Mary Kay Henry, Visionary SEIU Leader Who Championed Fight for $15 Movement, Challenged Status Quo, Will Not Seek Re-election

February 6, 2024
Posted in Press Release
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In nearly 14-year tenure as president, Henry fought for Black, brown, immigrant workers who have been written out of nation’s labor laws

Under Henry’s leadership, Fight for $15 movement won $150B in raises for 26 million workers, changed politics around wages

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Mary Kay Henry, the visionary leader of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), who challenged the status quo inside and outside of her union and championed the historic Fight for $15 and a Union movement, announced Tuesday that she will not seek reelection at the union’s international convention in May.

Henry, a longtime organizer and the union’s first female and LGBTQ president, was elected to lead the influential service and care union in May 2010. Even through the challenges of Scott Walker’s Act 10, Janus v. AFSCME, a global pandemic and the Trump presidency, Henry kept her union on offense, seeing membership numbers grow and launching initiatives to develop new models for helping workers organize and build power across whole companies, industries and geographies. She has steered the union in bold new directions, taking on big corporations like McDonald’s and Starbucks, making big bets on behalf of working people and championing Black, brown and immigrant service and care workers who have long been written out of the nation’s foundational labor laws.

“I’m in awe of the courage and bravery of workers – that’s what has motivated me every day of my career,” said Mary Kay Henry. “SEIU members and workers with the Fight for $15 and a Union have inspired me, humbled me and fueled my fight to build an economy and democracy that allows all working people to thrive. I will take on any fight that helps workers win historic breakthroughs and improve their lives, but there is still so much more to do. I have never been more confident about our future – because our union champions workers who have been written out and written off – and we always will. Those are the workers who make change happen – and we have a strong team of multiracial leaders ready right now to step up and lead.”

2010 to 2024: Big Bets and Worker Breakthroughs

Henry took over the presidency at a tumultuous time for the labor movement. The Tea Party was ascending, private sector union density hit its lowest mark in a century and Scott Walker was leading an attack on public sector unions in Wisconsin. Henry saw the crisis as an opportunity: a chance to take the biggest, boldest bet. Despite naysayers inside her union and out, she backed the Fight for $15 and a Union movement, which launched in 2012 as 200 fast-food workers went on strike in New York City to demand better pay and a voice on the job. The Fight for $15 and a union campaign — which transformed “from absurdly ambitious to mainstream in the span of a few years,” according to The Washington Post — went to capture the public imagination, enter the cultural zeitgeist and led to higher wages for tens of millions of workers. 

Over more than a decade the Fight for $15 and a Union expanded to hundreds of cities from coast to coast as tens of thousands of cooks and cashiers stepped into their power to take on global fast-food corporations and halt the race to the bottom in the fast-food industry. Despite facing some internal criticism for backing this uncommon campaign, Henry saw the fast-food workers’ movement spread to new industries, including home care, higher education, airports and more. 

Under Henry’s leadership, the Fight for $15 and a Union movement has won $15 an hour in 14 states and 40 more cities and counties — more than $150 billion in raises for 26 million workers — putting nearly half the country’s workforce on the path to $15 an hour and causing longtime progressive commentator Harold Meyerson to deem Henry the “Foremost Poverty Fighter of the Last Decade.” The movement helped make unions more popular than they’ve been in decades and sparked a clamoring to organize among workers across the economy.

“In every fight we’ve faced over the last decade, Mary Kay believed that fast-food cooks and cashiers like me could change the world. The faith she had in our strength helped us discover the power we held all along to win a voice on the job,” said Angelica Hernandez, a California fast-food worker and longtime leader in the Fight for $15 and a Union. “Even when we were facing down a vicious effort to silence us, led by some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, Mary Kay — and all of SEIU — showed up for us: at our organizing meetings, on our strike lines and outside the capitol in Sacramento. At every turn, Mary Kay would tell us, ‘Si se puede, yes we can,’ and that always kept me going. We will always be grateful for Mary Kay’s leadership and we will take her fighting spirit with us as we continue to transform the fast-food industry in California and across the country.”

Henry committed to multi-year campaigns that would build a stronger future both for the union members of today and the not-yet union members that one day could be part of SEIU’s ranks, including home care and child care workers. Despite living under the legacy of a racist, New Deal-era compromise that carved home and child care workers out of U.S. labor law and traditional paths to union representation, SEIU members still found a way, even where there hadn’t previously been one. 

Under Henry’s leadership, SEIU members have won major victories to improve the jobs of healthcare, property services, and public sector workers across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Henry’s vision paved the way for SEIU members to win groundbreaking company, industry and geography-wide agreements with major hospital chains and healthcare providers. Henry also led the union to break into new industries, organizing new kinds of workers into SEIU including coffee baristas, home care providers, university adjuncts, doctors and airport service workers. 

Major organizing wins for SEIU during Henry’s career include:

  • Led the effort to take on the biggest hospital chains in the country in multiple cities and across markets, winning a voice on the job for 50,000 hospital workers
  • 55,000 California child care workers won their 10-year fight for their union
  • 40,000 have won a voice on the job as SEIU committed to airport service worker organizing
  • Public workers responded to the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision by sticking together in SEIU, with membership in Public Division locals up by 13,000 last year.
  • The establishment of a Fast Food Council in California with the ability to set pay, health, safety and training standards for the state’s 550,000 fast-food workers

“Through thick and thin, Mary Kay has been the backbone of our union,” said Susie Young, home care worker and member of SEIU 775. “When you’re with Mary Kay, everything is a ‘we’ thing. It’s not about her, it’s about us. She’s been right there every time we rally to demand change be it marches or strikes, in Washington, DC or at our statehouses. She has been a guiding light when we needed her, looking us in the eye and telling us it’s time to get to work.”

