Pledging to "restore relations with the American labor movement," Mary Kay Henry was named president Saturday of the Service Employees International Union, becoming the first woman to head the massive and politically influential group.
Henry's election by the group's governing board follows a period of explosive SEIU growth that contrasts sharply with a decades-long slide in union membership in the United States, where fewer than 1 in 10 private-sector workers are now unionized.
Despite Henry's promise Saturday to reach out and heal rifts with other labor unions, interviews indicated that California's hospitals and nursing homes would remain one of organized labor's most contentious battlegrounds.
Henry said she had "no plans whatsoever" to engage with the "rival organization" — referring to the National Union of Healthcare Workers — that is battling the SEIU in California. She also told reporters in a telephone conference that she had no intention of leading the SEIU back into the AFL-CIO, which the SEIU left in 2005 to form a separate coalition, Change to Win.
Henry vowed to continue the union's role as a political force and said she hoped to meet soon with President Obama, whose campaign the SEIU supported with tens of millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers. "Working people are facing hardships we haven't seen in generations, and we believe SEIU can be an even more effective vehicle for change to help them improve their lives and the lives of the people they serve," Henry said.
A three-decade veteran of the SEIU, Henry succeeds Andy Stern, who is retiring after 14 years as president. Stern is widely credited with having bolstered union ranks and transforming the 2.2-million-member organization into a political powerhouse. Henry will serve the final two years of Stern's term; elections are scheduled for 2012.
Stern, often accused of being autocratic, leaves behind a legacy of internecine battles that have split the labor movement and blunted its clout — even as union-friendly Democrats control the White House and Congress.
The terrain is especially divisive in California, home to almost one-third of all SEIU members. A breakaway group is waging a robust campaign to knock the SEIU from its perch as the nation's preeminent healthcare union.
"SEIU and the labor movement need to organize new members and win legislative battles for jobs, immigration reform and changes in labor law," said Peter Dreier, professor of politics and public policy at Occidental College. "So it's not a good use of her [Henry's] time for the SEIU to be fighting other unions or fighting with factions within its own membership."
Little known outside the labor and healthcare worlds, Henry served as SEIU's organizing director for eight years before being appointed by Stern in 2004 as the union's chief healthcare strategist. She has never toiled in a rank-and-file union job or headed a local — facts that have raised some eyebrows in a field where working up from the ranks is a hallowed career path.
Henry, 52, was the eldest girl among 10 siblings in an Irish-Catholic family in suburban Detroit. Her father was a salesman and her mother a teacher, according to the SEIU. She joined the union staff as a research specialist after graduating from Michigan State University.
Henry is a practicing Catholic and a founding member of SEIU's gay and lesbian Lavender Caucus who has publicly embraced Stern's twin priorities: building membership and political influence. Some hope she will ramp up union organization efforts, which have slowed in recent years as the SEIU has poured resources into politics and fighting rival unions.
On Saturday, Henry signaled her desire to settle the SEIU's bitter battle over jurisdiction and assets with the Unite Here union, which represents some 300,000 hotel, gaming, airport and other workers nationwide.
However, Henry pointedly rejected the idea of any talks with the breakaway National Union of Healthcare Workers, which is seeking to supplant the SEIU as the bargaining unit at scores of California hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities statewide.
A federal jury in San Francisco last month found in a civil judgment that the rival group and its leaders had improperly spent union funds during the breakaway battle last year. The NUHW denies the charge and is appealing.
Within the SEIU, Henry is praised as a charismatic figure poised to "unite our union — from top to bottom and across divisions," in the words of four leaders who backed her bid for president against Stern's hand-picked candidate, Anna Burger. Burger, the union's secretary treasurer, dropped out of the race last month, ceding the contest to Henry.
"Mary Kay is the kind of person who can communicate and tell you the facts," said Stan Lyles, a respiratory care practitioner and SEIU steward at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. "She listens to the members."