Mary Kay Henry Surprise SEIU Leader

Labor Organizing

marykayhenryDetroit For a week I had been hearing that Mary Kay Henry, an old friend and currently one of several SEIU Executive Vice Presidents, was a dark horse candidate as the new SEIU International President to succeed the suddenly resigned Andy Stern. Certainly, Mary Kay would be an fantastic choice, but it was hard to believe that the current and long time Stern partner and Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger did not have her ducks in a row before the resignation. Even leaving the Puerto Rico convention two years ago, I was already hearing that Burger was trying in an almost unseemly way to buttonhole commitments from big locals to take Stern’s place on the assumption he would not finish the current term. When Sal Rosselli stopped me in the hallway of a Labor Notes Conference almost chortling to tell me the news, I was more than a little suspicious. Despite my respect for Sal, he and I go back many years with some hills and valleys along that highway, beginning with our standing all day in the driving rain only 10 feet from each other at an Oakland polling station, when he was elected president of old SEIU Local 250, and Mark Splain, the candidate Mary Kay and I supported was defeated.

The more I backtracked and talked to others, the more it made sense. Probably the most able leader in SEIU with Stern out of the picture would have been Dennis Rivera, the charismatic and wildly effective 1199 veteran, who played critical, early behind the scenes work in assembling the coalition to win health care reform. At the same time Rivera is person who sucks up all of the air in the room, and there seemed to have been “stern exhaustion.” The big locals created top down over the last decade and more all owed their existence and in most cases, other than Rosselli, their very positions to Stern often as appointed trustees or beneficiaries of master marriages. On a successor question they were going to get a voice, and they seem to have wanted a voice. Anna Burger is nothing if not able, but she is also prickly to work with, brusque to some, and having been a Stern wannabe would have been trying to out-Stern Stern in molding herself to a chance at president. The big locals would not have felt they owed her much of anything, and would have chafed at the prospect.

I would bet the farm a huge mover and shaker in the emergence of Mary Kay Henry as a compromise candidate is the old organizing director and longtime EVP, Tom Woodruff. People can argue about Tom’s skills and philosophy as an organizer, but he is indisputably second to none as an internal political organizer with a 6th sense for maneuvering behind the scenes and emerging on the winning side of internal conflict. I say that with total admiration, since it is a critical organizing skill, and Tom is unparalleled there. With a vacuum at the top, Tom would have been looking for an alternative to Anna and would have been fearless in moving quickly in this area and would have been impossible for Stern to slowdown if he had wanted him to. And, Tom had some scores to settle, quite rightly.

Several years ago while I was still at SEIU, rumors that there was trouble in paradise within the team on the 8th floor started to seep down that there had been a battle of the titans at the top of the leadership rungs. The way I eventually heard it from a half-dozen or more folks from secretaries to organizers, was that Woodruff had come within a hair of resigning and at the last minute pulled back because he “had work undone.” The issue was more Change to Win than SEIU, but Tom had been detailed over to build C2W and had some of the relationships with HERE and UNITE that made it work, when it worked. An unusual anti-AFL-CIO rule that governed C2W had been the creation of a revolving chair of C2W which would rotate to all of the heads of the big unions in turn. Anna Burger was to be the first president, but then at the end of her term, others would step in and assume the mantle. As the end of Anna’s first term approached for whatever and various reasons, Anna began moving with others to amend the C2W constitution to allow her to continue to serve multiple terms as president. When Woodruff caught wind of this, he went ballistic! This was treachery in his view. A line had been breached even in Tom’s organizing principles. After confronting Anna and demanding that she back off of this amendment and allow leadership change and failing to convince her, the contest then became whether or not Stern would step in and get Anna to do right or not. Woodruff threatened Stern that he would resign if Stern did not honor the original C2W governance provisions and direct Anna to step back from this power grab. Caught in the crossfire between Anna, his old comrade back to his earliest days in Pennsylvania and Tom Woodruff, who had been the architect of much of Andy’s vaunted organizing successes, Stern backed Burger effectively calling Woodruff’s bluff. My buddies in the secretarial pool described the atmosphere as icy on the floor with weeks going by and top leaders clearly not speaking

Anna should have known then that if Tom stayed she now had a mortal enemy. With this leadership shift, Woodruff undoubtedly had been organizing an “anybody but Anna” coalition for the last two years as well. He also knows something that even the most disciplined of unions sometimes forget: unions are political institutions and union leaders are fundamentally all politicians. It’s all about tending the base and counting the votes. Anna was efficient, tough, and managerial. She is not charismatic, she always speaks so quickly even from the dais that she can often not be understood, and she did not have a long term, loyal base of followers on her team, despite her years of effective and totally committed service. Woodruff would never have been a candidate, but he has always been a kingmaker, and I would bet money he shopped one candidate after another until he found one that would hold weight, and he knew all the issues he could use in organizing against Anna and had the reasons, motivations, and commitment to make it happen.

May Kay Henry is an excellent and competent union leader. She did yeoman’s work in putting together the behind the scenes work and relationships to bring organization with the Catholic hospital chains. She is not divisive, and there is huge pushback within SEIU now, growing over recent years, that some of the bare knuckles moves led by Stern, and often orchestrated by many, including Woodruff leading to C2W, and since then with UNITE-HERE and many internal messes, have heard the brand of the union that should be heralded as one of the few modern labor success stories. May Kay may not always deliver for you, but always makes you happy to see her, always has a hug for you, always a good word and a question about your partners and children. It is hard to believe that she was not the perfect compromise candidate.

For years I have felt the “president-in-waiting” is Dave Regan. I still think that, but he is young enough to wait and Mary Kay Henry will do just fine over the next 6 to 10 years (she’s only 52), and will surprise a lot of people both inside and outside SEIU with how good a job she will do. This may be Tom’s revenge, but she will not be anyone’s puppet.

This is going to be interesting for all of us who care about labor and may just help unite SEIU again and eventually the entire labor movement.