The Deciding Decade: Mary Kay Henry and MO State Rep. Rasheen Aldridge on income inequality and the future of labor

Pete Buttigieg: Hi, I’m Pete Buttigieg and this is The Deciding Decade.

As a new president prepares to take office and the country continues to reel from the effects of the pandemic, income inequality and workers’ rights remain a central issue in our country. Americans are clearly seeking a better deal for workers, polls and referendum results show strong support for measures like a higher minimum wage, yet traditional organized labor has seen its membership shrink and even union members don’t always vote for pro-labor political candidates.

I think it’s a vital time to assess the future of labor for the decade ahead and to recognize the extraordinary organizing work going on, on the ground. I’m very much looking forward to this conversation with two of the most active and dynamic figures in the labor movement today, Mary Kay Henry and Representative Rasheen Aldridge.

For a decade now, Mary Kay Henry has been the president of SEIU, Service Employees International Union, an organization made up of two million members across key industries. Under her leadership, SEIU has broken new ground helping to organize workers in new ways and reaching out to kinds of workers who have lacked representation in the past. This is just part of why she was recently named one of Time’s most influential people, and we are grateful to have her today.

We also have Representative Rasheen Aldridge, recently reelected as a state representative in Missouri’s 78th district. In 2016, he was elected as Committeeman of St. Louis’ 5th Ward at age 22, becoming the youngest elected city official in the city’s history. A leading activist in the Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter movements, he has chaired organization including Young Activists United St. Louis and Missouri Jobs with Justice, and serves on the Ferguson Commission, created after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri in 2014.

He’s a walking example of next generation leadership on issues that will impact all of us in the decade and era to come. Welcome Rasheen and Mary Kay, thanks so much for taking time to speak with us.

Mary Kay Henry: Good to be with you.

Rasheen Aldridge: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Pete Buttigieg: So, it’s an exciting time. I think we should just begin by asking where were you when you got the news that our president-elect had been officially called, and what was the first thing that went through your mind?

Mary Kay Henry: I was getting my marching boots on and was headed Downtown San Francisco to a rally to protect the results and count every ballot. So, I threw open my window and started shouting and banging pots along with all of my neighbors. Then, I went down to Harry Bridges Plaza and danced with a lot of home care workers, and nursing home workers, and fast food, Fight for 15 leaders to celebrate. A huge step forward for our country.

Pete Buttigieg: How nice to be taking to their streets rejoicing and not just in anguish.

Mary Kay Henry: Yes.

Pete Buttigieg: Rasheen, how about you?

Rasheen Aldridge: I think like most people, I was glued to the television for the last couple of days just trying to figure out what happened. So, when it came down that president-elect Joe Biden was going to be the next president, I was right in front of TV. I’ve seen it happened. We all yelled. I live in a nice little compound I call it my Friends 2.0 house.

Then after that, I took to Facebook and I asked a couple of people, “How about we take to our streets, just outside our own community, block it off and have a block party?” Which we did. It was just a moment to celebrate and take this moment in victory to celebrate and know that the work is continuing but you got to take those little, small moments to say, “Look, we did it together.”

Pete Buttigieg: One of the things I kept thinking about was the fact that there is such sweeping support for things like a $15 minimum wage and a right to representation. Yet all too often, we still see political figures who are really against that kind of growth still succeeding. Florida was very striking. A victory for the movement, I think something like 60% voting for that referendum for the $15 minimum wage and yet that was also a state that went red on the electoral map.

I wonder, representative, you’re in a red state although as I like to say here in Indiana, no such thing as a permanently red state. How do you think these issues play out and how do we square the circle between the widespread public support for things like higher wages and the ability of anti-labor politicians to prevail even in states that want to see these things changed?

Rasheen Aldridge: Back in 2013, this was a message of the Fight for 15, $15 an hour in a union that at first, a lot of folks was unaware of. I think as it continued to echo from New York City to Chicago, to St. Louis, to Indiana, to South Carolina, and so many other states, we started to understand that this message of a higher wage isn’t anything honestly radical at all.

