly about how the union has changed their lives and improved their communities. That's one thing we need to do more consistently.
I want to talk to the rest of the American labor union movement about how all of us join together in making this less about individual leaders of institutions and more about the 14 million people who go to work every day and what a huge difference unionization makes for their own dignity and respect.
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.