Labor And The Pandemic with Mary Kay Henry | Crooked Media
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August 30, 2021
What A Day
Labor And The Pandemic with Mary Kay Henry

In This Episode

  • A U.S. military drone blew up a vehicle in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday that was filled with explosives and was believed to be a threat to the international airport. This came after a suicide bombing outside of the airport last Thursday killed at least 170 civilians and 13 American military members, and ISIS-K claimed responsibility.
  • This past year has been defined by unionizing and organizing efforts across many industries, and the pandemic put a spotlight on worker conditions. Mary Kay Henry, the international president of the Service Employees International Union, joins us to discuss the current state of the American labor movement with Labor Day just ahead.
  • And in headlines: Hurricane Ida made landfall yesterday, U.S. military aircrafts began bringing aid into southern Haiti, a Virginia school board was ordered to pay $1.3 million in a transgender student’s suit, and controversy surrounds the debut of Kanye West’s new album.





Gideon Resnick: It’s Monday, August 30th. I’m Gideon Resnick.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, the podcast that’s popular in every parallel universe in Spiderman: No Way Home.


Gideon Resnick: Yes. Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield Spider-Man, and you know, Tom Holland Spider-Man, all have the ability to subscribe to WAD.


Josie Duffy Rice: But none of them do, unfortunately, they are sadly very loyal to the Daily.


Gideon Resnick: They’re missing out. Their commute sucks. What can I say? On today’s show, the head of SEIU talks with us about trying to get all workers the opportunity to unionize in the US. Plus, we track the path of Hurricane Ida as it struck Louisiana.


Josie Duffy Rice: But first, a brief update on the latest out of Afghanistan as of our recording on Sunday night. A Defense Department official said yesterday that a U.S. military drone blew up a vehicle in Kabul that was filled with explosives and was believed to be a threat to the international airport. We’re still learning more details as they come in, but a U.S. military official said that it’s possible the strike may have killed some civilians, and it is investigating further. That follows the claims made by some people in Kabul, including a Taliban spokesman who said that children were among the dead.


Gideon Resnick: Awful.


Josie Duffy Rice: Terrible.


Gideon Resnick: This all came after a suicide bombing outside of the airport last Thursday. That attack killed at least 170 civilians and 13 American military members. The Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, claimed responsibility for the attack. And yesterday’s drone strike by the US military is the second one it has carried out since the bombing took place. On Sunday, President Biden joined the family members of the slain U.S. military members at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to see the return of their remains. And tomorrow marks the deadline the administration has set for withdrawing the remaining troops out of Afghanistan. In advance of that, dozens of countries have said that they will continue to take in refugees after that date. We’re going to keep following and dive in deeper in the days to come.


Josie Duffy Rice: Now, though, we want to showcase a few conversations about the past, present and future of the American labor movement with Labor Day just ahead. The three-day weekend itself, after all, exists thanks to organized labor, as do all weekends. We would not have weekends if it were not for organized labor.


Gideon Resnick: It’s true.


Josie Duffy Rice: And this past year has been defined by unionizing and organizing efforts across so many industries. The pandemic has accelerated wealth disparities and put a spotlight on worker conditions from Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, to Uber and Lyft drivers in California, to striking Nabisco employees across the country.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, and so today we wanted to welcome Mary Kay Henry to talk about the state of unions and her effort to get all workers the opportunity to organize. She is the international president of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, which represents millions of workers in health care, public services and property services. Thank you so much for joining us today.


Many Kay Henry: I’m glad to be with you.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Thank you so much. So I wanted to start with a really broad question by just asking how you would characterize the state of the labor movement in the US at the moment.


Many Kay Henry: Well, I think you two just did, by talking about the amazing organizing and mobilization that workers are doing all across the economy, from Alabama, Bessemer, to the Uber and Lyft drivers that we just excitedly stood with in California because the court struck down Prop 22 as unconstitutional, just like the drivers said two years ago. And the home care workers that I’m proud to be fighting for at the national level to make sure that they finally get included in the Build Back Better investment and that we right the wrong of them being written out of the New Deal, and write them in to the Back Better deal so we can make their wages 15 an hour, and make sure that every senior, and people with disability has someone to care for them that has a living wage and the ability to protect themselves.


Josie Duffy Rice: Absolutely. So what is something that you would say gets missed or misunderstood about SEIU workers, or labor in America more generally?


Many Kay Henry: Well, I think there was this awakening at the beginning of the pandemic when workers who have been holding up the service and care economy for decades, got recognized as essential. And then that awakening turned to workers demanding: respect us, protect us, and pay us.


Gideon Resnick: Right.


