By LINDA JARRETT
Genie Kastrup broke the glass ceiling this past March 3 by being elected Service Employees International Union Local 1’s first female president in its 100-year history.
Early in her career, she traveled the country running political campaigns for progressive Democrats and working alongside Labor unions. She joined SEIU in 2003 after seeing the difference unions were making for workers.
“Some of the Labor unions like SEIU were not just fighting for good contracts but moving a progressive agenda,” she said.
She started in Pittsburgh with the International, working to elect members to political office, and then worked for the SEIU Illinois State Council, the political arm in Illinois.
“My first day was actually when we endorsed Barak Obama when he ran for U.S. Senate,” she said. “It was an exciting first day on the job!”
Kastrup moved to Local 1 in 2012 and became chief of staff in 2014. She advanced to vice president, and then last September was elected executive vice-president.
VALUE OF HARD WORK
“My grandfather, a successful businessman who raised me a large part of my life, taught me the value of hard work and putting people in front,” she said. “I think as a woman, I bring a unique perspective, and on the last polling we did, about 55 percent of our union were women.
“I remember one woman saying to me during the transition process, ‘I’m so happy we have a woman president because I know, when I’m looking at you, that you know what I’m going through as a mother, grandmother, and a worker who is a woman.’”
She added, “That has been very humbling and inspiring, and I think the members have seen the hard work that I’ve put in for them to win good contracts and organize, not only at the bargaining table,” she added.
SEIU weighs in on social issues that affect its members in their communities. One of Kastrup’s goals has been to keep an eye on the industry post-pandemic.
“Work, as we know it, has changed, both for good and bad, and it’s not going to go back the way it was pre-pandemic,” she said.
GOALS FOR CHANGE
So how does that work for members to change to meet that moment? She listed some goals she plans to accomplish.
One is contracts. SEIU has some major contracts coming up this year, so she is focusing on what she can bring home to the members.
“They have been on the front lines,” she said. “While most of America was shut down and people were working from the comfort of their own homes, our workers went to work every day and risked their lives and the health of their families to do that.”
Taking care of members is also paramount to Kastrup, and she does that by being aggressive and demanding at the bargaining table.
“I would say also capitalizing on the important roles that our members as central workers have played and just the worker shortage,” she said. “People are having trouble finding workers, and we know that the best way to have workers stick around is to pay them more.”
She told the story of her mother, who cleaned houses for a living and could have benefitted from being in a union. Because she was not, her mother had no benefits, sick leave or pension, and she lived paycheck to paycheck.
“I think it’s important that we recognize that most workers want to be respected on the job, and they want it to be fair,” she said. “If they work a full-time job, they want to make enough to support their families and have a little easier life – which shouldn’t be too much to ask.”
FINDING A POLITICAL VOICE
Growing the union’s independent political power is another goal, and she is happy that they were able to help elect the first black woman mayor of St. Louis, Tishaura Jones. They have been working closely with the administration.
Kastrup said that organizing activities for SEIU have increased in recent months with unionization efforts underway at companies like Amazon and Starbuck’s, which is affiliated with SEIU through the Workers United Union.
“Workers are fed up,” she said. “And what we’re seeing has been been really inspiring as workers organize themselves, and being very organic as they say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Through SEIU’s organizing and contract campaigns, and despite uncertainty about the future of work, workers have stood up and fought for their rights, whether joining a union, getting better wages, addressing safety concerns, or respect on the job. Genie Kastrup has seen an underswell of movement.
“I think this is very inspiring, and we are certainly seeing it with younger folks,” she said.