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Employee Benefits

New Leader May Bring Unity to Labor

A unified front will make labor a stronger force in contract negotiations.

A more unified labor movement maybe the result of a leadership change at the Service Employees International Union. The resignation of Andy Stern, the larger-than-life president, and the election of Mary Kay Henry as his replacement, will likely mean much closer ties with the AFL-CIO, maybe even a full reconciliation. Other unions that broke away may also return. “There’ll be more cordiality with the AFL-CIO and down the road there’s the potential for a reunion,” says Richard Hurd, professor of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University.

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With Stern leading the charge, SEIU and other unions broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form the “Change to Win” coalition. At the time Stern emphasized the need to grow union membership and while SEIU grew significantly during Stern’s presidency, other Change to Win unions were not as successful. “It’s difficult to grow labor in an economy that sheds seven million jobs in two years,” says Marick Masters, Director of Labor at Wayne State University.

Henry is expected to focus on healing the divisions in the labor movement. Henry was the head of SEIU’s health care division before being picked by the union’s executive board to fill out the term of Stern. Stern’s candidate, Anna Burger, dropped out of the running as it became clear that support for Henry was substantial.

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A united labor movement has a better chance to be more effective. During Stern’s tenure he antagonized many in the labor movement, most notably, a large local in California and Unite Here which represents restaurant and hotel workers. Infighting among unions could give the appearance of labor as weak and divided and could cause employers not to take their demands as seriously as they might if presented with a united front.

Henry vows to maintain a political role, but it won’t be her top priority as it was with Stern, who became one of Obama’s close allies and strategists. “The vote for Henry signals a move back to pre-2006 days when the primary focus was on growth through organizing and NOT politics,” says Hurd.

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