Hospital associations and many chapters of the Service Employees International Union remained tight-lipped after word that Mary Kay Henry is poised to take over leadership after a rival candidate ended her own bid for the position.
A field of one
Henry emerges as likely successor to Stern at SEIU
At least one labor attorney who has frequently engaged in contract negotiations with the SEIU said, however, that the development should bode well for healthcare employers and workers given Henry’s intimate knowledge of the industry as the union’s executive vice president involved in healthcare.
The union also represents property-service employees and government workers, but more than half of the SEIU’s 2.2 million members are healthcare workers.
“She’s a known entity, and that’s important given all the changes that are in the works under healthcare reform,” said G. Roger King, a partner at Jones Day. He described Henry as someone “employers will be able to work with” on reaching labor contracts.
News of Henry’s impending leadership came late last week after release of an e-mail sent to the union’s executive board by SEIU International Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger announcing she was ending her own bid for the top spot. “I am writing to you today to let you know while I would have treasured the opportunity to serve as SEIU president, I am withdrawing my candidacy,” Burger wrote.
It has been widely known that Burger was the choice of exiting SEIU President Andy Stern to take over leadership of the organization. The union doubled its membership during Stern’s 14-year stint, but the departing president garnered his share of critics. Many have faulted him for a rift between the healthcare worker membership in Northern California and the subsequent creation of a rival union called the National Union of Healthcare Workers (April 19, p. 10).
The NUHW, led by former SEIU-United Health Workers West President Sal Rosselli, is locked in a membership battle with the SEIU for healthcare workers in Northern California. Some observers believe that conflict and other concerns swayed some key local and regional SEIU leadership toward support of Henry.
Steve Trossman, a spokesman for SEIU-UHW, wouldn’t speculate on whether Henry’s candidacy has benefited from such concerns, but said his group supported her. “We think she’s going to be a very strong, good and dynamic leader of the union,” he said.
Other SEIU locals declined to comment on whom they supported, saying they would not speak prior to the scheduled May 8 executive board vote on a new president. But Burger, who has given no reason for her decision to step aside, in her e-mail to the board downplayed speculation that the competition between her and Henry represented “a rejection of the Stern/Burger agenda” by the membership. “The media is just wrong when they suggest that this contest represents a ‘shift in SEIU’s priorities,’ ” Burger wrote.
No other opponent has stepped forward to challenge Henry, and observers say she is expected to be easily confirmed. And, despite mixed reviews of Stern’s leadership, many believe Henry is likely to continue many of his initiatives.
Jones Day attorney King said, for example, that he expects the SEIU will continue to approach contract talks from the standpoint of partnering with employers to achieve deals rather than using aggressive confrontation. He also expects that Henry, who in 2009 was selected as one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women in Healthcare, will likely step up efforts started under Stern to get more women and minorities into SEIU leadership positions.
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