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For labor chief, hope and worry

A friendly White House amid hard times.

Anna Burger, seen here outside her former union hall on Spring Garden Street, leads Change to Win, a coalition of labor unions that split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. (Ed Hille/Staff Photographer)
Anna Burger, seen here outside her former union hall on Spring Garden Street, leads Change to Win, a coalition of labor unions that split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. (Ed Hille/Staff Photographer)Read more

Anna Burger heads one of the nation's largest labor organizations, Change to Win, but her labor roots are strictly local.

Burger, 58, grew up in Philadelphia's Mayfair section before moving to Levittown.

After she graduated from Pennsylvania State University, she worked in Philadelphia as a state social worker, represented by Service Employees International Union Local 668.

She and Andy Stern, SEIU's outspoken president, worked together in Philadelphia and Harrisburg as they rose through the ranks of what is one of the nation's fastest-growing unions.

The SEIU was a founding member of Change to Win, the coalition of labor unions that, in 2005, split from the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation.

Like many union leaders, Burger has a union connection that is personal. Her father was a Teamsters truck driver who became disabled.

Burger was in Philadelphia recently to join a conference on the middle class chaired by Vice President Biden.

Question: What is it like to have a White House that is more friendly to labor?

Answer: It is incredibly exciting. Hopeful.

Q: Is there a lot of - I guess you would almost call it performance anxiety? You are no longer in a situation where you can just blame the president for failures in the labor movement.

A: Well, I think that for the last eight years we've been in a mode that's really been about trying to make bad things not happen.

Q: And now?

A: It does really make us have to look at "OK, so what are the solutions?" We've been very involved in the whole economic recovery.

At the same time as we're incredibly optimistic and hopeful about the future, there's a huge amount of anxiety because every single day people are losing their home, losing their health care, losing their hope for their kids. And sometimes all of those things all at the same time.

We clearly don't have all the solutions yet to getting the financial markets and corporations to do the right things in trying to rebalance things as well.

There are big challenges out there. But with big challenges come big opportunities.

Q: Where do you see unions in this? Can unions be partners - not adversaries - of business?

A: There's no value in workers in a union standing up and trying to make their employer less prosperous, right? They just want to share in the prosperity. That's all it is. And they want to be treated fairly.

The more that we can actually partner workers with employers around what are the best ways of moving forward, I think that you would actually have work rules that actually worked for both sides.

Q: Where will unions have influence in this new era?

A: I think we've been doing a lot on regulation. Part of the economic crisis in this country is because of a lack of oversight, lack of regulation, and financial leaders and corporate leaders running amok, taking unnecessary risks for short-term gain at the risk of long-term loss for our country, our economy, and people.

Q: Your union represents a diverse array of people and jobs - from janitors to child-care workers. That gives you a view into a lot of worlds.

What have you learned about one of these worlds?

A: I was in the parks in New Hampshire with one of our members. She had been working as a volunteer first, because she loved the parks. Then she was a seasonal worker.

I found out that there were lots of people who were so committed to the state parks that they actually piece their lives together in doing temporary jobs so that they could come back to the parks every year. They were trying to have adequate programs in the parks in the winter.

So guess what they did on their Friday night for fun?

Q: What?

A: They got together and did a cookout in the park. It really demonstrated how people were really drawn to the work because they were committed to the outdoors and committed to making sure that nature was available to people in their communities.

Anna Burger

Titles: Chair, Change to Win.

International secretary-treasurer,

Service Employees International Union.

Residence: Washington.

Hometowns: Mayfair, Levittown.

High school: Bishop Conwell, Levittown.

Family: Married to Earl Gohl.

One daughter, 22, a senior at Smith College. One cat.

Current personal challenge:

Trying to duplicate her mother's excellent piecrust.

Recent disillusionment: Finding out that her sister uses store-bought piecrust.