Labor Day Tribute: SEIU President Mary Kay Henry

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com September 01 2012 2:22 PM ET

Mary Kay Henry is the International President of Service Employees International Union, the country's fastest-growing labor union, with more than 2 million members. In addition to being the first woman to lead the organization, she also happens to be the first out lesbian to hold such a position. According to Seattle Gay News, this makes her "the most powerful lesbian in the country."

Henry accepted the position as president in May 2010, leaving her post as the head of SEIU's health care division. That same year, SGN ran an interview where the leader talked about social justice, LGBT rights, and repairing the rift within the labor community after SEIU and five other unions left the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations in 2005.

Henry was pivotal in establishing SEIU's Lavender Caucus, the union's LGBT member organization. She used the organization to educate and advocate for an end to oppression - a plan she detailed in her interview with SGN.

"The fight against oppression is a series of steps — ENDA, marriage equality — we can use it as an opportunity to educate each other," Henry told SGN. "That's the beauty of the labor movement. It's a forum where people who might otherwise be pitted against each other can build unity."

According to Henry's biography on the SEIU website, Henry has devoted her life — and her time with SEIU since 1979 — to advocating for working people.

"Henry has stood side by side with nursing workers in Fresno, Calif., who fought for time to treat seniors with the dignity and respect they deserve," reports Henry's bio. "And [fought for] suburban janitors in the Twin Cities, who wanted full-time work to support their families on a living wage. She has also worked with California state employees who sought to cut out waste and inefficiency from government, and registered nurses in Seattle, who wanted a partnership with management to improve the cost and quality of care throughout the state."

Henry, 54, was raised in Detroit inside a devout Catholic family. She has been with her partner, Paula Macchello, a senior organizer for the Teamsters, for more than 20 years according to a 2012 Denver Post article.

This Labor Day weekend, take a moment to say thanks to the countless workers - LGBT, straight, and queer — who make this country run smoothly and fight for change, progress and equality for all.