Anna Burger, chair of the Change to Win labor coalition, talks to PT about the dynamic in the labor movement one year after her coalition's departure from the AFL-CIO and the challenges facing 21st century unionization.

Policy Today magazine cover
September 20, 2006

PT: It has been a year since the Change to Win Coalition split from the AFL-CIO. How has the political message changed?

Burger: We're talking a lot more about the American Dream how we can restore it­—turn the jobs that are staying in this country back into good jobs again. We launched "Make Work Pay Week" in March, where we focused on mobilizing low-wage workers to make their jobs middle-class jobs again. In the 1950's a worker on the assembly line turning one bolt after another didn't have an inherently valuable job, but his job was valued because he had a strong union. By organizing health care workers, home care workers, truck drivers and transportation workers, the people who pick the crops and stock the shelves, we can restore them to the middle class again.

PT: Let's talk about the practical political dynamic following the split. Are the two coalitions competing
for legislators' time and attention now?

Burger: No, not at all. Elected officials have been very interested in what organized labor has to say on both sides. The Change to Win approach has been to get our members involved and engaged with elected officials. We care less about the money—although money is important. It's equally important to get our members talking to the candidates, connecting with other workers and moving the message. We're as engaged as ever.

PT: The political struggle is an important part of what organized labor strives to achieve, but there are even larger questions about organized labor in today's global economy? What is labor's role today? How can it reclaim its political and social stature?

Burger: We believe that each of our unions should focus on building capacity to organize their industry, and to focus on the industries that are here. Second, we have to leverage our power to make the campaign bigger. Third, as capital consolidates, our strategies need to consolidate as well. We need to work with other unions in other parts of the world to take on multinational corporations. We have expanded our work to a great degree in working with unions in other parts of the world on specific campaigns with specific employers.

PT: When we talked with President Stern last year immediately following the split, he suggested that unions needed to improve and advance their communication strategy. What kind of headway have you made in this area?

Burger: Many of our unions are much more engaged with our members over the Internet. On our Web site you'll see a lot of discussing the critical issues facing workers in their industries and why unions make a difference. In addition, we have significantly expanded our efforts to send the message to employers and elected officials through the Internet.

PT: Another area that President Stern hoped to focus on was helping workers manage their careers as their work lives become more complex. He gave one example of workers moving from job to job and accumulating several 401ks in the process. Have you made progress in this area as well?

Burger: We've spent considerable time examining solutions for portability in health care and pensions so that workers can move from one job to another without risking their benefits. We've also looked at constructing new types of unions for professions that have traditionally never had a union. Child care is one of those professions in which many workers function as private contractors and have traditionally been left on their own. We're working to change that.

PT: I know that one of Change to Win's goals a year ago was to be less adversarial and try to strike a more cooperative tone in dealing with employers. Can you talk a little bit about the changing dynamic between the two camps?

Burger: We've said very clearly that we want to partner with our employers when we can, because the more successful our employers are, the more successful our workers can be as long as there's a commitment to sharing prosperity. We've had great partnerships with many of our employers. We're now calling on many of them to step with us on how to resolve the issue of health care in our country. We need to do the same thing for retirement security. We need a national solution there, because we can't just deal with something of this magnitude employer-by-employer. In some instances we have a growing partnership, and in other instances we still have to use the power of persuasion. Our efforts with Wal-Mart are a prime example.

PT: Are there any other cultural or political developments that are helping or hurting the labor movement at this time?

Burger: Everyone talks about globalization like it's an inherently horrible thing. But as capital consolidates, we can consolidate our strategies as well. There are fewer and fewer big companies for us to take on. As we build partnerships with unions in other parts of the world, we really can have successful global strategies.

PT: The AFL-CIO and Change to Win have signed a number of bilateral solidarity accords as both coalitions gear up for the midterm elections in November. Does this portend any type of convergence or reconciliation at some point in the future?

Burger: No. When we left the AFL-CIO, we said that we would work together whenever we could, and that working together at the local level made sense. That's exactly where we were one year ago, and we're doing exactly what we said we would do.

Anna Burger is the chair of organized labor's Change to Win coalition. A longtime political strategist and campaign coordinator, Burger also directs SEIU's political and field operations.