Woman to head new labor group

Coalition of seven unions elects Burger as chief, vows to reinvigorate organized labor

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September 28, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- Led by a former social worker from Bucks County, Pa., a group of unions estranged from the AFL-CIO pledged yesterday to rebuild the American dream for workers by growing the labor movement.

"We are excited and hopeful that we can change workers' lives in this country," said Anna Burger, who was voted chairwoman of the Change to Win Coalition at its founding convention in St. Louis yesterday.

The group of seven unions includes four that quit the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation.

The coalition said it plans to put 75 percent of its resources into organizing, and would especially target Wal-Mart Stores Inc. It also said it would help workers displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

"Everything we do will be looked at through the lens of growth," Burger said.

The convention had the feel of a rally. The 460 delegates often stood and cheered speeches by labor leaders or comments from workers who recounted their own battles.

The new organization will be based in Washington and have an annual budget of about $16 million, with unions paying 25 cents per member, spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said.

Burger said the organization would not automatically endorse Democrats, but would support candidates from either party who backed worker-friendly policies. She said the coalition would meet with the AFL-CIO to coordinate political strategies.

How union locals in both camps relate to each other is unresolved.

The AFL-CIO has said that union locals from the coalition could continue to participate in its regional groups, but Burger has criticized the labor federation's membership conditions, including demands for higher dues.

The split in the labor movement will cost the AFL-CIO about $30 million in dues. It already has led the federation to cut jobs in Washington and in the field.

Burger, who turned 55 yesterday, was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Levittown, Pa. Her father was a Teamster truck driver until he became disabled; her mother was a nurse.

Burger is secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, which led the labor split.

She also is the first female leader of a major confederation of unions.

Edgar Romney, an African-American, is secretary-treasurer of the coalition. He also is executive vice president of Unite Here, which represents hotel and textile workers.

"I think it's long overdue," said Arthur B. Shostak, professor emeritus of sociology at Drexel University and a longtime scholar of unions. "It's refreshing. It's a bold stroke. Women and people of color have been the fastest-growing groups in labor, so this is a genuine advance. This is public relations of the first caliber."

Burger, a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, began her career as a welfare caseworker for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In 1972, two years after Pennsylvania's public-sector workers were granted the right to unionize, Burger became a shop steward in Montgomery County, Pa., in the SEIU's Local 668.

She went on to become the local's first female president. In 1988, she moved to Harrisburg to direct the union's state political field operations, and two years later became a political director for the SEIU.

The coalition's members who have quit the AFL-CIO are the Teamsters, the SEIU, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Unite Here.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners left the AFL-CIO in 2002. The coalition's two other partners, the Laborers' International Union of North America and the United Farm Workers, still belong to the AFL-CIO.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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