Many Kay Henry: Because we believe we’ve been essential long before the pandemic. And the economic and racial inequality that has created such a structure of poverty-wage work for over 64 million Americans, has to get totally blown up and redone. And government has the opportunity to do that. And major corporations like Amazon, McDonald’s, also have the opportunity.


Gideon Resnick: And we’re kind of alluding to this or alluding to how this was viewed from the outside. What do you think workers themselves learned about their own bargaining power and their own rights over the course of this pandemic?


Many Kay Henry: Well, we had home care workers in Virginia win $10 million dollars to provide personal protective equipment. We had workers in Washington State actually be able to win hazard pay for home care workers, which was a breakthrough. So our unionized members experienced breakthroughs because they had the ability to collectively bargain, but our members across SEIU want to extend the union to everybody in this country. And that’s why we think government has to use every dollar of taxpayers’ to end poverty-wage work and create good union jobs, in airports in home care, in nursing homes, because a lot of federal dollars help pay for work that has been undervalued and underpaid for far too long, and that is done primarily by Black, brown and immigrant women across the service and care sector.


Josie Duffy Rice: What you’re saying is so clearly true that people are recognizing the importance of unions and of the ability for workers to bargain. And at the same time, the wealth gap in America really is also continuing to grow, right? The wealthiest 1% holds almost 1/3 of the country’s wealth. So do you think that we might see more widespread labor actions like strikes across various industries as this income inequality really becomes even more starkly and starkly clear?


Many Kay Henry: Yeah, absolutely. It’s infuriating when Black and brown communities have experienced infection and death at disproportionate rates, and Black and brown workers are in fast food and warehouses like Amazon, and then reading about billions in profits, reading about super billionaires and then thinking, hey, wait a minute, I’m not asking to be a billionaire, I’m just asking to be able to make ends meet with a wage and paid time off and sick leave that allows me to lead a decent life. And that, we think, happens through a combination of government and workers being able to join together in unions, and being able to bargain at the source of where the decisions are made.


Gideon Resnick: So earlier in the year, it definitely felt like there was quite a bit of momentum around the passage of the PRO Act, which to remind people listening, would expand workers ability to unionize. But since it passed in the House in February, there hasn’t really been further action on it. Do you feel that it has slipped at all as a priority for the president and Congress at this point?


Many Kay Henry: Well, I can say that every Democratic legislator in the White House understands that we have to create the ability for more workers to join unions. So that’s one. Two is, there’s lots of ways in the current work in the reconciliation bill and the infrastructure bill where labor standards have been attached to the federal dollars being invested in building roads and bridges. We want to extend that concept into service work and care work, so that airport workers who are getting billions of dollars of federal aid get a service contract act standard and the ability to form a union. Or they care workers who are paid for by Medicaid dollars, get the ability to join together in unions. So I think the PRO Act plus working on home care, working on the building trades of traditional infrastructure, and making a breakthrough on climate jobs—there’s lots of ways for us to expand the number of workers joining together in unions. And we can get our government to force corporations like McDonald’s and Amazon to do right by the workers whether or not the law changes.


Josie Duffy Rice: One thing you’ve talked about that really resonates with me is how important it is for women throughout the country that the reconciliation economic package gets passed. And so I’d love for you to talk a little bit about why that is.


Many Kay Henry: It’s the biggest jobs investment for women in the history of the nation. And it’s not being talked about that way all the time, but there are two and a half million home care workers that are 76% women, in this country. That job is going to be five million in ten years, because of the aging of the population. It’s the fastest growing job in the economy. So a investment in the Build Back Better reconciliation package of $400 billion for home and community-based services, transforms women’s work for the first time. And then child care is the other big women’s job investment that’s embedded in the Build Back Better. We talk a lot about paid leave and we’re for that. We talk about the child care tax credit. But the two biggest jobs investment for women are in the reconciliation package. And that’s why it’s so critical that the reconciliation package passes with the bipartisan infrastructure package.


Gideon Resnick: Right. To an earlier point that we were discussing, I was recently reading something in The American Prospect about the success of the Fight for 15 movement thus far, that effectively began in 2012 with fast food workers in New York walking off the job for a day to demand their wages be raised to $15 an hour. So can you talk about what you learned from that so far, and what others can learn as well?


