Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, one of the nation’s largest and most politically powerful unions, announced Tuesday that she will resign after 14 years in her position.
Ms. Henry was the first woman elected to head the union, which represents nearly two million workers such as janitors and home health aides in the public and private sectors.
Under his leadership, she launched a major initiative known as the Fight for $15, which aimed to organize fast food workers and push for a $15 minimum wage. Winning over skeptics in the ranks, Ms Henry argued the union could make gains through a large-scale campaign targeting the industry as a whole rather than individual employers.
Labor experts and industry officials cite the campaign as a major force behind significant minimum wage increases in states like California and New York and in cities like Seattle and Chicago. It’s also a push recent California law create a council to set a minimum wage in the fast food industry, increasing to $20 an hour in April, and propose new health and safety standards.
But the Fight for $15 campaign failed to organize workers on a large scale and did not allow them to negotiate collective agreements with their employers.
Ms. Henry’s tenure coincided with a series of legislative and legal challenges to the labor movement, including state laws reducing collective bargaining rights and allowing workers to opt out of once-mandatory union dues, as well as a landmark ruling of the Supreme Court authorizing government employees. Do the same thing.
Union membership has remained nearly stable under Ms. Henry’s leadership, while the overall percentage of Americans represented by unions has declined by about 15 percent. But the union lost mandatory dues for more than 200,000 non-members, resulting in a significant loss of revenue.
The union will select Ms. Henry’s successor through a vote of delegates at its quadrennial convention in May.
“I’m ready to pass the baton,” Ms. Henry, 66, said in an interview. “SEIU is full of powerful, dynamic, next-generation, multiracial leaders who are ready to immortalize this moment of working-class uprising. »
The union’s second-ranking official, Secretary-Treasurer April Verrett, said in an interview that she intends to run for the top job.
A longtime organizer, Ms. Henry was executive vice president when the union’s board of directors selected her to fill the presidential term of Andy Stern, who resigned in 2010. She won the first of three full terms from four years in 2012.
Ms. Henry’s approach has sparked criticism that the union is too hierarchical in its efforts.
Organizer and researcher Jane McAlevey you criticized the Fight for $15 because it focused too much on what it calls “mobilization” – that is, relying heavily on professional staff, consultants and activists to attract support. attention and shaping public opinion – rather than building a vast worker-led organization.
As the SEIU became more involved in a union campaign launched by an affiliate, Workers United, at Starbucks in 2021, some Starbucks workers said decision-making and communications had become more centralized.
In the interview, Ms Henry rejected the assertion that the union’s campaigns did not significantly involve workers, but said it was important to combine on-the-ground organizing with other strategies who put pressure on employers. Ms. Henry said the union had sought to invest in the Starbucks campaign, as it did in an effort to replace some of the company’s directors, to make it more comprehensive.
The union has also been a force in politics and policy debates. Ms. Henry took the top job shortly after President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, which the union had rallied for. She pushed the union to defend the health care legislation against Republican attempts to repeat it.
The union’s political gambles under Ms. Henry were not always successful, as was her support for Hillary Clinton at the start of the 2016 presidential campaign cycle. Many members subsequently became enthusiastic about their primary Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders.
In 2020, the union took a different approach, presenting a policy agenda calling on candidates to adopt it, which included facilitating industry-wide worker negotiations and significant investments in health care. home and child care services, including increased wages for care. workers. Joseph R. Biden Jr. incorporated many of the union’s ideas into his domestic policy agenda en route to the presidency.
“This is an example of how we take stock and evaluate leadership decisions, learn lessons and think about what we want to do differently next time,” Ms. Henry said of the change in approach.
Yet major home care and child care measures proposed by Mr. Biden died in the Senate.
Ms Henry said the union was spending heavily on this year’s political elections.
“We want to finish the job,” she said. “We have goals for the Senate, goals for the House, governors, state legislators, city councils – to make all the biggest gains possible.”