SEIU greatly expanded service and care worker organizing outside the walls of larger hospitals and long-term care facilities to reach individual home care and child care workers whose workplaces may be kitchens, living rooms or classrooms but are nonetheless vital to our economy and communities.

In 2021, Starbucks baristas in Buffalo, New York voted to join together in a union through Workers United, an affiliate of SEIU. Since then, 10,000 Starbucks workers across almost 400 stores have voted to join the union, even in the face of a massive union-busting campaign from the coffee giant, energizing working people everywhere and shining a new light on the corporate cheating tactics that have held workers back for generations. 

Unions for All and a New Sectoral Organizing Approach 

In 2019, Henry unveiled her Unions for All vision, a bold, forward-looking agenda for building worker power and accelerating the growth of the labor movement. That vision included Unions for All as a demand on all corporations and elected leaders. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Democratic leaders including President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Sens. Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Sec. Pete Buttegieg all adopted core aspects of Unions for All in their campaign platforms. 

“As kind and compassionate as she is tough and relentless, Mary Kay never stops fighting for working people,” said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “She’s made sure workers’ interests are front and center on the legislative agenda, and I’m grateful for her leadership and friendship.”

As part of her Unions for All campaign, Henry advanced new, innovative forms of organizing across the union to help workers win, even in the face of significant obstacles. In today’s new wave of labor activism, as workers are striking, organizing and demanding more, Henry and SEIU have prioritized moving beyond traditional shop-by-shop or factory-by-factory organizing, and have been seeking to create larger unions across whole industries or geographical areas. 

The trend, known as “sectoral organizing,” echoes the ways unions operate in countries outside the U.S. Many experts say the bigger, bolder approach is long overdue and key to helping workers and unions rebuild the power they have lost over the last four decades. 

Notable advancements in sectoral organizing championed by Henry include:

  • In California, fast-food workers won the FAST Recovery Act, landmark legislation to increase pay to $20/hr and give cooks and cashiers a voice through a groundbreaking Fast Food Council empowered to help set statewide health, safety and training standards across the fast-food sector.
  • In North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia, service, care and retail workers launched the Union of Southern Service Workers to take on the region’s legacy of anti-unionism and systemic racism.
  • In MinnesotaMichigan and Colorado, healthcare workers — including nursing home, home care and direct care workers — won similar statewide councils to help improve pay and working conditions across their respective industries.
  • In Massachusetts and Minnesota, rideshare drivers have launched campaigns to advance groundbreaking legislation to allow them to join together in a union. 

Henry Cemented SEIU as Major Player in Nationwide Fights for Justice, Democracy

Originally from Detroit, Henry joined SEIU as a research specialist in 1980 and distinguished herself in the union as a tenacious, strategic and deeply empathetic leader. In her early days at SEIU, Henry trained under two legendary SEIU leaders: Richard Liebes, who had negotiated the union’s first contract with Kaiser Permanente, and George Hardy, one of the first-ever SEIU organizers who later rose to become union president in 1971. Henry was elected to the International Executive Board in 1996 and elected as an International Executive Vice President in 2004 to lead the union’s organizing in the healthcare industry. 

Since her election as president of SEIU in 2010, Henry has cemented SEIU as a key player in the nationwide fight for multi-racial democracy and racial and economic justice. SEIU has taken a leading role in the fights to pass and protect the Affordable Care Act, increase the minimum wage at the federal and state levels, expand protections for immigrants and strengthen labor law and regulations, including the National Labor Relations Board.

“Mary Kay has always put workers first,” said Sterling Harders, President of SEIU Local 775. “She understands that someone’s identity isn’t just as a worker at a job – it’s as mother, daughter, sister, partner or neighbor. That’s why she took on important fights like healthcare, voting rights and immigration reform that are outside the workplace that help improve people’s lives and help whole communities thrive.”

During Henry’s tenure, SEIU made a series of enormous investments — on the ground and on the airwaves — in electing worker champions to local, state and federal office to advance pro-worker policies. SEIU members and workers in the Fight for $15 and a Union, in key states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Nevada have volunteered, phone banked and knocked on doors to change the course of elections. SEIU members’ ground game played a major role in the 2020 election of Joe Biden, the most pro-union president in history.

“Mary Kay always championed the Black, brown and immigrant women who do the service and care work that is the future of the American economy,” said Arnulfo De La Cruz, President of SEIU Local 2015, a 400,000-member union of long-term care workers in California.  “Historically, service and care workers have been written out of the labor laws and written off by our country. Mary Kay was tireless and fearless in bringing people together to find creative new ways to help these workers build power in the 21st century.”

Henry also supported a wave of worker-survivors who came forward to speak about sexual harassment and assault they faced on the job while working at McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants. Following the 2017 emergence of the #MeToo movement, fast-food worker-survivors launched a series of strikes across the country to demand McDonald’s and other employers take responsibility for ending harassment and assault on the job.

In 2020, following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black people, SEIU and partners like the Movement for Black Lives organized the Strike for Black Lives, a historic, cross-movement, nationwide day of action demanding corporations and government confront systemic racism in our society and economy. SEIU’s International Executive Board also passed the Build Power, Win Justice Resolution affirming the union’s commitment to driving an anti-racist agenda, uniting across race and dismantling racist policies. 

TIME Magazine chose Henry as one of the 100 most influential people in 2020 amid a year of public health and racial reckoning that put SEIU members – three out of four of whom are considered essential, frontline workers – at the center of both peril and hopefulness for the future. Fast Company magazine named her one of the 100 most creative leaders in the economy, Politico magazine named her one of the top 50 visionaries reshaping American politics, and in 2019 the governor of California tapped her to co-chair the state’s Future of Work Commission.