The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion SEIU has an ambitious new plan for workers’ rights. Democratic candidates should take notice.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, speaks to the audience attending the Democratic presidential debate in Detroit last month. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry, who leads the second largest union in the United States, has a message for Democratic candidates for president: Don’t think you are going to get our support by simply marching with workers on the “Fight for 15” picket lines.

In a speech she is scheduled to give Wednesday in Milwaukee, made exclusively available to The Post, Henry will outline a new, ambitious pro-union and worker’s rights agenda called “Unions for All.” She expects Democratic candidates to sign on and support it if they would like the coveted SEIU endorsement.

The heart of the speech consists of four demands:

  • That workers be allowed to organize and bargain across geographies, industries and occupations.
  • That federal labor laws be the floor and not the ceiling when it comes to union protections.
  • That all recipients of government contracts agree to pay workers a minimum of $15 an hour and have what Henry calls “a real opportunity to form a union.”
  • And that union jobs need to be at “the center of any major effort to fix our economy,” including programs such as the Green New Deal.

The platform essentially calls for a complete overhaul of federal labor laws. Take the plank calling for sectoral organizing, something that would allow, say, McDonald’s and Burger King workers to sit at the same negotiating table. “Bargaining by industry, where workers from multiple companies sit across a table from the largest employers in their industry to negotiate nationwide for wages and benefits, is standard practice in almost every developed country in the world,” Henry says in the speech.

She also calls for union organization of freelancers and contractors. One way to accomplish that: Unions for All would allow states to pass more union friendly organization laws and regulations than the federal government, something they cannot currently do. Henry also wants to see federal law not just beefed up, but existing laws enforced, so that companies won’t fire workers for attempting to organize and expect to get away with it.

Follow Helaine Olen's opinionsFollow

Henry’s speech comes at a dire time for both unions and labor rights more broadly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of American workers in unions has fallen by almost half since 1983 and now rests at 10.5 percent — lower than when the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935. Many believe this decline is no small factor in the United States’ staggering income and wealth inequality. As inequality has risen, the right to organize and form a union has been under assault, thanks to a combination of outdated legislation, lack of enforcement of existing laws, and a vociferous campaign by corporations to fight existing unions and organization attempts any way they can.

One result of the decline, Henry told me in an interview, is that while candidates may think they are supporting unions by simply supporting something such as card check legislation, in fact they are fighting the battles of the last century. Unions for All is intended to address that reality.

Giving Henry’s speech extra heft: Unions are in a position to get presidential contenders to give their agendas more than lip service because of the sheer number of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination and the competition for front-runner status. When I asked, Henry denied that any candidates are targeted by the speech, but there are statements in there that could echo. For instance, Henry points out the current setup is “working for those Democrats who rely on wealthy donors to get elected,” a sentence I read the weekend Sen. Kamala D. Harris attended fundraisers in the Hamptons. It’s a line that can also remind you that one of the first fundraisers that former vice president Joe Biden — who likes to call himself a “union man” — attended after he announced his run was co-hosted by Stephen Cozen, who chairs a law firm that specializes in, among other things, keeping unions out workplaces. Henry also points out that new “investments in health care and education” and tax increases on the wealthy are “important,” but they “won’t change the balance of power in America.”

At the same time, the news release accompanying the speech favorably notes proposed plans by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg that include such SEIU demands as sector-wide union bargaining.

“This is a make-or-break moment for working people. Politics and the economy are not working and getting worse for people who are trying to work hard for a living and lead a decent life,” Henry told me. When I asked her if SEIU would refuse to endorse any candidate who did not sign on pledge support for Unions for All, she told me that it meant they could not count on the SEIU seal of approval. After I pointed out that’s not quite the same as saying they will definitely not receive an endorsement, she told me, “I can’t imagine being in that situation.”

Henry told me SEIU is holding a Unions for All summit in October in Los Angeles. Democratic hopefuls eager to prove they’re not taking unions for granted should show up. My advice: Be prepared to not just endorse SEIU’s platform, but explain how you will implement it as president.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Jay Inslee wants to save the planet and unions at the same time

Marc A. Thiessen: Time to protect public workers from unions’ coercion

Patrick Wright: Unions say the Supreme Court has hobbled them. That’s not true.

Charles Lane: Government unions are in deep trouble. And they have themselves to blame.

Dana Milbank: The Kochs are trying to kill unions. Be careful what you wish for.