Admirers may still call her “the queen of American labor,” but Anna Burger (see photo) is now without a throne. Last week Burger stepped down as secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and as chairwoman of the SEIU-driven labor federation, Change to Win. Her resignations, which came on the heels of her announcement, weren’t unexpected to those who know her. Her boss and longtime ally, Andrew Stern, only a few months earlier had resigned as Service Employees president. And Burger couldn’t secure the needed support from the union’s executive committee in her bid to become Stern’s successor. The top spot went to Executive Vice President Mary Kay Henry. Though publicly she welcomed Ms. Henry’s ascension, privately she was planning her exit. That’s the nature of power struggles in any type of organization: Odd person out leaves.
Anna Burger, who next month turns 60, is an old friend of Andy Stern from their days as Philadelphia welfare case workers. The two became organizers for the Pennsylvania Social Services Union, or SEIU Local 668, and helped build the international union into the 2.2 million-member (including its Purple Storm affiliate) powerhouse it is today. When Stern became SEIU president in the spring of 1996, her advancement virtually was assured. That’s why when Stern and several other unions broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form rival federation Change to Win, Ms. Burger was named its chairwoman. Stern’s autocratic, centralizing style, however, alienated many rank-and-file members even in his own union. And the prospect for an alternative organizing and collective bargaining model began to fade in the face of SEIU-negotiated substandard contracts, a prospect made even more unlikely with the onset of recession. Stern’s departure this spring – out of less than clear motives – signaled the strong possibility that his job wasn’t for Burger to inherit. Her departure from Change to Win, having lost three member unions in less than a year, was yet another logical step. Set to take over Burger’s position at the federation, say at least two union sources, is United Food & Commercial Workers President Joe Hansen.
Retirement, however, isn’t in Burger’s plans. For one thing, she remains a member of President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. In addition, she’ll stay on as a consultant to the SEIU. As it is, she’s in full agreement with the union’s vision. Stern recently praised her this way: “Anna Burger probably has done more than any person, including me, to really shape the current success of SEIU politically and in terms of its relationship on issues with the entire progressive community.” Burger already had released this prepared statement:
As excited as I am about the election of Barack Obama as president, I am committed to building a permanent and sustained progressive majority. The challenges we inherited from the Bush administration aren’t going away any time soon. We need to put America back to work and continue to take on the excess of Wall Street and corporate greed. But it’s not enough to just fix it. We need to return America to a country that works for all of us. We need a strong and coordinated progressive infrastructure that protects our American values of fairness and justice and I intend to be part of that work.
Burger will fit in just fine. The queen isn’t dead yet.