Unions Are Vehicles of Justice (with Mary Kay Henry)

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For over 40 years, Mary Kay Henry has fought for the rights of workers with the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. With the rise of COVID-19 and an increased reliance on essential workers, these rights have too often been disregarded, leaving many without adequate personal protective equipment or access to fair wages and benefits. This week, Mary Kay joins us to talk about unions as a vehicle of justice for a racially diverse workforce that’s representative of our country.


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Mary Kay Henry, Former Pres. Ronald Reagan, Julian Castro, Calandrian Simpsonn Kemp, Reporter on TV

Julian Castro  00:02

Labor unions are one of the strongest tools workers have to improve their conditions. Time and again. We’ve seen that when workers band together to demand change, that change happens. But in spite of this, union membership in America has been on a steady decline since the early 80s. Right to Work laws have weakened the ability to gain leverage against exploitative working practices. And as corporations like Amazon and Uber become increasingly powerful. Their efforts to keep workers divided have increased

Reporter on TV

Over Lyft and other gig economy companies clinched a major win with the passage of Proposition 22. That California ballot measure says that they do not have to classify their workers as company employees. NBC News tech correspondent Jake Ward explains how Prop 22 could impact those independent workers.

Julian Castro

This is going on at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us all just how essential so many of our nation’s workers truly are.

Mary Kay Henry

These jobs that were invisible, the security officer in a building a janitor that cleans at night, continuing to do those jobs in the midst of a pandemic, for poverty wage work, where they can’t stay at home in order to feed their family if they think they’re sick. Everybody understands that that’s a public health crisis. In addition to an economic crisis for our nation.

Julian Castro 

Almost 40% of unemployed workers had been out of work for six months, which is nearing a historical record for long term unemployment. But with the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan in the works, there’s potential for our country to return to full employment by next year. As President of the Service Employees International Union—or SEIU—Mary Kay Henry has fought for the rights of workers for over 40 years, including for better personal protective equipment during the pandemic, and The fight For 15 Movement to increase the minimum wage across the country. This week, I talk with Mary Kay about her impressive career as a woman in labor activism, the demands of our current and future workforce. And what’s next for organized labor.

Julian Castro  02:31

This is OUR AMERICA,. I’m your host, Julian Castro.

Julian Castro 

Mary Kay, thank you so much for joining me today. You know, I did not realize that you have been with SEIU for 40 years. That is quite a dedication to the organization and labor organizing. Why did you get into it in the first place? What was your passion for labor organizing? Where’d it come from?

Mary Kay Henry 

Well, you know, I grew up in Detroit, I was born in Detroit and grew up in the suburbs, and I watched Detroit burn. I saw a city that I loved going to just be totally torn apart by plant closures, and then a lot of racial tensions and strife. And I really went to school thinking I wanted to learn how to rebuild the city. And when I did that, I met a lot of UAW women who were organizing in the state legislature. And they really attracted me in thinking about good jobs were the foundation of rebuilding cities, and that the good jobs had been hollowed out of Detroit. So they actually shifted my interest from urban planning, to labor organizing. And so I spent a summer with them organizing on the east side of Detroit, where a Chrysler plant had recently closed.

Mary Kay Henry  04:12

And everybody in that neighborhood said, we don’t want handouts, we don’t want government assistance. We want to work hard for a living and provide for our families. And so it’s sealed inside of me a commitment to trying to back workers who want to improve their jobs, so they can have their kids do better than they’ve done. It’s a basic as you know, American principle.

Julian Castro 

And when you were starting out, which would have been the late 70s, early 80s. This was a time period when there weren’t nearly as many women I imagine in organizing. There were some..

Mary Kay Henry

You were right about that, yes.

Julian Castro 

Weren’t nearly as many as there are now and certainly not in the position that you were in heading up SEIU. What was that like back then? How do you compare it to now?

Mary Kay Henry

Well, you know, the Coalition of Labor Union Women had been founded in 74. And Olga Madar, from the UAW was one of the founders. And she kind of became a shepherd for me because I couldn’t get into the UAW. She said the two unions hiring young women are SEIU and ILGWU. So I took a Greyhound bus to New York. And the I LG sent me down to SEIU, who was in fact hiring women for the first time because one of the women included that was an SEIU leader, Eleanor Glenn in LA basically said to the international president, you have to allow more women to get in. And she called me the first day I was on the job and said, “You are not allowed to quit. Unless you call me before you do because you are breaking a barrier and I want to make sure that others follow behind you.” And it was one of the most important lessons and gifts that I learned from a veteran leader in the labor movement. And I hope I’ve walked in her shoes.

