LYNN NEARY, host:
Mary Kay Henry started a new job this week as president of the Service Employees International Union, which has 2.2 million members. She replaces Andy Stern, who retired last month. Under Stern's tenure, the union grew, even as most other unions saw declines. But he was involved in some bitter internal fights. Henry pledges to heal those rifts while also beefing up organizing efforts. NPR's Don Gonyea has this profile of a union president in her first days on the job.
DON GONYEA: A native of Detroit, Mary Kay Henry is from a big union town. She says she saw firsthand how unions made life better for middle-class families. The third oldest of 10 kids in a big Catholic family, she grew up wanting to work in the health care field. She graduated from college in 1979 and went to work for the SEIU. She organized hospital employees in California. She was very good at it. This past weekend, Henry was elected to the SEIU's top job. Yesterday she was out meeting with some of her new troops.
Unidentified Woman: I have to say, I am so excited to have you (unintelligible)...
(Soundbite of laugher)
Unidentified Woman: This is the greatest thing, having a woman in office.
Mr. MARY KAY HENRY (President, SEIU): Thank you.
GONYEA: These union members work in child care and early education. They're in town to meet with members of Congress.
Ms. HENRY: For anybody that thinks that what we do or you do every day is babysitting...
Unidentified People: No...
Ms. HENRY: ...we've got another to tell them.
GONYEA: As they head off down the street to the Capitol to meet with members of Congress, Henry sits down for an interview about her new job. She's 52 years old. She's been an international executive vice president of the union for six years and admits she's still getting use to her new title.
Ms. HENRY: Every time I'm introduced - like this morning, I thought: Oh, my God. I'm the president of SEIU.
GONYEA: At its core, Henry says, her job is to articulate the hopes of SEIU members on a national level.
Ms. HENRY: There is a deep sense, I think, on the part of our members and all working people, that there is a crisis in this country for working people, that we've had it with trying to make ends meet and not have our work rewarded. And so I hope it will be reigniting the fire that our union has had for a very long time, to address that economic crisis on behalf of all workers.
GONYEA: But one other task she inherits is to try to deal with the aftermath of some internal disputes between her predecessor as president, Andy Stern, and some local union members. Stern had several high-profile clashes with union leaders in California. The fights started over negotiating an organizing strategy, and escalated. They were bitter, and affected tens of thousands of workers. Henry says she'll pour her energy into addressing the still-touchy situation.
Ms. HENRY: I do think that there's widespread sentiment inside of our union to try and settle that dispute, 'cause we agree that it needs to - it's holding us back from moving our union forward, and we want to get it settled.
GONYEA: At Cornell University, labor expert Kate Bronfenbrenner says it's a big task, but adds that Henry can approach the issue in ways Andy Stern couldn't.
Dr. KATE BRONFENBRENNER (Labor Expert, Cornell University): She can be the peacemaker, because she didn't start the fight. So that makes it much easier for her to do it.
GONYEA: In the hotel meeting room in Washington yesterday, Henry worked the room, looking a lot like a talk show host. She encouraged her audience to speak out.
Unidentified Woman #1: We need retirement.
Unidentified Woman #2: We don't have a retirement plan.
Ms. HENRY: Right.
Unidentified Woman #2: We work all this many years. We're giving extra that we don't really have from our families to help other families, and nobody's looking out for us.
Ms. HENRY: Right. So how many amens to this point?
(Soundbite of cheering, laughter and applause)
GONYEA: Over the past decade, the SEIU has become a major force in Democratic politics in the U.S. It was an early and important supporter of candidate Barack Obama. And now Henry says the union's leadership is doing all it can to help get his agenda enacted.
Ms. HENRY: But at the same time, they do want to see their union pushing the president, because we think it's the only way to help create a balance in this country from the forces that want to protect the status quo, from the forces that want change for working people in this country.
GONYEA: SEIU was also a very visible presence at health care rallies across the country over the past year, and Henry says political activity is also being beefed up for this year's midterm elections. But this week's more immediate task for Henry is to settle into her job and begin to connect with the rank-and-file.
Ms. HENRY: So thank you again for your incredible commitment to your union, and go get them on Capitol Hill.
(Soundbite of applause and cheering)
GONYEA: Mary Kay Henry, the new president of the Service Employees International Union.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
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