You’re talking about providing people the ability to live and work one job, and be able to provide for their family, be able to provide for their future, and be able to have a union. A group that’s going to be able to protect you in this workplace. What we’ve seen over these last couple of years is while many elected officials haven’t quickly gotten on board, they have been getting on board.

The message of a labor wage and the opportunity to thrive is only growing and you’re seeing it now grow from workers that are organizing in it, moving from in the workplace, to moving to running for office. I’m not the only worker that’s actually elected. It’s a couple fast food workers in South Carolina, California, and also Illinois that recently just got elected this past election. The energy is only growing. The message of justice and freedom for all is I think a message that even politicians can’t stop.

Pete Buttigieg: Mary Kay Henry, how does that track with what you’re seeing in the national conversations that we’re having. Can we build on the support that’s been expressed on these referendum matters to make sure that we’re also pressuring both parties to do the right thing, but also electing leaders who have made it a key part of their platform that they’re going to raise wages and make workers better off?

Mary Kay Henry: I think the Florida vote gives us huge momentum at the national level to make $15 a minimum wage for everybody in this nation and to connect that to why workers have to have the right to join a union. That’s why we’re so excited about Biden’s caregiving economy plan as part of his Build Back Better, because Black and brown voters showed up in record numbers to deliver a record-setting vote for Biden-Harris and they could reinvest in those same voters by making jobs that Black and brown women have done for over a century that’s been excluded from minimum wage, excluded from the right to join a union. We could make that possible with bold federal action.

I agree with you, Pete, that there’s huge momentum for people to understand that racial and economic inequality hold the nation back from everybody being able to thrive in the way that Representative Aldridge just taught us. Being able to act on that is a first order of business I think is going to be critical for voters’ understanding that government can work to make a material change in their lives immediately.

Pete Buttigieg: You describe the multiracial character of this coalition which is so important. How have you in SEIU been intentional about the interaction of racial and economic justice and what might that teach us about what has to happen next in terms of governing as well as the future of our politics?

Mary Kay Henry: Well, we back movement leaders like Rasheen Aldridge, who started out as a fast food worker. He can tell the story. It’s a great one and is now representing his district in the Missouri State legislature, which is an example to me of how we are trying to back Black and brown service and care workers who’ve been structured out of the economy because of racism and because of corporate power.

We’re not going to let those two things keep us from making sure that the 64 million people that earn less than $15 get a path to 15 and the right to join a union. So, those $15 an hour jobs can become good union jobs that are the foundation of the most racially diverse middle class this nation’s ever seen.

Pete Buttigieg: That point about how these jobs become good jobs, I think is a really powerful one too because I live in South Bend, a city that really grew up around manufacturing unlike many communities. It’s so fiercely protective of manufacturing jobs because they are good jobs in terms of the pay, the benefits. One thing I think we often forget is they didn’t use to be good jobs. These were considered some of the most dangerous, underpaid, undesirable jobs in America a hundred years ago. Organized labor saw to it. These were not just any jobs, but jobs that could become the backbone of middle class as we see now, things like the service sector growing. Think also about the racial diversity of the workers who hold those jobs. If every service job had the same kind of aura of completeness around it, that so many manufacturing jobs have had, it’s amazing to think what that could fuel.

I also love your pointing out that Representative Aldridge’s story is a great example of the success of this movement. So let’s turn to you, Representative, to share that story from a fast food worker to office in the state capital of Missouri. Tell us about that journey and how your experience of empowerment might be something that others can learn from.

Rasheen Aldridge: Absolutely. Pete, when I say the Fight for 15 movement, I don’t just say it to say it. If it really wasn’t for the Fight for 15 campaign and the way that this union has been able to empower individuals like me, I don’t come from a union background. I grew up in a neighborhood, very high poverty. The medium income of my zip code was 15,000. I didn’t know anything about organizing. One day, I was at Jimmy John’s, and someone came in. They started questioning me and asking me about how much the sandwich was on the menu, and how much that sandwich is actually more than I was making as an employee that had been there for two years and ask me questions of what do I spend my money on because I think what people don’t understand, a lot of individuals in these fast food industries aren’t young people like myself.

