Mary Kay Henry
The eldest daughter in a family of 10, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry now heads a much larger brood, but she retains the big-sister sense of responsibility. “I don’t feel like I will have made my mark as president of SEIU until I create the conditions for a turnaround for all working people,” says Henry, whose union claims 2.1 million members.
Speaking with National Journal the day after the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the health care law, Henry was ebullient, recounting stories of how nurses signed each other’s smocks “as a signature of ‘We did it.’ ” The ruling was a bright spot, Henry says, “in a time when the attack on working people is intensifying.” National unions, in response, have largely healed the rifts that divided them, a project she pledged to prioritize when she was elected the first female SEIU president in 2010. Since then, she has helped build the union’s political action committee, to the point where 300,000 members donate—voluntarily, Henry says—to SEIU’s PAC.
Muscle like that could help with legislation such as immigration reform, which Henry predicts will pass Congress next year. She is less sanguine about the prospect of the so-called card-check bill, once a top priority for organized labor because it would ease the organizing of new unions. Instead, Henry, who turns 55 this month, wants labor–and progressive forces generally—to emphasize overarching issues such as reducing income inequality, changing tax policy, and improving public education. It’s a liberal wish list that Henry thinks she can help sell by bringing her members’ life stories to the public. “I think of myself as a channel for the 2.1 million members that we represent, and their influence is what I wield,” she says.
By Jim O’Sullivan