Julian Castro  06:11

And this this same time period, the mid 70s, late 70s into the early 80s. Many economists put their finger on that time period, for when the United States started weakening in terms of its commitment to workers.

Former Pres. Ronald Reagan

“This morning at 7am. The Union representing those who man America’s air traffic control facilities called a strike. It is for this reason that I must tell those who failed to report for duty this morning. They are in violation of the law. And if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”

Julian Castro 

Walk me through what you see the similarities, the differences between when you started, and what you see today, the challenges that we face today.

Mary Kay Henry

Well, you know that, just as you’re saying the separation between workers productivity and wages, started right in the 70s, as pressures on our trade agreements, and the globalization of work and the movement of capital around the growth of the globe was one pressure. Another pressure was the policies beginning with the Reagan administration that started to weaken unions through government action, used to be 30% of the workforce was collectively bargaining. And when 30% was bargaining, everybody’s wages went up. And that got broken, right in the period you’re talking about because of government decisions. And corporations helping to drive that through globalization and through anti-union practices here. And so the similarities to today are that it got put on turbocharged by Republican governors in 2010.

Mary Kay Henry  08:05

When we saw the destruction of public unions and home care unions in Wisconsin by Scott Walker, followed by Snyder in Michigan, then in Indiana, and on and on and on, where the labor movement in a very compressed period lost millions of members. And employers felt like they could begin to operate with impunity in breaking contracts and decertifying. Workers so that today, we have less than 10% of the workforce is union and is able to bargain collectively. And when we do, we may get a wage increase for our own members, but it isn’t impacting the community in the way it used to impact everybody’s wages and make everybody’s jobs better.

Julian Castro 

For most people that don’t follow labor organizing super closely, they hear SEIU, AFL CIO, CWA, ask me, it could be kind of an alphabet soup of what are all these organizations? What do you think makes SEIU different?

Mary Kay Henry

Well, I think we represent the future workforce in America. We are 66% women, we are more than 50% workers of color, Black, Brown, Asian, Native, from all around the world. 30% of our members are immigrants from countries all around the world. And we believe there’s a percentage of our members that are undocumented. And so because of who we are, Julian, it means that we have to use the advocacy of the Union to bargain better wages and benefits. But our members lives are not going to be changed unless we deal with the structural barriers that they confront in every aspect of their lives. Like can they go home and will their children be safe in their neighborhood or are they’re going to be deported if they stick their neck out for the union or our members grieve the loss of their children at the hands of police.

Mary Kay Henry  10:12

It’s all intersectional. And I think what our members have done and what our backing of movements has done is said that we have to use this union as a vehicle for a fight for justice on every front, not just changing employment in the country, but changing housing and education and immigration, law and the environment. But more than ever, I would say our members think that our union has to be a vehicle for change for all working people. And that’s why we’re proud to back The Fight For 15 and a union, we are bound and determined to make poverty wage work, good union jobs that are the foundation of the most racially diverse, inclusive middle class this nation has ever seen.

Julian Castro 

It’s been more than 10 years now, since the federal minimum wage was raised. There are a number of states that match the federal minimum wage, so it’s still $7.25 an hour?

Mary Kay Henry

Yes. And $5.25 in Georgia. Now, somehow Georgia got away with less than the federal, it’s like mind boggling. But yes.

Julian Castro 

What does that do to hardworking Americans and their families? What have you seen out there?

Mary Kay Henry

I think what it does is break people’s spirits in believing that, you know, if you’re working 100 hours a week, in most cases, our members and their coworkers that are non-union, who are in minimum wage jobs with no secure benefits, no two weeks of paid sick leave no regular schedule, it’s not just the wage. It’s also the insanity of a job that you can’t plan to care for your children on, because you don’t know what your schedule is. And so it’s very, very chaotic for people, that 64 million people doing work at less than $15 an hour. And that’s why I think there’s been such an uprising and why The Fight For 15 keeps gaining steam. Each year, you know, 29 million people have had wages increase as a result of the fearlessness and courage of fast-food workers.

Mary Kay Henry  12:28

And Florida voters just decided by 63%, to raise that state’s minimum wage to $15. And I think that there’s more and more popular support for raising the wage and the pandemic heightened the support, because these jobs that were invisible, the security officer in a building, a janitor that cleans at night, continuing to do those jobs in the midst of a pandemic, for poverty wage work, where they can’t stay at home in order to feed their family, if they think they’re sick. Everybody understands that that’s a public health crisis, in addition to an economic crisis for our nation.