Even when they are young and the times we’re in now, we’re not going to spend these funds out at the mall. We’re helping our mom. We’re helping our family, make sure we got to send you stuff like toilet paper, milk, eggs. A lot of folks on these low wage jobs are women who have families of two and three. So this movement for me, I was very timid and shy until I met a couple organizers and they really empowered workers like myself to know that when we come together collectively, even though a manager made me hold a sign that said I made three wrong sandwiches and took a picture, a couple months later, me and my co-workers came together collectively, went out on strike along with many other workers in the City of St. Louis. Then that manager, the next day, was actually gone.

That showed to somebody like me who never say knew what a union was, organizing was, that when we come together collectively, that we really can make a change. We’ve seen it here in the State of Missouri even when they fought back against us. We pushed back and we still had a minimum wage increase in St. Louis and that was due to the skills and the opportunity that the union, and I think that’s what is so important to make sure that we don’t miss that union element.

The wages is important but we can’t miss the importance of having a group of individuals which are the workers, which are me and my co-workers coming together collectively saying, “We love our jobs but it can be better.” Even though we don’t have a union, with the Fight for 15, we act as if we are a union because we know it’s coming soon. That is something that would never erase my mind as I continue to go older and older in my career, how strong it is to have a union and when we come together collectively, we can move mountains.

We’ve seen it. When back in 2016 when Hillary Clinton, Secretary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders said $15 an hour. It was like, “What?” Now, we have President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris saying that in the first hundred days, they want to raise the wages and give people union. That is what it’s about.

Pete Buttigieg: I’m sure you heard some people talking about politics in the Democratic Party saying, “Racial justice is important, but we really need to focus on kitchen table issues.” You are a leader in the labor movement. You are a leader in the movement for Black lives. This is clearly not a contradiction for you. What do you say to people who seemed to think that we have to choose either or?

Rasheen Aldridge: We can’t say Black Lives Matter without forgetting that a lot of those Black lives and workers work in these low wage facilities. We can’t talk about racial injustice without economic injustice because they go hand in hand. Most communities of color, majority of jobs you see are McDonald’s, Wendy’s, but you can’t have one conversation without the other. It is important that our party, as a Democratic member, take the time and even with SEIU, take the time to have tough conversations and be able to let those leaders stand up, and speak out, and figure out how do we all move forward together because you can’t talk about without talking about racial injustice.

Rasheen Aldridge: You can’t talk about healthcare injustice without talking about racial injustice. We look at this pandemic, most individuals that have been affected due to the corona haven’t been getting services to those communities, have been communities of color. So, that the conversation of race should be driven in all the different conversations we have because that is a tough conversation to have, but once we get past that hurdle and understand what these communities are saying that’s been decades, nothing has really changed from the Civil Rights era Martin Luther King time to the Ferguson movement that we’ve seen a couple of years ago, but we have to continue to have both those conversations because when Stacey Abrams, shout out to Stacey Abrams, it is Black women that is leading the charge even in our own party. So, we cannot neglect the fact that this is the issue, but we have to move forward together on it.

Pete Buttigieg: Absolutely. Mary Kay, I want to pick on one thing the Representative mentioned that I think is really interesting and important. The goal is to make sure everyone has access to a union but you’re not waiting for people to be in a union to be organizing and empowering them. So, can you talk a little bit about what I think are often called the not yet organized at your events and how you’ve found ways to serve people who aren’t in a position to officially be represented and yet can be empowered through that, and how that strategically is going to continue to be important in the future?

Mary Kay Henry: Rasheen gave his example and think of thousands of Rasheens who understand through the example that he described about. At first, he doesn’t know what a union is. His manager is incredibly disrespectful to him and some co-workers. That ignites his desire to make a change. He takes action through his co-workers and strikes, which is an act of a union. Then, there’s a change based on the collective action.

