June 18, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
NETROOTS: Lesbian SEIU head backs exec order against LGBT job bias
Mary Kay Henry

Openly gay SEIU President, Mary Kay Henry. (Photo courtesy SEIU Local 1)

The lesbian leader of the nation’s fastest-growing labor union on Saturday endorsed the idea of President Obama issuing an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT job discrimination.

Mary Kay Henry, who’s openly gay and president of the Service Employees International Union, said in a brief exchange with the Washington Blade at Netroots Nation she would support such a directive as an interim alternative to passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act while Republicans remain in control of the U.S. House.

“I think because just like every situation where you chip away at the inequality, and begin to establish as it a norm, it makes it easier to get it legislated,” Henry said.

LGBT rights supporters have been calling on Obama to issue an executive order that would prohibit the U.S. government from doing business with companies that don’t have policies protecting employees against job discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The White House hasn’t said one way or the other whether the president would issue such a directive.

Lawmakers who’ve endorsed the idea of issuing this executive order include gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) as well as Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Henry joins those backing this directive as president of a labor union representing 1.8 million workers in three sectors: health care employees, such as hospital and nursing home workers; public service employees, such as local and state government workers; and property service employees, such as janitors, security officer and food service workers.

Henry compared the effort to persuade Obama to issue an executive order against LGBT job bias to what she said was the labor movement’s goal of encouraging the president to sign a directive mandating that federal contractors permit employees the right to “freely form unions.”

“We’re trying to get action from the president in terms of allowing workers to freely form unions if they’re federal contracted as well, so maybe we can work together on it,” Henry said.

While backing the idea of an executive order, Henry said the labor movement has also been active in pushing for legislative passage of ENDA. The legislation, sponsored by gay Rep. Barney Frank in the House and Merkley in the Senate, is pending before Congress and would job bias against LGBT people in most private and public workforce situations.

“We’ve been public in favor of it,” Henry said. “We’ve put our staff on it in D.C. We’ve had members working on it in the districts. So we, I believe, have been full partners and have linked arms in making sure that we do that at the federal level.”

Henry, who became president of the SEIU in May 2010, she said she thinks her election as head of the union demonstrates that “all the justice fights are really one fight” and recalled that unionized health care workers worked against LGBT discrimination during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

“And when I think about my history in SEIU — when the AIDS epidemic broke out in the late 80s, it was health care workers that were really in the forefront of trying to make sure that we eliminated discrimination in health care,” Henry said. “And we did a lot on health care workers not getting stuck by needles at that time when it was spreading through needle exchange.”

Henry also observed that LGBT rights come under attack in different states just as union rights are threatened in state after state. For example, in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) earlier this year signed legislation restricting the collective bargaining rights of state workers. Similarly, Walker last month withdrew the previous administration’s legal defense of the Wisconsin’s domestic partner registry, contending the law signed by former Rep. Jim Doyle (D) violate the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

“We’re now faced with a fight where workers’ rights and LGBT rights are coming under attack in state after state,” Henry said. “And so, for me, it’s all about one fight and having the power to push back on these attacks, and then celebrate the gains that are being made on marriage equality, which, I think, is incredible in this environment.”

Henry said being an out lesbian hasn’t been obstacle as leader in the labor movement and said people whom she’s met in the role have been “really warm and welcoming.” Prior to becoming SEIU president, Henry was a founding member of the organization’s Lavender Caucus, which represents LGBT workers.

“I find that what I need to do is come out in every situation that I’m in, so I usually introduce myself that way, or I’m introduced as having founded the Lavender Caucus, because I think it’s just an important way of reminding ourselves that we haven’t achieved justice and equality for everyone in this country yet,” Henry said.

The transcript of the exchange between the Washington Blade and Henry follows:

Washington Blade: What kind of significance do you think being out as a lesbian and head of the SEIU has for the labor movement?

Mary Kay Henry: I think what it represents is the advance we’ve made in understanding how all of the justice fights are really one fight. And when I think about my history in SEIU — when the AIDS epidemic broke out in the late 80s, it was health care workers that were really in the forefront of trying to make sure that we eliminated discrimination in health care. And we did a lot on health care workers not getting stuck by needles at that time when it was spreading through needle exchange.

In our contract bargaining, we’ve been fighting against … discrimination based on LGBT issues for decades and we’re now faced with a fight where workers’ rights and LGBT rights are coming under attack in state after state. And so, for me, it’s all about one fight and having the power to push back on these attacks, and then celebrate the gains that are being made on marriage equality at the same time, which, I think, is incredible in this environment.

Blade: Has being an out lesbian had any impact on your work in the labor movement? Has it been an obstacle in any way?

Henry: It hasn’t. I’ve found people to be really warm and welcoming. I find that what I need to do is come out in every situation that I’m in, so I usually introduce myself that way, or I’m introduced as having founded the Lavender Caucus, because I think it’s just an important way of reminding ourselves that we haven’t achieved justice and equality for everyone in this country yet.

Blade: One important goal for the LGBT movement is passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. What has the labor movement done to facilitate passage of that bill?

Henry: We’ve been public in favor of it. We’ve put our staff on it in D.C. We’ve had members working on it in the districts. So we, I believe, have been full partners and have linked arms in making sure that we do that at the federal level.

Blade: Would you support an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in job bias against LGBT people as an interim alternative to ENDA passage?

Henry: Yeah. And we’re trying to get action from the president in terms of allowing workers to freely form unions if they’re federal contracted as well, so maybe we can work together on it.

Blade: Why do you think an executive order on ENDA would be helpful?

Henry: I think because just like every situation where you chip away at the inequality and begin to establish as it a norm, it makes it easier to get it legislated.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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