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“Working People Everywhere Have Had It”: SEIU Pres. Mary Kay Henry on Unions Mobilizing for Midterms

StoryNovember 02, 2022
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Image Credit: SEIU (photo right)

We look at the high stakes of the midterm elections for workers, including in key battleground states. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, says they are campaigning to empower working people, especially infrequent voters of color and new immigrants, to vote in their best interests. “We have got to make our votes a demand, and not a show of support for candidates that are with us one day and against us the next,” says Henry.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

In the final days before Tuesday’s midterm election, we look at how working people are organizing both on the job and at the ballot box. This is 32BJ SEIU member Lenore rallying members before heading out to canvass voters in New York.

LENORE: Some of you, it may be your first time out knocking on doors today. And why is a union involved in politics? How come the union is not just only worried about things that happen on our jobs? Because you know what? The reality is, what happens in politics affects our jobs.


LENORE: When we raise the minimum wage, it helps us in bargaining. When we pass paid sick days, it helps us get more in bargaining.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: That’s right!

LENORE: And so, politics has an impact.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. labor movement has gained traction in the past year with successful organizing drives at the first Amazon warehouse and Apple store, along with some 250 Starbucks stores and many others. Polls show more than 70% of Americans support labor unions. Democrats in Congress have proposed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, known as the PRO Act, to make it easier for workers to unionize. The bill faces defeat if Republicans take control of the Senate. This is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, talking to a roundtable of SEIU union members about his Republican opponent.

LT. GOV. MANDELA BARNES: Ron Johnson does not represent our interests. This is a person who in our second debate said that he doesn’t see a reason to raise the minimum wage. Now, this is coming from one of the most wealthy people in our society, one of the most wealthy members of the United States Senate. He doesn’t see a need for people’s wages to increase, although his wealth doubled in the last 12 years. His wealth has doubled, and he is hell-bent on making everybody else’s life worse.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, which represents millions of workers in healthcare, public and property services. SEIU is campaigning to mobilize some 4 million infrequent voters of color in states like Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona.

Mary Kay, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about why this midterm election is so crucial for organized labor, and what you’re doing about it?

MARY KAY HENRY: Because working people everywhere have had it. Enough is enough. They are joining together to use their power, to take low-wage poverty jobs at Amazon warehouses and Starbucks stores and all the places you just mentioned, and joining together and demanding a union from their employer and demanding elected officials support them in the demand to tackle the worst economic and racial inequality in our time. And that’s why I was proud to be with Mandela Barnes at that roundtable and then march all of the nonunion workers that are organizing in Milwaukee with our members to the early vote site at the Fiserv Forum so that people could kick off the early voting that’s happening now in Milwaukee.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mary Kay Henry, I wanted to ask you — one of the big issues that Republicans use to attack Democrats is over immigration, claiming that Democrats are for open borders and seeking to create divisions within the working class over immigration. Yet here we see reports today that Canada is dramatically increasing its welcome mat for immigration because it feels it needs more workers in Canada. Your sense of how the labor movement should deal with the attacks on immigration from the Republicans?

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, a key thing we’re doing right now, Juan, is motivating immigrant families to participate in getting their family, friends and neighbors and mixed-status families out to vote. We’re making sure that the issue of immigration is front and center in this election. That roundtable that Mandela was part of last week in Wisconsin, we had an immigrant worker talk about their experience, and get him to commit to fight for a full path to legalization for every immigrant in this country. And I think we have to continue to tell the stories of the immigrant workers that are holding up this economy and why it is necessary for us to have an immigration policy that’s fair and humane.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you also about the long-term prospects for growth in organized labor in the United States. There have been some who say that while the percentage of unionization of American workers has continued to drop dramatically, that many unions continue to have much better financial positions, largely because over the years they’ve continued to increase dues for their members, so they still are healthy financially, but many are not dedicating sufficient a percentage of their money to organizing new workers. I think John Sweeney, when he first became head of the AFL-CIO, said it should be about 30% of union revenues should be dedicated to organizing. How do you see that happening? SEIU has been in the forefront of organizing, but some of the other unions in the organized labor movement, their commitment to organizing new workers and actually putting money into those organizing drives?

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, I think there are some really encouraging developments on that front. CWA just made a huge breakthrough with Microsoft in the gaming division and got Microsoft on record as being willing to respect the rights of workers. So they’ve organized hundreds of workers in the gaming division, and now the entire company, there are conversations happening. The UAW has pledged a major campaign on electric vehicles because of the infrastructure money and the Inflation Reduction Act money.

