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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Every presidential election has legions of behind-the-scenes operatives toiling for the candidates and the party operations. Then, there are the people working for powerful independent groups.

NPR's Peter Overby has this story about one union and the person who leads its political outreach, activist Anna Burger.

PETER OVERBY: The Service Employees International Union is the fastest-growing union in America, two million members from janitors to nurses to state government workers. SEIU gave Barack Obama a critical endorsement in the primaries. It ran TV ads supporting him and outspent all the other independent groups on the air. Its purple T-shirted workers turned out voters for Obama. And the day after he locked up the nomination, Obama returned the favor. He addressed the union's annual convention.

(Soundbite of Senator Barack Obama's speech)

(Soundbite of cheers)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): If I keep on seeing purple everywhere I go, 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.

(Soundbite of cheers)

OVERBY: 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.

Ms. ANNA BURGER (Secretary-Treasurer, SEIU): The reality is right now, unionized workers in this country don't have enough power on their own to make change.

OVERBY: These days, Burger seems to be almost everywhere. Some highlights -she's on the board of America Votes, a sprawling coalition of groups that mobilize voters. She advises Progress Now, a Colorado operation that guides other state organizations in putting a local angle on national issues. And here's one that's surprising for a union leader - she's vice chair of the Democracy Alliance, a collection of liberal millionaires.

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

OVERBY: The founder of the Democracy Alliance, Rob Stein, says it was first envisioned as a group of individuals, but it 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.

Mr. ROB STEIN (Founder, Democracy Alliance): That 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.

OVERBY: 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. That's when the AFL-CIO started mending a rift that dated from the Vietnam War.

Professor PETER FRANCIA (Political Science, East Carolina University; Author, "The Future of Organized Labor in American Politics"): Anna Burger, SEIU definitely at the forefront, absolutely, SEIU is a leader of it.

OVERBY: But conservatives allege that all of this connecting is part of an abuse of power by SEIU, which uses workers' dues money to finance much of its agenda. Stefan Gleason is a vice president at the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

Mr. STEFAN GLEASON (Vice President, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation): With the SEIU and like any union, really, you have a perfectly integrated political structure.

OVERBY: A structure, he says, that ignores divergent views among its members. The Right to Work Foundation wants a federal investigation. But Anna Burger says everything SEIU does is for its members. She says step one is electing a pro-labor regime that would change Washington in its first 100 days.

MS. BURGER: We've called it, you know, the first 100-day campaign where we are pledging to make 10 million calls, raise $10 million, spend 50 percent of our time.

OVERBY: All aimed at getting their newly elected friends to deliver on health care and on a law to help union to organize more easily.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: This story is part of NPR's continuing coverage of independent groups in the campaign in conjunction with the Center for Investigative Reporting. You can learn more about the SEIU's political connections at npr.org.

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