Mary Kay Henry 

That’s why I think our members are so fiercely determined to continue to fight to get government to make the decisions that would unlock these systems and create pathways out of poverty. And we think a key way to make that happen is to establish the $15 minimum wage, but also let people join together in unions, because it’s a way to level the playing field with corporations in this country for the first time in our generation.

Julian Castro 

Just to go back to something you mentioned there, one of the less covered but I think really consequential and important outcomes of the November 3 election was that even as Florida gave its 29 electoral votes to Donald Trump, the voters of Florida approved a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, I believe by 2026. It’s going to scale up. And Florida is not the only state where that has happened. What do you say to those who have argued oh, you can’t raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour because it’s going to kill business? You know, the economy of these communities is going to spiral downward. Have you seen any evidence of that? You know, what is your argument against that?

Mary Kay Henry  14:33

I say that we have to look at the communities where cities or states have made the decision to raise the minimum wage, and you will find that it spurred job growth, not just for large employers, but for small employers. And it turns out that when you put more money in people’s pockets at the lowest parts of the economy..

Julian Castro 

That’s a good thing.

Mary Kay Henry 

They spend it in their neighborhood, it doesn’t get offshored to ab Island bank or over to Switzerland, people actually generate more consuming and so it generates more jobs. And I think we are on the tipping point of having raised wages in enough places in the country, that sort of mainstream economists are moving on the minimum wage being catalytic for the economy. And the National Employment Law Project just did an analysis that said, it could be the most dramatic intervention on racial inequality of all of the policy ideas being generated. Because, again, structural inequality on poverty and race means that too many people of color, are trapped in minimum wage jobs, I just think we need to say, as a nation, we’re going to end poverty wage work, it’s an oxymoron.

Mary Kay Henry 

It just makes my blood boil. When people say, fast food workers, it’s their fault that they’re in this low wage job. And if anybody walked in the shoes of a fast-food worker, or spent time listening to the amazing initiative, and creativity that’s required to raise a family on those wages, and tolerate the conditions in those stores. They’d be ashamed that they ever thought that there was any scrap of laziness in those workers and those jobs.

Julian Castro  16:39

You know, it strikes me that there are two issues that have presented themselves over the last several years. One of them is immigration policy. There was a time when organized labor in general, did not take that approach, the same approach that you’re describing toward immigration, right? I mean, that’s the classic story of some organized labor that saw immigrants as part of the problem. And there’s a history there. The other more recent is the push that Black Lives Matter and others have made against what many see as police unions that have gone too far. Some have requested of big organized labor that they not include police unions, how have y’all navigated that?

Mary Kay Henry 

You know, we have police unions in our membership. And we did a resolution where we publicly stated that we stood with the demands of the movement for Black Lives. And we raised a million dollars from our members to invest in community-based organizations in the places where our members are, to help catalyze the organizing of the movement for black lives where they were making demands. And one of the first ones that we were frankly thrilled about was getting the police out of the Minneapolis Public School System, which our members had been fighting for, I think over a decade. But the movement for Black Lives actually catalyzed it in a way that the change happened really quick.

Mary Kay Henry  18:16

So what it meant for us inside our union is that we had to begin very intensive conversations with the pieces of our union that represented public safety officers, and basically get them to join the journey that our unions been on for seven years about why we can’t win economic justice, unless we win racial justice, and in criminal justice, that means that we want our members who are police, to join with us in an understanding that systemic racism exists in the criminal justice system, just like every other institution in society, health care, education, housing, as we’ve said before, and what we are trying to figure out is how does the union become a vehicle for catalyzing, engaging police in thinking about the future of public safety, and imagining how they would change the system to ensure that black and brown communities are actually safe in the way that my community as a white woman is.

Mary Kay Henry 

And I have to say, we are in the middle of this. There’s a lot of conflict and tension about our police members being upset that we stood with the movement for Black Lives, because they got characterized by the current politics as being against police. And we are trying to help people understand that the movement for Black Lives, wants policing transformed in a way that creates equity and it’s been tough, but I don’t want to throw police members out of SEIU, because I think the union is a vehicle for change, and a way for working people and communities to have tough conversations across our differences and create solutions, just like we did in immigration, I think we could do on the future of policing in America.

