The union leader who ignited the nationwide push for a $15 hourly wage and raised labor activism within the restaurant business to unprecedented levels has announced she’ll step down as president of the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in May.
Mary Kay Henry has led the union as it squared off with restaurant employers in recent years on any number of issues, from the adoption of a new wage-setting model in California to efforts currently underway in a number of states to kill the tip credit.
Through affiliated labor groups like Workers United, the SEIU was also the deep-pocketed supporter of the ongoing effort to organize Starbucks units and to redefine restaurant franchisors as joint employers of their franchisees’ staffs.
Henry has led the union since May 2010. During that time, the minimum wage has been raised to at least $15 an hour in 14 states and about 40 cities and counties. As a result of those increases, employers paid their workers an additional $150 billion in wages to the 26 million covered employees, the union estimates.
The announcement of Henry’s decision to end her tenure as SEIU president revealed that even some within the union had doubts a $15 wage was possible. The Fight for $15 movement, later changed to Fight for $15 and a Union, grew out of a protest by 200 fast-food workers in New York City. That amount was roughly double the federal minimum wage, as it remains today.
The industry largely scoffed at the time at the notion of a $15 wage. But the idea caught on and soon became a standard target for labor advocates from coast to coast.
Henry’s successor as head of the SEIU will be chosen at the SEIU’s international convention in May.
Although Henry will not seek re-election as president at that time, her comments suggests she’s not ending her involvement in the labor movement.
“I will take on any fight that helps workers win historic breakthroughs and improve their lives,” she said in a statement. “There is still so much more to do. I have never been more confident about our future.”
Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.