It’s thanks to the courageous leadership of people like Rasheen and the Fight for 15 that has brought hope to home care workers, to nursing home workers, to airport workers, to Amazon workers believing that, “Hey, if we act together, we can make a change.” What we need now is to get our government to stand with the fearlessness and courage of these workers and unrig the rules that exclude people from the right to join a union.

There’s 46% of the American workforce has no legal right to join a union. That’s what the government has the power to change. In addition to McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King, not waiting for legislative change but deciding to set a national bargaining table for four million fast food workers and making those jobs the foundation of the next middle class just like auto jobs did for steel, and rubber, and all the other parts of the manufacturing sector in the last century. We need to make that happen now for the service sector.

Pete Buttigieg: That’s so powerful. Of course, that 46% disproportionately likely to be Black, and brown, and women, right?

Mary Kay Henry: Yes.

Pete Buttigieg: Because of the way that labor law often intentionally is part of the political compromises of almost a century ago, excluded Black, and brown workers, and women from some of those protections that we think of as why the New Deal was so effective in empowering. Take us into the short to medium term future on what is going to mean to deliver these roles, especially if we’re facing divided government. We’re going to be working very hard. At least I know everybody in my party will be to take the Senate and have a more labor friendly Senate majority, but we don’t know if that’s going to happen.

So the things you’re talking about, how much of that can be achieved through things like rulemaking through executive action or administrative work, and how much is this just fundamentally a question about legislation?

Mary Kay Henry: I think there’s lots we can do on rulemaking, but I have to say Pete, our expectation is we’re going to win the Georgia runoffs, both seats, and we need to exercise the will of the majority.

Even if it’s by one vote in the Senate, let’s make bold transformative change because people showed up in record numbers. Black and brown voters saved this democracy, saved this economy, and we need to invest in them and their communities, and their jobs on a scale that is equivalent to the depth of the crisis that people are experiencing based on the pandemic. Too many Black and brown families are grieving too many losses because of the inaction of the federal government.

Too many Black and brown families have most of their extended family out of work because this is a recession and depression that has hit the service sector. God knows, too many Black and brown families have suffered the trauma of violence in their communities and that needs to end. We need to make those communities as safe as white communities in this country, and the climate crisis impacts us all.

So, we really don’t want to lower expectations to only changing the rules based on executive action. That of course is part of our arsenal, but we have the expectation that even with a one vote majority, the will of the people here is overwhelming that we wanted a sea change and we expect that as $15 and a right to joining union for millions more workers.

Pete Buttigieg: I wonder, Representative, as you’re navigating those halls of power where you’ve earned a place, how are you being received and how do you think being young has shaped good, or bad, or indifferent? How do you think it’s shaped your ability to make change?

Rasheen Aldridge: A lot of people tell me I’m a little wiser beyond my time, but I still like to be 26 and don’t rush it. One thing about it is regardless of being elected official, I think what you’re seeing in a lot of people like I mentioned us, and fast food workers, and low wage workers that recently were just elected to office this past Election Day. Those individuals aren’t looking to get elected for a title.

As the same time as I’m a politician, I’m still an activist that would be out in the streets with individuals when it’s needed the most. As I navigate especially in the state like Missouri, that’s difficult at times, we were relying a lot on the local level to do a lot of the pushing up on these policies and progressive agenda that moves us forward. I’m here to really be able to help push those conversations even though there’s folks on the opposite end. It shouldn’t be us versus them. So, this is a moment for all of us and that’s how I look at it.

Even though I’m a Democrat, I call myself more of issuecrat because it’s the issues that even I learned with the Fight for 15 when elected officials were saying no, the issues that was driving people to be excited was what got folks out and organized and got people ready to do whatever it took to get these policies done. So, I look at in two phases. Educating and building relationships across out and really relying on our local levels that are doing phenomenal job in our municipalities, pushing policy that ultimately go up to the state level.