We’e working in coalition with the UNITE HERE and CWA on airport service workers. There’s a million poverty-wage Black and Brown workers laboring in our nation’s airports after our nation just put billions of dollars and those companies just posted record profits. We need the power of the labor movement to put a check on sort of runaway corporate profits at the hands of American taxpayers.

And then there’s lots of great organizing that we’re doing with the National Domestic Workers [Alliance] in the home care and child care sectors in the economy. So I think the increased demand by working people for the ability to join together and bargain a better life on the job and in their community is going to get more unions investing in the ability and having workers’ backs to make that possible.

AMY GOODMAN: About Starbucks, as reported in headlines, workers at a Starbucks/Amazon Go store in New York City have filed a petition for a union election with Starbucks Workers United. There are 258 organized Starbucks stores today. There were none a year ago. And in related news, the National Labor Relations Board says Starbucks broke the law when it closed an Ithaca, New York, store in retaliation against unionizing workers. The NLRB said Starbucks should reopen the store and compensate workers for lost wages. Now, Workers United, the Amazon union, is an affiliate of SEIU. Is that right? The Starbucks Workers United is an affiliate of SEIU?


AMY GOODMAN: So, can you respond to all of this latest news and the significance of the Starbucks organizing efforts?

MARY KAY HENRY: Yeah, I think the fearlessness and courage of these baristas to walk through the anti-union campaign that Starbucks has waged against them is incredible. And we are proud to have the backs of these baristas and to help expand the organizing in key states in the country, because Starbucks needs to understand it may be 250 stores today, but it’s going to be close to a thousand in a couple of months. And they have to make a choice. Are they going to respect the workers’ voice on the job and come to their senses and set a national bargaining table with these workers? Or are they going to force, fight after fight, in store after store, in state after state? And this is the choice that Starbucks has answered yes to in other parts of the world, and they need to do it here in the United States of America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mary Kay Henry, in terms of the upcoming election, there are obviously many American workers who basically see both parties, Democrats and Republicans, as captured by corporate elites. How does the labor movement deal with the fact that there are within the Democratic Party so many corporate elites who want to constantly move the party in a more centrist direction and therefore create the possibility for disaffected workers to be recruited into the Republican Party or in support of Republican candidates?

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, I think a key way we do that is we put our members and organizing workers on the frontlines of endorsing candidates and forcing candidates to look our members in the eye and talk about what they’re going to do to uproot systemic racism and confront corporate power in the economy and in our democracy. And when we do that, we get candidates that are willing to fight with us, like Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin. Governor Sisolak in Nevada just pledged to raise $15 wages for our home care members and raise the reimbursement rate and help us organize 14,000 home care workers in that state. Those are indications of candidates that are willing to pick a side.

And that’s been one of the battle cries that our members and organizing leaders have had throughout this midterm election, which is, “Which side are you on?” We have got to make our votes a demand, and not a show of support for candidates that are with us one day and against us the next. It is critical that working people root out that corporate Democrat in this party and force our candidates to represent the vast majority of working people in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Kay Henry, minimum-wage increases are on the ballot in Nebraska, in Nevada, Washington, D.C. Two California cities in Southern California will vote on whether to raise the base wage for nurses to $25 an hour. Illinois voters will choose whether to include the right to collectively bargain in the state Constitution. So, it’s not just voting for candidates; it’s voting on issues like these around the country when people go to the polls. If you could comment on this and on Bernie Sanders’ criticism of the Democratic Party and candidates for not focusing more on what the Democratic Party can do for workers?

MARY KAY HENRY: I think the minimum-wage efforts all around the cities and states that you just described is a huge step forward and is part of the win that the Fight for $15 and union movement created in raising wages and putting wages as part of the conversation in this country. We fully back all those efforts. And I think you’re right: It is a way to put the economy and wages and work at the center of our politics and make sure that people understand that what we’ve been hearing on the doors from those 4 million infrequent voters and from our 2 million members and the millions more that we’re trying to organize is that cost of living is their number one issue, and they need candidates to tackle price-gouging corporations that have profiteered off this pandemic and hold them accountable. Especially when they get taxpayer dollars to create good jobs, they need to be good union jobs.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for joining us. Mary Kay Henry is the international president of the Service Employees International Union, SEIU.

That does it for our show. On November 8th, on election night, Democracy Now! will be airing a three-hour election night special. We’ll be broadcasting live starting at 9 p.m. Eastern. You can go to our website at democracynow.org for more details. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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