Many Kay Henry: I think the key lesson is that the labor movement needs to back the fearlessness and courage of workers who make a bold demand that people laugh at at the time, but through striking and organizing and mobilizing and spreading from New York City to 300 cities in the U.S., is now become the standard, as you’re saying—that we have employers raising wages to 15, even though the Senate failed to pass the $15 minimum wage as part of the American Rescue Package. The wages are being driven up by the shortage of workers and by the standard that 15 has come to be for 29 million workers in the country. And our union doesn’t want to give up backing the Fight for 15 and the union movement until every worker earns at least 15, and every worker has the chance to join a union. When we push the floor up, all workers’ wages will go, up all across the economy.


Josie Duffy Rice: That’s Mary Kay Henry, the international president of the Service Employees International Union. Thank you so much for joining us. And we’ll have more stories and conversations about labor in the U.S. as we head towards Labor Day. That’s the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yesterday afternoon, Hurricane Ida made landfall over southern Louisiana as a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour. Unbelievable. It has since weakened to a Category 3. President Biden signed emergency declarations for Louisiana and Mississippi. And last night, all of New Orleans had no power, leaving the only power in the city to be coming from generators, according to Homeland Security. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards characterized it as one of the strongest hurricanes to hit the state since the 1850s. Hurricane Ida has already impacted a major energy hub on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, curtailing about 95% of oil and natural gas production in the area. Officials in New Orleans urge people to shelter in place. And as of last night, Ida was expected to remain a tropical storm until at least Monday afternoon.


Gideon Resnick: That is awful, awful, awful.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, really terrible.


Gideon Resnick: Over the weekend, U.S. military aircrafts began bringing aid into southern Haiti after a devastating 7.2 earthquake on August 14th that killed over 2,200 people, injured over 12,000 others, and destroyed or damaged over 130,000 homes. The US had pledged $32 million in assistance to the country. The aid airlifts began flying into Port-au-Prince on Saturday, delivering food and other supplies to some of the hardest hit areas in southern Haiti, in mostly rural and mountainous regions. Infrastructure in Haiti was already in a precarious state after heavy rainfall this summer, which caused damage to roads and bridges. The earthquake also came shortly after the assassination of Haiti’s president Jovenel Moise early in July, which has slowed relief efforts and increased the threat of gangs hijacking supplies. So far, the U.S. military has delivered 265,000 pounds of relief assistance and will continue making deliveries for several more weeks.


Josie Duffy Rice: So here’s a little bit of good news: it’s getting more and more expensive to be trans-phobic. A Virginia School District has now been ordered to pay $1.3 million in legal fees stemming from a transgender discrimination lawsuit filed over five years ago. A student of the district, Gavin Grimm, sued in 2015 after being barred from using the boy’s bathroom. Federal court sided with him twice before the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case. Rulings in Grimm’s case set the precedent that the right of trans students to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity is protected under Title 9. Grimm celebrated his latest victory on Twitter, but noted that this time bigots who are obsessed with bathrooms didn’t make him rich, the $1.3 million paid out by the school board will go straight to the ACLU, who handled the case.


Gideon Resnick: There it is. The best things come to those who wait, and things that are decidedly more of a mixed bag also come to those who wait. Kanye West’s album, “Donda” debuted yesterday on streaming services following months of delays, three huge listening parties, and a two-week residency in a football stadium’s mop closet during which he dressed a little bit like a sleep paralysis demon. Much like the album’s production, Donda’s release was not a neat and tidy process. Within hours of its appearance online, Kanye claimed that his record label put the album out without consent. Ye also caused controversy late last week by bringing DaBaby and Marilyn Manson on stage at the final Donda listening party in Chicago. Both artists also appear on the album. As a quick reminder, Manson was recently accused of sexual assault by multiple women, while DaBaby was widely criticized for homophobic comments last month, which means their options were either to appear with Kanye or self-produce a tour in small clubs in red states.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, he’s just kind of like a foster home for terrible musicians at this point.


Gideon Resnick: A moth to a flame in that way, unfortunately.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.


Gideon Resnick: And those are the headlines. One more thing before we go, Takeline host Jason Concepcion is now hosting Crooked’s brand new fan culture podcast, X-Ray Vision. You can check out the first episode where Jason gives a recap of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 4 with actor Jason Mantzoukas—Jason on Jason action—and gives his take on the most recent Spider-Man trailer. Subscribe to X-Ray Vision on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, vacate your local stadium’s mop closet, and tell your friends to listen.


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you’re into reading, and not just checks written to the ACLU like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Josie Duffy Rice.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And subscribe to WAD, Spider-Man!


Gideon Resnick: It’s about time.


Josie Duffy Rice: Miles Morales.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah.


Josie Duffy Rice: That’s the Spider-Man I want, to subscribe to WAD.


Gideon Resnick: That’s the first that we’ll take.


What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s reported and mixed by Charlotte Landes. Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.