Mary Kay Henry replaces Andy Stern, who retired last month from the top job at the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union. SEIU's membership grew under Stern -- but so did some bitter internal divisions. Henry pledges to bridge those gaps, while also beefing up the union's organizing and its political clout.
Mary Kay Henry, the first female president of the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union, inherits an organization that added scores of members while most other union's shrank. But bitter internal fights also grew under Henry's controversial predecessor, and she's now tasked with healing those rifts.
A native of Detroit -- a big union town -- Henry says she saw firsthand how unions made life better for middle-class families.
The third oldest of 10 children 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 SEIU organizing hospital employees in California.
On Tuesday, Henry was out meeting with some union members.
"I'm so excited to have you," exclaimed one woman. "This is the greatest thing happening -- a woman in office."
The union members work in child care and early education, and they were in town to meet with members of Congress.
"For anybody that thinks that what we do, or you do every day is babysitting, we've got another thing to tell them," Henry said.
Henry, 52, has been an international executive vice president of the union for six years. This past weekend, she was elected to the top job.
"Every time I'm introduced, like this morning, I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm the president of SEIU,' " Henry says in an interview.
She says her job is to articulate the hopes of SEIU members on a national level.
"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," Henry says. "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."
Another task she inherits is to try to deal with the aftermath of internal disputes between her predecessor and some local union members.
Andy Stern, who retired last month, had several high-profile clashes with union leaders in California. The bitter fights started over negotiating and organizing strategy and escalated, affecting tens of thousands of workers.
Henry says she'll pour her energy into addressing the still touchy situation.
"There's widespread sentiment inside of our union to try and settle that dispute," Henry says. "We agree that ... it's holding us back from moving our union forward, and we want to get it settled."
Cornell University labor expert Kate Bronfenbrenner says it's a big task, but Henry can approach the issue in ways Stern couldn't.
"She can be the peacemaker because she didn't start the fight," Brofenbrenner says. "That makes it much easier for her to do it."
In the hotel meeting room in Washington on Tuesday, Henry worked the room; looking like a talk show host, she encouraged her audience to share their concerns.
And share they did: "We need retirement. We don't have a retirement plan. 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."
Over the past decade, SEIU has become a major force in Democratic politics. It was an early and important supporter of candidate Barack Obama. Henry says the union's leadership is doing all it can to help get his agenda enacted.
"But at the same time, they do want to see their union pushing the president," Henry says. "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."
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. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.