Note all the local connections in this biography of outgoing SEIU Secretary-Treasurer:
Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the 2.2-million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and chair of the Change to Win labor federation, announced her retirement today. Burger is the highest-ranking woman in the American labor movement and was the first chair of Change to Win.
“From my days as a rank and file activist to my service as an elected officer, I have had the amazing opportunity to watch hundreds of thousands of hardworking women and men learn, grow, build and lead though our union,” said Burger, named one of the most powerful women in America by sources ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Washingtonian Magazine. “When I was a girl growing up in Levittown , Pennsylvania , my parents taught me to be responsible for myself, my family and my community and the value of hard work and the hard work of living one’s values. My dad, disabled in a truck accident always valued his union and taught me early on to ‘stick with the union – it’s what makes a difference for working people like us’. Thanks to his advice, I have spent 38 years being part of something bigger than I could have imagined. Thanks to the union, I got to see not only my dreams but the dreams of janitors, Head Start teachers, social workers, security officers, nurses’ aides and so many SEIU members come true.”
Breaking the Mold; Smashing the Ceiling
Burger began her career with the union in 1972 as a rank-and-file Pennsylvania state caseworker and union activist. She was elected in 1983 as SEIU Local 668's first female president. Although she was a familiar sight on picket lines, anti-war protests and feminist rallies, Burger still managed to surprise her union sisters and brothers when during her maternity leave, she showed up with her three-week old daughter Erin on the steps of the Pennsylvania state capitol to risk arrest and challenge Governor Richard L. Thornburgh on his threats to block voter registration efforts. The governor backed down.
After a stint running Pennsylvania ’s statewide political program, Burger became SEIU’s national field director and, in 1995, she ran John Sweeney’s successful campaign for president of the AFL-CIO. After negotiating the merger with 1199 NY, uniting health care workers into SEIU she was elected Executive Vice President of SEIU. In 2001, she was elected as Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU.
In 2005, Burger shattered the glass ceiling when she became the first woman to head up an American labor federation, the newly formed Change to Win. Founded by seven major unions representing six million workers, Change to Win rededicated itself to organizing to grow workers’ industry strength.
“Anna Burger has dedicated her life to building a strong and powerful voice for SEIU members. Our union has benefitted from her tenacity and unwavering commitment to every Convention decision since 1980 and most recently, our Justice for All program,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry. “We look forward to continuing to draw upon Anna’s talents and service to the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board as we look for long-term policy solutions to the crisis confronting all working people.”
Building a Political Powerhouse of Workers
Under Burger’s leadership, SEIU became a premier advocacy organization in the country and the union’s presidential endorsement became highly coveted. Burger made sure the candidates were responsive to the members. Every major Democratic candidate for president participated in SEIU’s "Walk a Day in My Shoes" program by spending a half-day on the job with a member of the union, submitted to interviews by members and provided a clear health reform proposal.
“It was no accident that SEIU emerged as the most politically effective advocacy organization in the country at the same time SEIU members built the nation’s largest PAC,” said former SEIU President Andy Stern. “But contrary to conventional wisdom, it wasn’t just money. Anna Burger recognized that at the heart of politics is people, and through her leadership and direction, hundreds of thousands of SEIU members became engaged in the union’s grassroots member action program that helped elect Barack Obama and strong pro-worker majorities in Congress. Her fingerprints can be seen all over SEIU’s successful programs to engage members, and her legacy will be carried on through the work of the tens of thousands of activists who, thanks in part to Anna, get up each day and fight for all working people to have a shot at the American Dream.”
A Founder, Funder and Leader
Burger has also played a critical role in developing the infrastructure of the progressive movement. Through forming strategic partnerships and helping develop organizations and initiatives, Burger’s leadership within the larger progressive movement brings the critical perspective of working people to the table and stands to deliver a sustained presence of progressive leaders at all levels of government. Over the past several years, SEIU founded or was a major funder of organizations that give workers a voice in public policy.
“I have spent my life trying to make real change for working people, and I will never forget the lessons I have learned on the picket line, at the bargaining table, in rallies, on doors and in living rooms across this nation talking to workers who want a voice through a union: When working people stand united, workers win,” said Burger. “And when working people link arms with their allies in the progressive community, it transforms our country and we all win.”
A clear and compelling voice for people who work and the organizations that they form, Burger is frequently invited to participate in a number of White House task force and advisory council meetings on the nation’s economic recovery and rebuilding the American Dream.
In February 2009, Burger was named to the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board—a diverse group of economists, academics, business and labor leaders tasked with helping to guide the president’s economic recovery policies.
A Legacy of Equality and Justice for All
“Over the past 38 years, I’ve had the freedom to take risks, try new strategies, organize and galvanize our members and work with unconventional partners,” said Burger. “We’ve crossed bridges, built bridges and blocked bridges. We increased the strength of our members exponentially, we are the best grassroots political movement in our country, we are a catalyst for change and a beacon of hope for workers across the United States , Canada , Puerto Rico and around the world.”
“As excited as I am about the election of Barack Obama president, I am committed to building a permanent and sustained progressive majority. The challenges we inherited from the Bush administration aren’t going away any time soon. We need to put America back to work and continue to take on the excess of Wall Street and corporate greed. But it’s not enough to just fix it – we need to return America to a country that works for all of us. We need a strong and coordinated progressive infrastructure that protects our American values of fairness and justice, and I intend to be part of that work,” said Burger.
Burger will continue to consult and work with SEIU on economic solutions for working families. She will remain on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board and supporting a variety of other organizations in social and economic justice, and she will continue to reside in Washington , DC , with her husband Earl F. Gohl Jr. and her daughter Erin Burger-Gohl, a Smith College graduate.
The responsibilities of Secretary-Treasurer will be temporarily fulfilled by SEIU President Mary Kay Henry until the International Executive Board (IEB) votes on a successor, as stipulated by the SEIU Constitution. The vote has been scheduled for September 2010.