Pete Buttigieg: It’s a great point. I think we have often underestimated local government, local politics, and especially local media as a way to make sure that we make progress. Mary Kay, how do you view the stacking of these different areas where we can apply pressure and get results? The local, where you can have immediate impact and where often that the party politics follow way a little bit. The state, where Representative Aldridge and so many like him are where so much power rests in our system. Then the federal level of course. It’s a different landscape with a different president, but it’s not the entire ballgame. How do you think about even just as a leader individually? How to organize your attention as well as the organization and the movement that you lead?

Mary Kay Henry: Well, I think the best lesson on what you’ve asked is the 15 movement. We made a breakthrough when the voters of 54,000-person city in SeaTac, Washington authorized the $15 minimum wage against national opposition. I think the campaign that was run against that was like $8 million. The chamber got in. The manufacturers’ association, and the voters said yes. We registered I think a thousand new part of that community in order to take that initiative over the top.

They then march to Seattle and then the Seattle mayor’s race was contested over how are we dealing with inequality in Seattle and the $15 minimum wage became a way for the candidates to differentiate themselves. Then, they passed the first minimum wage city-wide in a major city. Then it spread across the country, so that now 29 million people are on the path to $15. We just added three million more in Florida.

The House of Representatives passed it in ’18. So, I think of the stack as exactly what Representative Aldridge just taught us that the innovation often comes from cities like yours, mayor in South Bend, and then gets catalyzed out and then pushed up, especially on ideas that people dismissed. You know, 15 was laughed at in 2012 when it was demanded and it’s now a mainstream debate where more and more people are crossing over and understanding.

We have to intervene on the worst racial and economic inequality of our generation and this is a key lever that will disproportionately lift up Black and brown families because too many Black and brown families have been structured into minimum wage jobs because of housing, and education, and all these other systems.

Pete Buttigieg: SEIU certainly in the decade that you’ve been leading and for some time has a wonderful reputation as one of the most innovative labor organizations in the country. Can you talk about how you build that atmosphere of innovation? Also, given some of the stereotypes that a previous generation might have had about organized labor. What lessons does your organizing success maybe carry for shaping how labor is perceived and how your fellow organizations and counterparts might approach the decade ahead?

Mary Kay Henry: I’ve been blessed in this work to walk beside nursing home workers in 1980 when I first started organizing, who taught me to that every day of their lives are an innovation. They have to be so creative in order to rob Peter to pay Paul, and make ends meet, and raise children in this economy that I think part of the innovation in our union is fueled by the workers that make up our union. They are living in terrible economic and racial circumstances that require collective action in every aspects of their lives. So, we are born of immigrant workers in Chicago who were told they were nothing more than servants and they stayed at it for 10 years in order to finally win a charter from the AFL and get the building owners to recognize them as workers and to actually be paid wages. So, it’s hardwired into the DNA of our union to understand that we have to raise wages for workers that had been locked out of the economy.

We cannot stand with the movement for Black lives and not fight for living wages for Black and brown people that will make a difference for all workers. Our union’s job is to talk to workers, white, Black, brown, Asian, about why we have to link those fights because we won’t win better jobs and more unions for working people unless we uproot systemic racism. That is not a natural idea to all working people but when we are in relationship with each other as Rasheen said in movements, and we learn about each other’s lives, it becomes a totally natural fight.

Pete Buttigieg: Rasheen, how much of this do you think is a generational question? Do you think that folks your age and younger view their relationships between racial and economic issues differently than the previous generation, or do you think it’s really just one continuum and each generation is standing on the work of the one that came before?

Rasheen Aldridge: I would say I think it’s more of a continuation. We are standing on great shoulders of individuals just in the City of St. Louis to highlight Percy Green who climbed the Arch or Mama Jamala Rogers. Percy was actually one of the first activists that came and talked to us as fast food workers back in 2013 in a church basement as we was about to get ready to go out on strike. It’s those mentors that are only giving knowledge to the younger generation.

