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Change at SEIU

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This might be a bit inside baseball for this crowd, but Mary Kay Henry stepping down as head of SEIU is a big deal, largely because it is so unusual for labor heads to step away. SEIU has long been something of an exception to this, as it has had more turnover than most. But the AFL and then AFL-CIO was created in 1886. Since then, minus a two year period in the 1890s when Samuel Gompers lost his position due to the brief rise of labor Populism, has had all of 7 heads. Yep, in 138 years. Many of the leading unions have the same kind of leadership problem, where people stay in power for a half-century or until they die. Think about the Teamsters with the Hoffas, father and son. The Carpenters were lead by Bill Hutcheson and then his son for well over 50 years. Randi Weingarten runs AFT like her personal fiefdom and I’d be shocked if she leaves by choice.

As for Henry’s overall legacy, it’s a bit mixed. It’s true enough that the Fight for $15 did not lead to the unionization of the fast food industry. But unlike the Cult of Jane McAlevey, which argues that, like with every single problem in the labor movement that the problem was too much union staff and not enough democracy and grassroots organizing, I think the real issue was strategic. SEIU wanted a big contract that basically unionized McDonald’s and wasn’t interested in building it up one restaurant at a time. That didn’t work and predictably so. But Henry has also funded the Starbucks campaign, which has built one store at a time, even if it now running against the buzzsaw of the company’s open labor law violations and illegal firing of union workers.

In truth, it is extremely hard for any labor leader to succeed in growing their union with the structural challenges the labor movement presently faces from a broken system of labor law and an extremely anti-union Supreme Court. So I tend to be a bit more forgiving of labor leadership than the McAlevey types who are determined that their way of doing this would transform the labor movement.

In any case, it’s good that Henry is moving along. If it was up to me, I’d have a 10 year term limit on labor leadership without the possibility of a second term. One thing that has plagued the movement is labor leaders holding onto their personal power for far too long and not letting new ideas percolate. So SEIU is avoiding that problem and that’s a good thing.

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