Union Operative Advocates And Gains Power

SEIU graphic
Lisa Pickoff-White/Center for Investigative Reporting

Every presidential election has legions of behind-the-scenes operatives who toil for the candidates and for the major parties — especially this year, with independent groups who want to shape the outcome in November.

One such operative is union activist Anna Burger of the Service Employees International Union. SEIU is the fastest-growing union in America, with 2 million members — from janitors to nurses to state government workers.

SEIU gave Illinois Sen. Barack Obama a critical endorsement in the primaries. It ran TV ads supporting him and outspent all of the other independent groups on the air. Its purple T-shirted workers turned out voters for Obama.

The day after he locked up the nomination, Obama returned the favor when he addressed the union's annual convention.

"If I keep on seeing purple everywhere I go," he said, referencing the color associated with the union, "if you vote for me, then I promise you this: We will win this general election. And then you and I, together — together, you and I — we are going to change this country, and we are going to change the world. Thank you, guys. I love you."

SEIU's Long Reach

Under union president Andy Stern, SEIU has built itself into a labor powerhouse.

A key part of its strategy is connecting with other liberal organizations — some three dozen of them, according to research by NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The main emissary of this outreach is SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger. Her first political experience was watching John Kennedy campaign. Now, she ranks among Washington's top political strategists.

"The reality is right now, unionized workers in this country don't have enough power on their own to make change," she told NPR.

These days, Burger seems to be almost everywhere. She's on the board of America Votes, a sprawling coalition of groups that mobilizes voters. She advises Progress Now, a Colorado operation that guides other state organizations in putting a local angle on national issues.

And here is one that is surprising for a union leader: She's vice chair of the Democracy Alliance, a collection of liberal millionaires.

"I'm a strong believer in building coalitions and a strong believer in partnering with people who share our values, so that we can more effectively work together, more effectively strategize together, and more effectively make change together," she said.

The founder of the Democracy Alliance, Rob Stein, says it was first envisioned as a group of individuals, but changed its rules so that SEIU and then two more union groups could join.

He says SEIU is in sync with the alliance's vision. "Financial resources, strategically deployed over a long period of time, are critically important to building and sustaining not only a progressive movement, but progressive change in America," Stein said.

A Part Of Union History

Political scientist Peter Francia wrote the book The Future of Organized Labor in American Politics. He says unions have been reaching out to liberal groups since the 1990s, when the AFL-CIO started mending a rift that dated from the Vietnam War. He said that Anna Burger and SEIU are definitely at the forefront of that movement now.

But conservatives allege that all of this connecting is part of an abuse of power by SEIU, which finances much of its agenda using the union dues paid by workers.

Stefan Gleason is a vice president at the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. "With the SEIU — and any union, really — you have a perfectly integrated political structure," he says.

The structure, he says, ignores divergent views among its members. The Right to Work Foundation wants a federal investigation.

But SEIU's Burger says everything her union does is for its members. She says step one is electing a pro-labor regime that would change Washington in its first 100 days. "So we've called it, you know, the first 100 days campaign — where we are pledging to make 10 million calls, raise $10 million, spend 50 percent of our time," she said.

All of this is aimed at getting their newly elected friends to deliver on health care and a law to help unions organize more easily.

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