I think as each generation come along, there’s different ways that those generations express themselves. I’ve been told as a young person, “Sometimes you guys does need to slow down, and listen, and let it play out.” I’m sure my elders were told that when they were younger too. It’s a continuation of the message hasn’t change. I think we just figure out how to continue to change the strategy because every time we make two or three steps forward, opposition likes to push you back.

You got to get creative. You got to do things differently like the Fight for 15 movement, taking the risk to bring in folks that technically aren’t paying dues but we created our own member dues amongst ourselves, taking that risk to say that you have a bunch of these individuals that haven’t been empowered in a way that they don’t know that they have that own empowerment, but they just need a push. They just need a little bit of help. It’s not a generational gap, which we do have those in certain areas, but I think it’s more of just a continuation of the movement growing and shifting and changing as the world also shifts and change.

Pete Buttigieg: I want to ask each of you a question that looks to the future. This podcast is largely about the idea that the decade we’re entering into right now, the 2020s, is going to be decisive for American life really across this century. So, knowing how many lines of effort you have under way, how many elements of the agenda and the movement are perhaps about to have a breakthrough, if you’re looking back from the perspective of 2030, what would you want to say we got done in the 2020s and what’s the work you think we’d still be waiting for as next?

Mary Kay Henry: I want all the 64 million workers who are living and working in poverty in this country that are overwhelmingly Black and brown women and men to have a decent job that they can raise a family on and expect their kids are going to do better that they’ve done. That we’re going to end working poverty in America and allow for a minimum wage that people can actually thrive on and the right to form a union so we can create the most multiracial, inclusive middle class this nation’s ever seen.

Pete Buttigieg: The idea that we could deliver that not just in our lifetime but across this decade is so powerful because it really is true. It could happen if we get this right. Representative Aldridge, same question to you but I’ll ask it in a slightly different way. Imagine a new freshly minted young legislator shows up in the State Capitol in Missouri in his early 20s, and you’re on the cusp of retirement from whatever great things you go on to do. You’re showing this young whippersnapper around and telling them what they can expect in the future based on what you were able to see delivered in your time. What would you want to be able to say to them, “We did this”?

Rasheen Aldridge: I will say to them, one, always believe in themselves. Hope and change is possible. There’s going to be so many roadblocks that’s ahead of us, and we’ve made a lot of change in the process. Hopefully, I’d be able to look back and say, “We have a place where people can love whoever they want to love. Individuals can walk down the street and not be harassed due to the color of their skin. Workers will finally be able to work one job, 40 hours a week and put away for their future. Everyone will be able to have the type of healthcare that they want in their life.” Those are the issues that hope I’d be able to tell that young legislator.

I also want to let him know to not ever give up on hope and not to ever quit believing that change is not possible. I know it gets tough especially when we’re juggling in so many things in the world that we do or in our lives, but not to give up because when we do come together, and when we do organize collectively, and when we fight, we got to not act like we don’t have to fight. We definitely have to fight but that the victory will be at the end of the tunnel.

That they or the young legislator can make any change possible that they want to see if it’s with themselves or collectively with others. That to remember to have their hope and faith and always keep your head up and push forward.


Pete Buttigieg: It has not been an easy road for organized labor and people like Mary Kay and Representative Rasheen Aldridge have had to fight and remain resilient, but that resilience has been paying off. I’m so grateful that Mary Kay Henry of SEIU, Representative Rasheen Aldridge from Missouri, and their organizations and followers have kept the faith.

We have such tremendous potential over the next decade and beyond but only with their kind of leadership. To any of you on the frontlines who aren’t being paid or treated with equity or fairness, who aren’t receiving the benefits that you deserve, thank you. Thank you for listening and thank you for keeping the faith. We will be fighting with you.

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Husband, veteran, writer, Democrat, South Bend’s former Mayor Pete. Boot-Edge-Edge. (he/him)