Julian Castro  20:19

Well, I give you all credit for grappling with those issues, you know, because I mean, those are some of the thorniest issues out there when it comes to labor organizations and you know, out there in the public right now, as policymakers and local communities, state legislators and in Washington, tackle, hopefully tackle how we can transform policing, so that everybody is treated equally, and we don’t see what happened to George Floyd, or Tamir Rice. So we don’t see things like that happen again. It’s important that that those conversations and those actions take place at every level, both governmental and non-governmental. And so it’s good to see that y’all are grappling with those issues in full.

Julian Castro 

Now, about the months to come and the years to come. So Florida passed this $15 minimum wage initiative, it scales up through 2026. What do you see in terms of other states moving forward with this kind of legislation? And are y’all actively engaged in helping efforts in other states?

Mary Kay Henry 

Yes, we are actively engaged in cities and states and with employers, I don’t know if you saw recently we saluted Chobani, the yogurt company saying they were going to go to a $15 minimum wage for all their workers and challenge the rest of the private sector to get to a $15 minimum wage and not wait for legislation. And the other thing we’re incredibly excited about is that Biden-Harris administration has put forward this economic recovery plan that deals with tackling the pandemic, but getting people back to working good jobs, that’s called—Build Back Better—and has caregiving green infrastructure and manufacturing as the three parts. But we think this is the first time ever that a President sees caregiving as a foundation of an economic recovery for everybody. And again, these are these used to be sub minimum wage jobs, they are minimum wage, they’re excluded from Social Security, excluded from labor law, excluded from a lot of overtime protections, because of a racist compromise in the 30s.

Mary Kay Henry  22:34

When all those laws were passed, those were jobs done by black women and brown women. And they were excluded, just like farmworkers alongside them. And so investing in caregiving and creating a million caregiving jobs with a $15 minimum wage and secure benefits, and expanding the ability of families to care for elders and people with disabilities at home, we think is game changing. And so both of those things for us are top on the horizon, in addition to the multinational corporations that own those fast-food restaurants coming to their senses, and saying, now’s the time to do in America, what they’ve done in countries around the world. Let’s have a national collective bargaining table, and let’s raise wages and create good jobs for 4 million fast food workers while we’re creating a caregiving economy.

Julian Castro

And, you know, I give the Biden campaign a lot of credit for highlighting and then putting out a plan on caregiving. And that’s based on the work that many people have done, including labor organizations, and so necessary for the future as we have a baby boomer generation that continues to require many, many caregivers. We have that industry, that traditionally as you said, folks have been underpaid and undervalued. I think in our society, we have more and more mothers, fathers, brothers, uncles, sisters, that are taking on the responsibility of caregiving for their relatives. And you know, what does that look like in terms of how we can use our tax code with family paid and sick leave? What do you hope to see in the next decade when it comes to the way that we view caregiving work?

Mary Kay Henry  24:28

I would love Terry jobs to have the same value that auto steel and rubber jobs had of the last generation. I think caregiving jobs can be the foundation of all families being able to thrive equally in this nation. So my imagination is this is the fastest growing jobs in the economy. Biden-Harris want to invest more because if we are more caregivers, we can reduce the pressure on nursing homes, hospitals and clinics and health. help people stay safely at home, as we are trying to figure out the mass public distribution of the vaccine, but also the ongoing public health measures that we’re going to need to keep the curve flattened. It’s a win-win in terms of tackling public health, racial and economic inequality.

Mary Kay Henry 

And the homecare job could be seen as a solid entry job where some people will choose to stay because they love it. And others will get a set of skills where they can continue in the healthcare field, but do a whole range of different jobs that for the first time, since the founding of our nation, they would have access to.

Julian Castro 

The vote in Florida to raise the minimum wage turned a lot of heads. But on the opposite coast, a different measure made waves in the November election, California’s Proposition 22, aim to overturn a law that said gig economy workers, like Uber drivers have to be treated like employees, it was approved by 58% of voters a devastating step backward for labor rights in California. And since gig workers are legally independent contractors, they aren’t entitled to any benefits or protections that companies typically provide. So Mary Kay, I want to get your opinion on this. What do you make of the undoing of the California legislation that initially categorized gig workers as employees?

Mary Kay Henry  26:42

Well, you know, the voters of California in the minds of the Uber and Lyft drivers that we’ve been organizing for the past three years, we’re led to believe, by the $200 million ad campaign that the company is financed that sometimes..

Julian Castro 

And I think folks should really just that deserves a lot of attention. If you can say that, again, how much money these folks spent trying to get that proposition passed in California.

