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Labor market: President Biden ‘has our back,’ SEIU president says

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) International President Mary Kay Henry joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the risks to progress for U.S. workers under President Biden, the fight for unions, and the outlook for immigrant workers.

Video Transcript


RACHELLE AKUFFO: Well, of course, it's been a trying time for American workers the past few years as the labor market tries to adjust from the depths of the pandemic. President Biden used his State of the Union address to note the progress the US has made, specifically highlighting the 50-year low in the unemployment rate. Here's what the president had to say to the masses.

JOE BIDEN: I know a lot of you always kid me for always quoting my dad, but my dad used to say, "Joey, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck." He really would say this. It's about a lot more than the paycheck. It's about your dignity. It's about respect. It's about being able to look your kid in the eye and say, honey, it's going to be OK, and mean it.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: Well, here to discuss the progress for workers under Biden's administration is Mary Kay Henry, International President of the Service Employees International Union. Great to have you on. So I first wanted to get your key moments from the State of the Union when you look at it from a labor perspective.

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, we were incredibly proud of President Biden. He has our back. I sat next to an SEIU 1199 hospital retiree, [INAUDIBLE] Corbin, and she was incredibly impressed when President Biden broke down, we have to raise wages, employers need to stop fighting unions like they have been in airports, where service workers are trying to organize, and that we need to invest in the Black, Brown, and immigrant women that are doing home care work all across the economy. So we agree. We want to get to work with him and finish the job.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And so then when you look at this jobs rebound that we've seen since the pandemic and since he took office, 12 million jobs there in the last two years. So when you speak to members, how do they feel President Biden is doing for workers right now?

MARY KAY HENRY: I think they experience him as understanding what he-- you just showed, that jobs are about more than a paycheck, and we have to have dignity at work, and that it's really important to understand that workers have to have the right to join together in unions.

And that's why I'm so proud that airport workers and home care workers and hospital workers were guests of members of Congress last night because they understand that President Biden wants to work together with Congress in order to make sure those 12 million jobs get created and that the 64 million service and care jobs that are poverty jobs become living wage jobs that people can feed their families on. And that's why his case on stock buybacks and billionaire tax makes us understand that he has our backs and wants to make sure that the economy works for everyone, and that no one is left out.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: So then when you listen to some of the policies in his agenda coming up, I mean, what are some of the most immediate demands that you have not just for Congress, but also for corporations?

MARY KAY HENRY: We want corporations, like Starbucks and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, to stop fighting their workers' desire to join together and have a voice on a job through the union so they can address chronic staffing issues and wages and benefits and make sure that they are part of quality care and services to be provided. And the president spoke to that last night. He said that he can't stand it when employers are fighting unions. And he made it crystal clear that he's asking Congress to pass the Protect the Right to Organize Act and is requiring companies not to do share buybacks over investing in the frontline workers, like the airport service workers.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And I want to ask you, because obviously, we saw that bumper jobs number, although with some asterisks for seasonality and for certain population changes that the BLS included there. But sometimes when you see this big number, it can hide some of the disparities that are still at play here. And some of the sectors really in a lot of need of hiring. I know you highlight health care work-- care workers, which covers a broad range, but also covers the issues with immigration as well and the role they play in the US workforce. Tell us more about those aspects.

MARY KAY HENRY: Yeah, our members are deeply concerned about getting comprehensive immigration reform done and were-- felt the president was very strong in demanding that from Congress. We had two members in the gallery last night that have temporary protected status, one from Honduras and another from El Salvador, that we're working with, on the one hand, Majority Leader Schumer and a congressperson from Chicago in making it clear that immigrant workers are a key part of the growth and stability of the American economy. And we need to make sure that immigrant workers can stay in our nation safely and avoid being sent home.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And you also highlighted what we're seeing with the care crisis, obviously a lot of the underpinnings that allow people to be able to go to work if you have adequate care at home, and obviously, you don't have to worry about not getting seen if you go to a hospital or something like that. How would you describe where we are in this care crisis?

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, we have a president that understands that there needs to be hundreds of billions of dollars invested in home and community-based services that make it possible for elders and families with disabilities to stay independently and with dignity at home.

And I looked across the gallery at Brittany Williams, who's a home care worker in Washington State. She has a union that's been able to raise wages. But we want that to be possible for 2 million home care workers who've been excluded from the right to organize, the Social Security system, the overtime. Even sick leave these 2 million women don't have. And so we're proud to stand with a president that sees those jobs and wants the Congress to invest in those jobs.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: We certainly saw that union push in 2022. And likely, we'll see it continuing in 2023. A big thank you there to Mary Kay Henry, International President of the Service Employees International Union. Thank you for your time this morning.