- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2005

Anna Burger ran John Sweeney’s first campaign for president of the AFL-CIO in 1995.

Now she runs the rival Change To Win Coalition, the newly formed labor federation that formally establishes itself this week at its founding convention in St. Louis.

Ms. Burger’s ascension makes her one of the labor movement’s most influential women.

It also puts her in one of labor’s most difficult jobs. The Change To Win Coalition has vowed to invest millions of dollars to organize workers and try to do what the AFL-CIO could not — reverse the long, steady decline of organized labor.

Ms. Burger feels a sense of urgency.

“I’m almost 55 years old and I think it’s my responsibility to do something,” she said.

Ms. Burger grew up in Levittown, Pa., and is the fast-talking youngest child of a nurse and a truck driver who was a Teamsters member.

She graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1972 before beginning a career as a social worker and joining the Service Employees International Union Local 668. After seven years as a rank-and-file activist, she sought out leadership positions within the union “because I finally decided I could change lives more effectively” as an elected official.

After 33 years in the union, Ms. Burger is the SEIU’s secretary-treasurer and leads its political and field operations. She said she plans to keep the job while also running the Change To Win Coalition.

Ms. Burger was the unanimous choice of the Change To Win Coalition union presidents in part because of her success helping SEIU become the nation’s largest union with 1.8 million members, Unite Here President Bruce Raynor said.

“SEIU transformed itself under [SEIU President] Andy [Stern] and Anna to focus on organization and grow its membership,” Mr. Raynor said.

Presidents of the seven unions in the new labor federation have made her its chairwoman temporarily, Mr. Stern said, and the coalition’s leadership council will formally appoint her when the convention begins today.

Coincidentally, the appointment will come on Ms. Burger’s 55th birthday.

The Change To Win Coalition presidents want to replicate the SEIU’s success at the new labor federation, which sprang to life June 15 and represents about 5.5 million workers in the SEIU, Teamsters, Laborers, Carpenters, Unite Here, United Food and Commercial Workers and United Farm Workers.

The coalition will invest about 75 percent of its resources in organizing, though it is not clear how big its budget will be.

The new labor federation is making a conscious effort to maintain a small, decentralized structure that will be run largely from Ms. Burger’s fifth-floor office at the SEIU.

While the coalition hopes to remain a leaner version of the original labor federation, it also hopes to organize more members and outgrow the 8 million-member AFL-CIO.

“We have to grow way beyond the size of the AFL-CIO,” she said. “I worry every day that if we don’t organize more workers, our children won’t have a better life.”

That belief is fundamental to Ms. Burger’s approach to her job, said Steve Rosenthal, a longtime friend of Ms. Burger and chief executive of America Coming Together, a liberal group supporting Democratic candidates.

“I think she wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night thinking about how to organize more workers,” he said.

Ms. Burger’s promotion makes her one of the few women in the upper ranks of labor’s hierarchy. AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO Political Director Karen Ackerman and Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, are among the small group of women in positions of power.

“The labor movement has been seen by many as a male institution,” Mr. Stern said.

Ms. Burger’s role as leader of the new coalition could help attract more women, he said.

“I think she brings the next generation of leadership to labor. She’s more aggressive, more driven to deal with the crisis we’re facing,” Mr. Stern said.

An irony of Ms. Burger’s ascension is Mr. Sweeney’s role in her life. Mr. Sweeney was head of the SEIU before he won the 1995 election that put him in charge of the AFL-CIO. While he was at the SEIU, Mr. Sweeney shepherded both Mr. Stern and Ms. Burger — two persons who helped cultivate opposition to him and form the rival labor federation.


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