When coronavirus spread, many of the 2 million members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) felt the acute effects of the pandemic. Many of them were the workers who did not go home, who put their lives at risk and who, in some instances, died. They are part of a cultural shift that took what has typically been considered invisible labor and made it essential.

That shift pushed SEIU members to the streets this year, to strike over conditions at their workplaces — whether that’s insufficient protective equipment or lack of paid sick leave — and to march in the movement for Black lives. Black and Brown people continue to suffer from the occupational segregation that has relegated many to service work, a field still dominated by people of color and that has historically lacked worker protections. 

Ahead of the 2020 election, the union has also become more active politically. Earlier this year, it unveiled its largest-ever political campaign, a $150 million initiative with the goal of defeating President Donald Trump in November by engaging workers who are typically absent from the polls in eight battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. 

The movement is led by SEIU president Mary Kay Henry, the first woman to hold that position since she was elected in 2010. The 19th spoke to Henry ahead of a Labor Day about the new challenges this year has presented, and the union’s plan to tackle its labor rights priorities and engage its membership. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The 19th: First of all, tell me how you’re doing, Mary Kay. It’s been a heavy year. I can’t imagine how challenging it’s been for you and for your membership.

Henry: In the words of a woman leader of ours in Decatur, Georgia, her name’s Debra Dawson, she works at a Marshalls distribution center, she said, “I’m carrying a lot of sadness, and I’m carrying an equal amount of hope,” and I feel those contradictions inside me every day. 

We’ve lost too many members who are essential workers on the frontlines of this pandemic because they didn’t have the personal protective equipment they need, or the paid sick time to stay home, or the access to affordable health care in order to get checked. And those caused the conditions of too many Black and Brown of our members dying. 

So that was a horrible grief that continues to this day. 

Then that grief, I’d say, collectively inside our union has turned to a resolve to make this racial and economic justice reckoning in the nation a demand that we can’t return to the normal that existed before the pandemic. We have to create new systems and structures that allow our work to be valued, to allow everybody no matter what our race, an equal opportunity to thrive. 

I’ve seen amazing resilience and, frankly, mostly from our women leaders have been at the forefront of a lot of the resistance. The walkouts, joining the movement for Black lives in the streets. A lot of our women members are leading the way. 

As we move from the spring of demanding that we protect our workers, to this summer joining in the racial uprisings, to this Labor Day and fall, connecting all of this energy to voting for people that are going to change racism and corporate power once and for all in this nation. 

The 19th: Can you tell me some of the stories that have stuck with you most about what your members have endured this year? 

Henry: There’s a home care provider in Minneapolis that told us this story of going from Dollar Store to Dollar Store initially to try and collect masks and gloves and sanitary wipes to deliver to her coworkers because her agency wasn’t providing it in the early stages of a pandemic. 

I heard an early story of a security officer in a Seattle hospital that was kind of ground zero for COVID-19. He got infected before all the safety measures were put in place — masks, social distancing, sanitary cleaning and all that. He contracted the virus and died. 

We have a janitor in Houston that I just learned two weeks ago, who kept working, taking a bus two hours to downtown then back home two hours, so she was exposed just based on her travel. And then recently contracted the virus and died as well. 

I know of our members who are still separated from their family six months into it because they’re trying to protect a young child that has a pre-existing condition. It’s extraordinary and it’s still happening today.

The 19th: How this moment has energized workers to get involved in the political process? What is different this year in terms of how engaged your membership is ahead of November? 

Henry: I think workers who maybe didn’t value the work they were doing because the societal norms didn’t see them, and didn’t make them recognize their worth, that got flipped on its head when people started banging pots and saluting people at whatever time every night. I heard more and more of our members and non-union workers say, ‘Hey, if we’re essential, why don’t we have two weeks of paid sick time? Hey, if we’re essential, why can’t we afford our health care for ourselves and our family? Hey, if we’re essential, why do we have to have food stamps and housing subsidies to make ends meet, instead of being paid what we’re worth?’

And so I think the crisis has raised expectations of what working people understand they deserve.

The 19th: Much of your campaign is about defeating President Donald Trump in this election. But workers are not a monolith, right? Some support the president. How are you working through that as a union that speaks for its entire membership? 

Henry: Our main purpose in this campaign is to speak to the issues that working people care about. And we describe needing to get Trump out of office as a way to accomplish our agenda, but it’s not our main goal. He needs to be seen as a barrier, but just electing former Vice President Joe Biden isn’t the solution, in and of itself, either. 

So we think about a working people’s agenda that unites the fight on racial and economic equality and improving our jobs but also improving our communities across race. The campaign that we are going to launch connects the demands we’ve been making under the Protect All Workers campaign for essential workers — wages, benefits, conditions — with a demand for unions for all and to stop the racist and gendered exclusion of work and make that work as valuable as auto and manufacturing work was in the last century. We really think care work and service work has to be the foundation of the next American middle class that’s multiracial and inclusive in a way that it’s never been. 

A newsletter you can relate to

Storytelling that represents you, delivered to your inbox.

The 19th: If you’re looking in the short term, what are some areas that you’re identifying as the things you can do now to move the needle?

Henry: We think home care, child care and public health [are things] we can move the needle on because workers are in motion, [and people have] been making demands. We’ve made breakthroughs at the state level, and Biden has put forward an economic plan that makes an investment in caregiving one of his top priorities. 

When people see real action and change, it’ll raise the expectation of fast food workers who frankly don’t need government investment in order to improve their jobs. They just need McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King to share a little bit of their profits. 

I think that would inspire the retail sector that has 8 million workers that are non-union and, again, multibillion-dollar headed to trillion-dollar companies operating in retail and e-commerce that ought to do right by workers and doesn’t need government subsidy to make it happen.  

I just think we have to imagine the bold change that would catalyze more change that isn’t reliant on all government money but that sets a new standard in the country for corporations to share responsibility for the well being of everybody in the nation.

The 19th: Much of these issues go back to representation, and who is pushing for legislation. As the first female president of SEIU, how do you think this year will change things for women and what do you think the path ahead still looks like to get more women in leadership positions?

Henry: This year is going to create a pivot about the value of women’s care work, which I think will then catalyze a change and all other kinds of work where women are trying to break  barriers like I did to become the [union] president. 

We must fundamentally change the nation’s regard for work, whether it’s done by women or men, and that’s why I’m so hopeful about [Biden’s] clear signal that he sees care work. He wants to value care work, and he wants to allow workers to unionize in this sector. Manufacturing was poverty wage work back in the 30s. It became the foundation of the middle class because workers unionized. 

I think women’s capacity to be resilient, in this moment is showing up in many many areas of the protest movement, the walkouts that we’ve seen, the women speaking up. That’s never gonna quiet down I don’t believe. I think individually we are transforming our sense of ourselves, and what’s possible. 

There’s that kind of, “We’re not going back” sense, that I hear more and more every day and it’s growing louder and louder.