Among labors staunchest allies, chief executives typically rank near the bottom. With the conviction of an evangelist, Mary Kay Henry believes that can change.
My biggest job is to be a missionary for the union in areas of the country and with constituencies not typically open to organized labor, says Henry, head of hospital organizing for the Service Employees International Union.
For Henry, international executive vice president for the SEIUs 500,000-member health systems division, healthcare organizing has been a lifes work and a calling.
Raised Roman Catholic outside Detroit, the 49-year-old Henry was impressed early in life by the heavily unionized automotive industry. The third oldest of 10 children, Henry got a glimpse of the healthcare business as she earned money for high school in a nearby hospital. In college at Michigan State University, she majored in urban studies and labor relations, and she lobbied for a grass-roots advocacy group alongside union activists. She graduated in 1979 intent on working with a healthcare union; she landed a research job with the SEIU within a year.
Roughly 25 years later, Henry is the public face and a behind-the-scenes force for the SEIUs ambitious effort to organize the nations largely nonunion hospitals and health systems. By 2015, the union aims to recruit an additional 1 million nurses to the roughly 84,000 already among its members.
Success, Henry says, hinges on the unions ability to win over unorganized workers, leverage past victories and build unlikely alliances with rival unions, hospital chief executives and industry insiders.
To that end, Henry estimates she spends 80% of her time traveling outside of Washington, where the SEIU is headquartered, building her case on the unions behalf. Her recent schedule is littered with potential convertsa Boston hospital executive, a Florida healthcare management consultant, an Americas Health Insurance Plans conferencealong with rank-and-file rallies and union budget and strategy meetings. Her remaining time is divided between the unions public policy and political priorities and lobbying for labor within the Catholic Church.
The latter sponsors 13% of U.S. hospitalsincluding the nations third-largest health system, Ascension Healthand has proven to be an influential, if contentious, partner for organized labor.