Stern's Possible SEIU Successor Could Make Union Peace Elusive

For nearly three decades, Anna Burger has followed Andy Stern like a shadow in her rise through the ranks of the American labor movement.

She succeeded Stern as president of their local Pennsylvania shop when he left for Washington in the mid-'80s. She later tagged along to the capital, and a few years after Stern won the presidency of the Service Employees International Union in 1996, she was elevated to secretary-treasurer.

Stern announced a week ago that he will soon step down after 14 years -- and keeping to form, he tapped Burger to succeed him.

But at a time when the nation's fastest-growing union is starting to fall victim to its own aggression, some question whether Burger can deliver anything but more of the same.

"She has few of the benefits and most of the problems that Stern brings to the union," said Mark Brenner, director of the non-profit union network Labor Notes.

Stern is leaving the SEIU as leadership is locked in battle with two other unions -- hospitality industry union Unite Here and a breakaway local out of San Francisco. The fights are draining the union coffers, but Burger would seem unlikely to seek a diplomatic solution.

Stern's fights are her fights, and Stern's enemies are her enemies. Soon after Stern's departure became public, the president of the breakaway National Union of Healthcare Workers made clear that Burger will not be able to make amends with his group.

"His likely successors, Mary Kay Henry and Anna Burger, have been tarred by the same ethics scandals and failed policies that marred his tenure," Sal Rosselli said in a written statement.

Mary Kay Henry is another top SEIU official who could launch a bid to take Stern's place -- Stern selected Burger on an interim basis, but Burger will have to run if she wants to keep the job.

In the fight with Unite Here -- which represents workers in retail, hotels, restaurants, casinos and other sectors -- a chunk of the union's membership peeled off to form a new union affiliated with the SEIU a year ago. Original members accused Stern of facilitating the split, and the two sides have been battling ever since over their bank account.

On the other SEIU front, Rosselli's National Union of Healthcare Workers split off from the SEIU after Stern took over the United Healthcare Workers local in California. The two groups have since been battling for members, though shortly before Stern announced his resignation a court issued a judgment against Rosselli's group in a civil suit filed by SEIU. The SEIU had accused Rosselli's group of illegally using union money to split off.

Burger, if elected, will inherit both of these battles.

But while Burger at times seems fused at the hip with Stern, she's accomplished in her own right.

As the chairwoman of the Change to Win federation -- on top of the SEIU positions -- Burger is the highest-ranking woman in American labor.

And she didn't just hurtle to the front of the union scene. She cut her teeth at the local level early on and earned the respect of her peers doing so.

"She wakes up every morning, goes to sleep every night thinking of the members of the union," said Steve Rosenthal, a top union organizer and strategist who's known Burger for decades.

Rosenthal said Burger learned the value of fighting for workers' rights at an "early age." Her father was a Teamsters truck driver, and after he got injured on the job, her mother worked nights to take care of the family. Burger, in a 2005 interview with The New York Times, said her father once told her: "Anna, whatever you do, stick to the union."

Burger's labor rights history dates back to the early '70s, when fresh out of college she became a Pennsylvania state welfare caseworker and then moved on to work with the SEIU's Local 668.

Burger eventually became the first female president of the local union shop, and then moved on to become the SEIU's national field director.

She doesn't shy from her activist background. Her official Change to Win bio talks up her work "out front on picket lines, anti-war protests and feminist rallies" during the '70s and '80s. Over time, she got more and more involved in the heart of union operations. She ran John Sweeney's successful campaign for president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, after which Stern took over the SEIU.

But she later got placed on the other side of the fence, when in 2005 she was tapped to lead the breakaway Change to Win, a coalition of unions that abandoned the AFL-CIO. Under her leadership, the coalition launched several campaigns taking on major corporations. Change to Win took on Wal-Mart for better benefits and pay, took on CVS over several issues, and fought for better protections for port drivers.

Brenner, though, said her role at the vanguard of that split will make it even tougher for her to play any kind of conciliatory role at the helm of the SEIU.

"It's going to be very hard for her ... to make peace with labor leaders on the other side," he said.

Burger has had experience with the kind of sticky, inner-union fights that come with the territory. She was picketed by her own union last year over layoffs of SEIU staff, represented by the Union of Union Representatives. She also reportedly once dealt with an uprising years ago from the staff at the SEIU Pennsylvania local, but negotiated and brought them back to work after they went on strike.

Like Stern, Burger is now close with the White House. She's a member of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, which is led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. Change to Win also endorsed Obama for president in February 2008.

The alliance has made some uncomfortable.

Americans for Tax Reform called for an investigation in December into whether Burger was violating lobbying rules by not registering as a lobbyist while she was visiting the White House and other administration offices.

"Most neutral observers would probably rate Ms. Burger as a highly visible power-player in Washington this year," the group wrote. "Any failure to fully and adequately enforce the nation's lobbying disclosure law ... would make a mockery of the law."

The secretary of the U.S. Senate's office wrote back saying Burger did not violate the rules and declined to pursue the matter.

Over the past year, Burger has been heavily involved in pushing for health care reform and other legislative initiatives. She, like Stern, seems to take pride in the union's coordination with the White House, signaling that cooperation won't lapse if she takes over.

In a video to SEIU workers from the union's "war room" after health care reform cleared Congress last month, Burger praised the members who fought for the legislation -- using the kind of fiery, anti-insurance industry rhetoric popular among Democratic leaders in the closing weeks of the debate.

"You turned up the heat and your heat worked," she said in the message.

Brenner said the union will probably get "even more" politically active if Burger succeeds Stern.