Mary Kay Henry
With her roots galvanized by the union breakthroughs in the automotive industry that created Detroit’s middle class, Mary Kay Henry, the first woman president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is now fighting hard to raise wages and the quality of life for thousands of Michiganders who are on the front lines of the pandemic.
“Being raised in Michigan taught me about the power of the union,” said Kay, referring to the UAW’s decades-long history of securing better pay, benefits and working conditions for employees of the Big Three automakers. “When people come together for better pay and working conditions, it lifts up the standard of living for many.”
Now, on the 2020 Time100 list as one of the world’s most influential people for fighting for a $15 minimum wage, she is at the helm of energizing two million SEIU members across the country that are saying loudly that their vote is essential to leave the world a more equitable place for coming generations, she said.
Henry’s family moved from Detroit to Arizona in 1960 before returning to the northwest suburbs in 1967. Her mother was a teacher in Detroit Public Schools and then in a private suburban Catholic school and her father was in sales. As she grew up in the suburbs and graduated from Marian High School in Bloomfield Township in 1975, admittedly as part of Detroit’s white flight, Henry said she saw with her own eyes how the segregation of communities impeded many from receiving quality education and jobs.
Henry adds that it was fitting that Time100 was released on September 22 – National Voter Registration Day. In Michigan, the organization represents 55,000 healthcare workers and partners with other labor movements such as Michigan United. To get the vote out, Henry said SEIU members helped register 250,000 voters in the Detroit metro area and delivered 7,000 “Fight for $15” union signs in Detroit, Pontiac, and Flint. Someday, she hopes legislation will be restored to allow healthcare and other essential workers to unionize just as automotive workers have in the past.
“Our healthcare workers, especially those working in home healthcare and in nursing homes, are bearing the brunt of (COVID) infections and deaths and they deserve to be able to organize and unionize just as our automotive workers have done,” said Kay from her Washington, D.C. home. “It is also outrageous that many of these workers do not have access to affordable healthcare or sick time through their jobs, or have to strike to get hazard pay or personal protective equipment (as they did in October in Westland). If healthcare and other essential workers can unionize to bargain for a fair wage and working conditions, it can lift 55,000 Michiganders and their families out of poverty and can improve the economy for the entire state.”