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Andrew Stern’s sudden resignation as International President of the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”) took the labor world by surprise and sparked debate about his legacy and the future of the nation’s largest and most politically powerful labor union.  The selection of SEIU Executive Vice-President Mary Kay Henry as his successor has sparked an equally intense debate about the direction she is likely to take SEIU in the future.  Many had assumed that Anna Burger, SEIU’s Secretary − Treasurer and Chair of Change to Win − not to mention Stern’s longtime protégé − was all but guaranteed the job.  However, Henry’s candidacy grew support among the members of SEIU’s Executive Council when she promised to “heal rifts” within the union caused by internal debate over Stern and the long-term viability of his organizing philosophy. The SEIU Executive Council’s rejection of Burger seemed to signal a desire at the top of SEIU for a genuine change of direction.  Yet, in the days following her election, Henry has sent mixed signals about her true intentions.

Henry’s pledge to heal internal union rifts and to settle disputes with other labor unions, such as UNITE HERE, caused in part by Stern’s penchant for organizing workers in industries traditionally organized by other labor unions, suggests that she may indeed want to change the dynamics at SEIU.  However, Henry simultaneously has announced that she intends to redouble SEIU’s organizing efforts and unveiled a new multi-million dollar “innovation fund” to facilitate private-sector organizing.  According to Henry, this new fund, which will supplement the hundreds of millions of dollars SEIU already spends annually on organizing campaigns, will be used to organize industries that have not traditionally had employee representation, such as banks and biotechnology companies.  We have opined several times in this space that the financial services industry is particularly vulnerable to union organizing and noted that Stern’s SEIU was spearheading the effort to make inroads with the rank-and-file banking employees.  Henry’s new “innovation fund” suggests that she has no intention of altering Stern’s vision of an organized financial services sector.

Henry also claims that SEIU will continue to be politically active and will seek to hold “bad actors” in government accountable in the upcoming November elections.  Henry singled out Arizona Governor Jan Brewer for her part in that state’s recent passage of immigration legislation that was bitterly opposed by big labor, including SEIU.  Henry also plans to support Arkansas’ Lieutenant Governor, Bill Halter, in a primary challenge to Senator Blanche Lincoln, who opposed certain aspects of the President’s health care reform package that were favored by unions.  Henry also said that SEIU will focus on governors’ races in Connecticut, Florida and Ohio.  Henry’s political agenda does not sound all that different from what Stern’s agenda likely would have been had he continued at SEIU’s helm.

Speculation about Henry’s intentions is all the more fascinating in light of the intense debate about the legacy Andy Stern will leave behind: is he leaving the SEIU at a time when it needs him most, or is he actually leaving just in time?  To many, Stern has been at the peak of his game, as evidenced by SEIU’s recent $1.5 million jury verdict against California breakaway union − and bitter rival − National Union of Healthcare Workers, President Obama’s recess appointment to the National Labor Relations Board of SEIU-attorney Craig Becker, and Congress’ passage of landmark healthcare reform using the strategy articulated by Stern himself after the special election of Massachusetts Senator Brown threatened the survival of President Obama’s highest legislative priority.  To others, Stern’s departure could not have come any sooner for SEIU.  His perceived over-emphasis on politics, apparent loss of interest in traditional union organizing, and attempts to raid the ranks of other major unions polarized his presidency and to some degree isolated SEIU from the rest of the labor world.  In addition, and despite emptying SEIU’s coffers to help elect President Obama, Stern failed to deliver on EFCA and could not get Becker through the Senate confirmation process.  Some have even speculated that Stern may be implicated in former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s criminal corruption trial, and that his departure was timed to avoid unnecessary collateral damage to SEIU.

Whatever Stern’s reasons for leaving, or whether his resignation is a positive or negative development for SEIU, employers and labor leaders alike will be keeping a keen eye on Henry and the path she chooses for her union.  If her first few days at the helm are any indication, employers should not expect to see wholesale changes from SEIU any time soon.  Practically speaking, this likely means that SEIU will continue to be politically active, backing candidates who support its legislative and social agenda, and will continue to aggressively organize new employees using both traditional means and pressure tactics such as corporate pressure campaigns.  The tale of Henry’s leadership will not be told in the coming weeks, but over the next several years.  Like most in the world of labor, we will be watching closely.