- The Washington Times - Friday, April 30, 2010

The handoff of power did not go according to script, raising questions about whether one of the country’s most politically savvy and activist labor unions will soon be headed in another direction.

The board of the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is expected to endorse the selection of Executive Vice President Mary Kay Henry as its next president next week, after Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger dropped out of the race.

Ms. Burger was widely seen as the heir apparent to retiring SEIU head Andy Stern, a major force in Democratic politics who founded the “Change to Win” coalition to challenge the traditional leadership of the labor movement by the AFL-CIO.

Ms. Henry, head of the union’s health care division, has reportedly told the board she shares the opinion of members who want local unions to set the SEIU agenda, not the leadership in Washington.

“Our local unions and divisions should drive our national priorities, not the other way around,” she wrote in a campaign memo to SEIU leaders.

Ms. Burger, who stepped aside when it was clear Ms. Henry had the support to win, rejected the idea that the union was changing its mission with Mr. Stern’s departure.

“The media is just wrong when they suggest that this contest represents a shift in SEIU’s priorities or a rejection of the Stern-Burger agenda,” she told the board in a statement. The SEIU did not return calls for this article.

The union, whose ranks include janitors, nurses, security officer and public-sector workers, has announced a series of public demonstrations Saturday to protest Arizona’s tough new immigration law and to lobby for an immigration-overhaul bill in Congress.

But outside observers say the post-Stern era at the union, which has been among the fastest-growing in the struggling American labor movement, is now much more of a question mark.

“If Anna would have gotten the nod, it would have been more of the same,” said James Sherk, a senior policy analyst with the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. “With Ms. Henry, it’s too soon to say. Her stated platform is ‘back to roots,’ but how much she follows through is yet to be seen. Political influence and power can be addictive.”

The union’s political activism - it was a major force in supporting President Obama’s health care law in Congress - has not been without costs, at a time when local SEIU unions have been struggling financially and the union’s pension plan is underfunded.

Mr. Stern has also attracted criticism over the years for what detractors call his “top-down management style” and his hard-charging agenda, including the very public break with the AFL-CIO he engineered in 2005

“I can only go by what [Ms. Henry] is saying,” said F. Vince Vernuccio, adjunct analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “She wants local unions to have more control. I don’t know if she’ll follow through, but that’s what she campaigned on. That’s where most of her support comes from.”

Still, Mr. Vernuccio said Ms. Henry should not be perceived as purely a grass-roots leader, considering she helped Mr. Stern quell revolts by local unions in Northern California.

“It’s not as if she’s completely detached from the national agenda,” he said.

Story Continues →