Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry to retire in May
SEIU president Mary Kay Henry | J. Scott Applewhite/AP

WASHINGTON —Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry, a fighter for workers of color and low-income workers nationwide, announced February 6 she will retire at the SEIU Convention in May after 14 years of leading the two-million-member union.

Henry’s retirement announcement came the same day the union announced its latest organizing success: The 15 players on Dartmouth University’s men’s basketball team.

Under her leadership, SEIU launched the “Fight for $15 and a union” movement, which has spread nationwide among exploited and oppressed workers. Others, including non-union workers and even occasional low-wage firms, have adopted the $15 but without the “and a union” phrase, though.

She’s particularly proud of that campaign, stating it’s won $150 billion in raises for 26 million underpaid people, either through contracts or state legislation.

Henry’s also had to battle anti-union rulings, laws and officials that particularly threatened SEIU and other unions with large shares of public workers. An LGBTQ member, she’s also fought discrimination against them.

Those threats included the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision, making every state and local government worker a potential free rider, and right-wing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s infamous Act 10, which emasculated several public workers unions there.

They were followed by the global coronavirus pandemic, which hit SEIU’s tens of thousands of nurses. And individual union foes included Donald Trump.

Henry cheered the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. for ruling against anti-worker former Oval Office occupant Trump’s demand for permanent presidential immunity from prosecution for his attempt to overthrow the U.S. Constitution on Jan. 6, 2021 to keep himself in office (see separate Trump story).

Henry also established a more-cooperative working relationship with the AFL-CIO, especially in politics and once Liz Shuler became president of the labor federation. SEIU members were at the special conclave the AFL-CIO held late last year to formally endorse the Biden-Harris Democratic presidential ticket for re-election, for example.

By contrast, long-tenured SEIU predecessor Andy Stern led seven unions to leave the AFL-CIO and form Change To Win. Only three—SEIU, the Teamsters and the United Farm Workers—are still full-time members. Several other unions are affiliates of both labor federations.

“I’m in awe of the courage and bravery of workers. That’s what has motivated me every day of my career,” Henry said in announcing her decision. “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.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.