By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
In 1972, the year Anna Burger started a wildcat strike of Philadelphia social workers, organized labor did not look like a promising career for a liberal, antiwar feminist.
The AFL-CIO, under the leadership of George Meany, was tilting rightward, refusing to endorse Democratic presidential nominee George S. McGovern. Meany demonstrated his preference by golfing with President Richard M. Nixon.
Today, Burger will be formally chosen to run the newly created Change to Win Coalition -- a milestone that shows how far the labor movement has come from the days when Meany reigned. A tough-minded organizer and political strategist, Burger was handpicked by the leaders of insurgent unions who earlier this year took flight from the AFL-CIO and hope to create a new labor empire capable of reversing the political and bargaining setbacks workers have suffered in recent decades.
The union leaders who selected Burger -- Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andrew L. Stern, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, Unite Here co-Presidents John W. Wilhelm and Bruce S. Raynor, and the Laborers' Terence M. O'Sullivan -- are all white men, but it was not incidental that they chose a woman to lead their coalition. One of the insurrection's goals is to revive the strength of unions by doing more to organize women and minorities.
"I don't think it's specifically important whether we have a woman chair," Wilhelm said, "but I do think having a diverse leadership that is reflective of the members of American unions is extremely important."
Burger, who turns 55 today, noted in an interview that "the AFL has been getting smaller my entire life."
Her ascension will take place at a one-day convention in St. Louis today to pick officers, approve a constitution, set dues as 25 cents a month for each member of the coalition's unions, less than half the 65-cent dues of the AFL-CIO, and hear speeches. About 450 union activists are expected.
Burger, who will serve a two-year term, has been secretary-treasurer of the SEIU. Stern, her boss there, has been the driving force in the formation of the Change to Win Coalition. For Burger and Stern, the creation of the coalition represents a challenge to a man who had been a mentor. AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney was previously at the SEIU. Burger managed his 1995 campaign to head the AFL-CIO. But Burger and Stern say he has allowed the labor movement to lose influence.
Shying from high-profile confrontations has rarely been a problem for Burger. Steve Rosenthal, a veteran organizer, recalled what he calls "the perfect Anna Burger story": In 1986, Burger, an officer in the Pennsylvania SEIU, was on maternity leave with a 3-week-old daughter when Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh banned state workers from registering voters on state property.
Burger immediately took her daughter, Erin, to Harrisburg and joined in voter registration in the lobby of the state capitol, challenging state police to arrest the mother of an infant. Thornburgh backed off from the arrest policy.
Burger's rise to become chairman of the Change to Win Coalition is evidence of an ideological and demographic restructuring of the union movement.
When Meany was in charge in 1972, well over 60 percent of union members were white men. Private-sector unions -- the Teamsters, Steelworkers, Auto Workers and Electrical Workers -- dominated the trade union movement, while public employees made up just 11 percent of the unionized workforce. Labor politics were increasingly right of the Democratic center, and the young liberals and radicals of the 1960s and early 1970s were anathema to many unions.
Today, white men are no longer a majority, except among union presidents. Labor itself has become a bastion of the Democratic left, opposed to the Iraq war, in support of women's and gay rights, and a key backer of diversity programs and affirmative action.
"It's quite a transformation," Burger said in an interview last week. She is part of a new generation of leaders who cut their teeth in the civil rights and antiwar movements and have replaced the George Meany-Lane Kirkland old guard.
The formation of the Change to Win Coalition, and the selection of Burger to be its first chair, place in stark relief at least two basic challenges facing organized labor.
The first is whether labor can reverse its 50-year slide as a social and political force by attempting to become the voice for the nation's lowest-paid workers, many living on the margins of society.
SEIU has been highly successful organizing such tough-to-mobilize groups as home health care and child care workers, building service workers and private security workers, all heavily female and minority. The jury remains out, however, on whether such unions as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers can take advantage of the SEIU's innovative organizing techniques.
The second challenge facing the coalition lies in the ability of unions still dominated at the top bywhite men to mobilize minorities and women. The presidents of the seven unions in the Change to Win Coalition are men, and only one, United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez, is a minority.
Initially, the fracturing of the AFL-CIO in July and the creation of the coalition appeared likely to set off competition for members between unions in the two federations, but in recent weeks, there has been growing evidence of both cooperation and of more intense organizing on both sides.
Union leaders in California said the AFL-CIO's county and state federations are defying pressure from Sweeney to restrict the role of disaffiliated unions. Instead, facing a referendum calling for restrictions on the political use of union dues, all labor groups are working together in the state.
A fight between SEIU and AFL-CIO's AFSCME over organizing home health care and child care workers has been settled with an agreement to create a new joint union to organize these workers earlier this month in California and Pennsylvania.