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Mary Kay Henry At Democratic Convention: Romney 'Wants To Take Us Out'

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Mary Kay Henry, international president of the SEIU, testifies in support of a same-sex marriage bill in Annapolis, Md., on Feb. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Mary Kay Henry, international president of the SEIU, testifies in support of a same-sex marriage bill in Annapolis, Md., on Feb. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Since the early days of the Republican primary, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been taking occasional shots at organized labor. Mary Kay Henry, head of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said she believes Romney isn't merely paying lip service to the business community when he knocks "union bosses."

"I think he's totally serious -- he wants to take us out," said Henry, who will speak Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention here. "I think he understands that workers being able to join together and have an organization is the best check against corporate power in the economy, and the best way for us to have a vibrant democracy is for workers to be able to bargain over their wages."

As in every election year, unions like the SEIU play a critical role for Democrats in mobilizing voters at the local level in the run-up to November. And thanks to changes in election law after the 2010 Citizens United decision, union members are now allowed to knock on the doors of non-union households, extending their reach.

Henry told The Huffington Post that SEIU members are knocking on some 10,000 doors a day in 11 battleground states and that the union asked each of its members to reach out to 10 people -- family, friends or neighbors -- to make the case for President Barack Obama's reelection. The union has so far spent about $5 million on all federal races this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and it has joined the pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, in rolling out Spanish-language ads in Florida and Nevada dinging Romney on immigration.

Some labor activists feel that Obama hasn't done much for unions; their reelection efforts are driven more by a dislike of Romney than an appreciation for the current White House. But Henry argued that Obama has been a strong president for organized labor and her union's members, in particular citing passage of the Affordable Care Act and Obama's directive to halt deportation of young undocumented immigrants who have clean records and high school degrees. The SEIU is among the most vocal unions on immigration reform, and a portion of its members are undocumented immigrants.

The union lent an early endorsement to Obama back in November 2011, and Henry admits there were some who wondered whether he'd earned the enthusiastic nod.

"I get very fired up and completely exasperated with any notion that there should be disenchantment or disappointment," Henry said. "This president has faced the worst economic disaster in a generation. He kept us from going off a cliff. He restored the American auto industry. He passed the most significant health care reform in our generation. There are huge economic gains he's made for working people, and the things we're discouraged about in terms of getting the economy going again, he's blocked from doing it."

"I just think it's nonsense," Henry said of any dissatisfaction, "and I spend my time trying to challenge it."

The Romney-Ryan ticket, she added, "is an incredibly dangerous choice for the American people to make."

The Romney campaign did not immediately comment on Henry's remarks.

As for Republican candidates more generally, Henry argued that the GOP platform released last week was aggressively anti-union. Compared to its 2008 counterpart, the new Republican platform ramped up its push for so-called right-to-work laws, which forbid contracts that make union membership a condition of employment. Republicans contend that such laws create a business-friendly atmosphere, while unions say they serve primarily to weaken workers' bargaining power. Whereas the previous GOP platform merely acknowledged the right of states to pass such laws, the new platform "encourage[s]" it and suggests Congress pass a national right-to-work law.

"The Republican platform is no holds barred in dismantling worker representation in the economy," Henry said. "Our role as working people is to keep making the case in the Democratic convention and the broader electorate about how we get an economic prosperity shared by all."

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