SEIU’s Henry: Unions need new approaches to attract youth

WASHINGTON (PAI) – The nation’s unions need new approaches to recruit and retain younger workers, Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry says.

And SEIU is putting one new approach into action by actively backing the $15-an-hour living wage campaign by one of the nation’s lowest-paid groups, fast food workers, she adds.

The Service Employees are known for their innovative organizing methods and mass movements, but other unions are getting the message, too, Henry told the Women’s National Democratic Club. 

“Most labor union heads understand the sins of the past and are now trying to stand for all workers,” not just union members, she explained on Mar. 24. Some CEOs understand, too, she added. But they face pressure from other businesses to strip workers of rights, pay, pensions, and protection. 

“Now, in Wisconsin, private employers are having a hard time holding to contract standards there, because public workers are taking a dive” after GOP Gov. Scott Walker stripped most public union members of their rights to collectively bargain, dues checkoff and of pay and pensions.

“We have to stop talking about” economics alone and “start talking about the values we share,” Henry told questioner Eleanor Lauderdale, vice president of AFGE Local 12 in D.C. “So I talk about workers coming together” for solidarity and respect on the job, she added.

That’s because “nobody in this generation has the experience of unions raising wages for them,” Henry said. Younger workers have seen wage stagnation, at best, because health care costs eat up any increases – and because in the last 30 years, employers have engaged in massive wage-cutting.

Lauderdale replied even when she tells younger workers “you’re a worker, not an owner, they see themselves as part of the middle class or they say ‘we’re professionals and we don’t need a union. We don’t identify with people who work in fast food.”’

“We have to fill that gap with action. The way to move hearts and minds with experiences,” Henry replied, after giving several examples, in her speech, of low-wage workers’ benefiting from unionization with SEIU.

Henry said organizing younger workers should go hand-in-hand with other organizing drives.  She used another example, of Volkswagen in Tennessee, where the United Auto Workers narrowly lost the union recognition vote after extensive outside political interference.

The UAW has filed labor law-breaking charges with the National Labor Relations Board, declaring Tennessee Republican politicians’ anti-union statements and threats skewed the vote.  SEIU supports and supplements UAW’s new organizing drive at VW.

“We’re starting a low-wage (worker) campaign there” in the Chattanooga area, Henry explained.  That will show other workers the benefits of unionization, for themselves and their VW-worker neighbors.  In other points, Henry:

  • Said SEIU, like other unions, would concentrate politically on governors’ races this fall. The GOP holds most governors’ seats, including those of the most rabid anti-union governors, such as Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio and Rick Snyder in Michigan. She estimated 275,000 of her union’s 2.1 million members are each contributing $10 monthly, voluntarily, to SEIU’s political fund.
  • Said Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito attacked SEIU and AFSCME by name in a recent case. That case was brought by the anti-union National Right to Work Committee. It and a group of Illinois anti-union workers challenged fees that even non-union public workers, if they’re in an unionized workplace, must pay for representational services, such as bargaining and grievance handling.

“Scalia and Alito specifically asked about our political investments.  The court is bringing cases up to undercut the labor movement,” Henry said.

  • Said the GOP pols’ opposition to UAW’s drive at VW “freaked out VW.” VW stayed officially neutral, but the union and the firm had agreed in advance that, had UAW won, there would be a joint labor-management German-style works council to manage relations at the Chattanooga plant.

Henry said the Republicans actually threatened the close the plant.  Henry, who has close relations with the Obama administration, reported VW officials called the White House “and said ‘We’re probably going to go to Mexico because we’ve never been attacked so much.'”

  • Said some Democrats have been “accomplices” in measures that hurt workers and the middle class. “We’re going to hold all elected officials accountable – and not assume that Democrats automatically support us,” Henry said.

Photo: Mary Kay Henry.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.