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SEIU leader calls for larger coalitions between labor and progressive groups

Organized labor and collective bargaining rights may be under attack by conservative lawmakers in Michigan, Wisconsin and many other states, but Mary Kay Henry, the president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), sees opportunity in the unprecedented troubles.

Henry — who was the first woman selected to lead the 2.2 million member union — spoke with Michigan Messenger Saturday at the Michigan Summit following her keynote speech at the event, during which she focused on the need to build larger coalitions between labor and other progressive organizations.

“We hope that it will both rebuild the labor movement, but also rebuild our communities and restore our vision for America,” Henry said. “So we don’t simply think we should broaden for ourselves, but we think broadening will help kind of renew workers’ ability to raise their wages through their unions but also improve their communities at the same time.”

Henry was elevated to the presidency a year ago. According to the Los Angeles Times, she promised to “restore relations with the American labor movement.” She took the helm when inter-union battles crippled the movement and while SEIU was being challenged for supremacy among California health care workers. And in spite of her assurances of wanting to restore relations, she also said she would not move the union back to a partnership with the AFL-CIO.

Also present during the interview were several local union leaders from communities across the state of Michigan, who supported Henry’s vision of broadening the focus of the labor movement to include other social justice issues that affect both union and non-union workers alike.

They talked about their members, both working and unemployed, who were facing the loss of their homes through foreclosure and how, often, their mortgage had been sold over and over again, to the point no one could figure out who owned the mortgage anymore. One union leader from Saginaw said she had a member who was sending checks to one bank, and they were being cashed, while another bank actually owned the loan. That member lost her home. All of them said a national moratorium on foreclosures was necessary.

For Henry, the foreclosure crisis is merely the latest example of a long term attack on workers.

“For us it is sort of the final chapter of thirty years of an attempt to shift from everybody paying their fair share to the burden on working people in this country and to allow the richest 400 in our society and big corporations not to pay their fair share,” Henry said of the foreclosure crisis in the U.S. “And that the foreclosure crisis is sort of the last shoe to drop in decades of what we have seen. This state is the best example of it in the way the previous two recessions have hurt working people. So yeah we would agree it is part of a much bigger coordinated strategy.”

She said as more and more people have faced foreclosure, the shame that used to be attached has lessened, while the context of how the crisis came about has become more clear in the minds of the community. That has driven a new view of the crisis, both within and without the union.

“At the beginning of the crisis people were made to feel like it was their fault,” Henry said, “whereas when you listen to the way Colleen and Jonathan are talking about it there’s been a huge shift just in two years in understanding that it was set of institutional decisions that our government and Wall Street collaborated with each other in allowing hundreds of thousands of Americans to loose their homes unfairly.”

She told the story of a union member from Oakland California who was going to work, but living in his car because of foreclosure. His wife had lost her job and he had attempted six modifications.

“All he needed was a six month break,” she explained. He never got that break, because the banks refused to work with him.

“For us, it is a piece of the problem. Foreclosure is one piece, unemployment is another piece, wages being stagnant for three decades, decline of the unions — that’s all the ingredients of this crisis that makes us reach outside our union to the unemployed, to nonunion workers and to our community allies and say we need to make common cause with each other, build organizations in our communities and push back together,” Henry said. “I think people’s spirits have been broken and part of our job is to re-instill people’s confidence and faith that if we act together we can change things.”

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