Mary Kay Henry 

Yeah, the employers pulled out all the stops. And Uber and Lyft told us at the beginning of when they were moving the proposition on the ballot, that they were prepared to spend whatever it took, because it was such a threat to their business model. And so what we understand and what’s been publicly reported is $200 million was spent. And, again, this mythical image of these jobs being something I choose to do that will add to my income from some other job that I’m doing, or I’m a student, and I just want some extra money. It’s sort of like we said, the fast-food companies have lived off of this myth that somehow high school students are doing those jobs for pocket change, when those jobs are filled by an older workers who have no other choice in their communities for how they would earn a living.

Mary Kay Henry  28:04

And that’s the same composition of the gig workforce in California and across the world, which is, people are robbing Peter to pay Paul, and stitching together two and three jobs in order to try and make ends meet. And more than 30% of that workforce, does only gig work as their full-time income, you know, whether it’s a full-time job or not. And I have to say, the workers that we’ve been backing in California in the mobile Workers Alliance and in coalition with gig workers rising and rideshare, drivers united, are completely convinced that we will have another shot at making clear that this too, is an emerging poverty wage workforce, where the corporations are earning record profits and workers aren’t getting their fair share.

Mary Kay Henry 

And we’re going to use organizing to try and write that wrong and level the playing field. And I think you’re seeing these initiatives now are spreading across the country. So there’s going to be a battle over the future of gig work in our economy, and workers are ready for the fight.

Julian Castro 

And so what is the future of organizing gig workers?

Mary Kay Henry 

Well, we’re deeply committed, there are other unions in the labor movement that are invested. I think the future of organizing has to be the way we’ve built SEIU, the immigrant janitors that founded our union fought for 10 years before they got a seat at the bargaining table and were able to have the dignity of being treated as a worker and not as a servant by the building owners. That was the big shift that happened when they won their union. The same with home care providers who fought for 11 years in LA to not be treated as independent contractors earning $3 an hour. We won those Workers the ability to bargain and be treated as employees.

Mary Kay Henry  30:04

The family childcare providers in California 17 years it took them before we pass legislation that Governor Newsom signed into law that is going to allow those, again, primarily immigrant women, primarily black women, a seat at the bargaining table. And so that same spirit and determination is going to be part of how we organize the gig workforce together with other partners in the labor movement.

Julian Castro 

You have spent a lot of time fighting the good fight 40 years. What are you thankful for? And what are you hopeful about?

Mary Kay Henry 

I’m really thankful for the fearlessness and courage of fast-food workers and homecare workers all across this country, airport workers who do wheelchair attending and cleaning in our nation’s airports, that they have a resilience. They maintain their sense of hope about what’s possible for the future. I’m incredibly thankful for that, because it fuels my leadership. I’m hopeful that the private sector and that major corporate leaders are going to join in with the Biden Harris administration, and create a tripartite understanding between working people, employers and government that when we work together, we can reduce racial and economic inequality. When people are awakened about their own power to enact change, that would benefit themselves, their families, but their home neighborhood and community, the worlds the limit.

Julian Castro 

With that hopeful note, Mary Kay, thank you so much for taking the time to share your journey and your vision for the future and your hopes about our country’s future. And buena suerte, good luck.

Mary Kay Henry  32:03

Thank you.

Julian Castro 

A provision for a federal $15 minimum wage is included in the most recent COVID-19 relief bill. And Senator Bernie Sanders was on our show a few months ago, is still fighting to push it through. But while some in Washington are helping to apply downward pressure, we need the unity and conviction of brave workers, like the fast-food workers, Mary Kay mentioned, to keep organizing to demand change from the bottom. Are you a union member? Tell us what you think about the state of organized labor in this country at ouramerica@lemonadamedia.com. Next week, we take a look at how gun violence has affected the life of one mother who’s active in her local chapter of Moms Demand Action, and how the organization is helping to shape the national conversation on gun safety.

Calandrian Simpsonn Kemp 

When I came to Moms Demand Action, there was a platform and there were other survivors that look just like me, and there was a cause and I kept saying, I didn’t know that there were people already on the front lines. For gun violence. I had no idea. And I said well, this just gonna be the place where I’m gonna call home.


OUR AMERICA is a Lemonada Original. This episode was produced by Matthew Simonson. Jackie Danziger is our supervising producer. Our associate producer is Giulia  Hjort. Kegan Zema is our technical director. Music is by Hannis Brown. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Julian Castro. Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms, or find me on Twitter at @JulianCastro or in Instagram at @JulianCastroTX

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