Why Workers Unite

Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who are shaping American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talks with Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union -- the country's largest and fastest growing labor group -- about what it will take for presidential candidates to earn her endorsement, and why the Iraq war is a labor issue.

CBSNews.com: The SEIU, with almost two million members nationally, would be a pretty mighty army on behalf of one of the presidential candidates. What is your process for deciding whom to endorse?

Anna Burger: We began in January where we first invited the Democratic candidates. We gave them an opportunity to speak to our executive board about why they were running and some of the issues. We then invited the Republican candidates to our executive committee meeting, and Gingrich and Hagel both came.

We asked all candidates, Democratic, Republican -- and if there's an Independent, we'll ask an Independent as well -- to do a number of things. First, we asked them to "Walk A Day In Our Shoes" which is to spend a day with a member, partly on the job, and partly at home, and know what it's like to be a worker in America.

Then we asked each one of them to be interviewed by one of our members about three questions: about the American dream and what they will do to reclaim it, what they will do about health care, and what they will do about worker's rights to have their voices heard on the job.

We expect them to come out with a health care plan by August 1.

We then will get to our Member Political Action Conference, which we'll hold with about 2000 of our most politically active members.

And we will have the candidates speak there. And the next day our executive board will meet. We'll make a decision then if we're ready to endorse.

CBSNews.com: And what's your budget for helping your endorsed candidate through the primaries, and then helping him or her win the general election?

Anna Burger: Well, in the four early states, we already have on the ground campaigns and activities to educate our members about the candidates.

We also have an organization that's called Americans for Health Care that we support. And it has been actively on the ground in all four of those states, plus other states, educating voters about the candidates on health care issues. We are now developing plans for all of the February 5th states, and the January states that are starting to pop up. So I don't have the final budget.

CBSNews.com: And what are the lessons that you all have learned from 2004 when you endorsed Howard Dean, and obviously he wasn't successful? What do you think you can do better this time?

Anna Burger: I think what we learned in 2004 was that having members involved in talking to workers who are just like them is really important to do. We did a huge mobilization in 2004, but we're trying to do it more with the workers who live in those states so that they don't have to pack up their bags and move.

CBSNews.com: So you found it was more effective to have workers talk to workers in their home states as opposed to workers coming in from out of state?

Anna Burger: Right. We just got to thinking that they build relationships that last beyond the election. So that we can build a capacity that doesn't end during this election, but continues for another election.

CBSNews.com: Now you talked also about your relationship with Republicans. And SEIU is known as a more bipartisan union than most. Is there any chance though, that the SEIU would endorse the Republican nominee in the fall of 2008?

Anna Burger: Well, our Republican member committee has already met. And what they've said is that the issues that are facing working families are the same issues whether you're a Republican member or a Democratic member or an Independent voter. And that the critical issues are the rights of workers to have their voices heard, health care for every single man, woman, and child in America, and reclaiming the American dream so that our kids can have a better life than we do.

And so they're asking all of the Republican candidates to do the same thing that we've asked the Democratic candidates to do. And the Republicans said that based on the responses to that, whether they were going to spend time with our members as workers, whether they're willing to come up with a healthcare plan that's universal, and whether they'll support worker's rights to have their voices heard on the job, that would determine whether they would recommend anybody for support.

CBSNews.com: Thus far have any of the Republican candidates met those criteria?

Anna Burger: So far, I think Mike Huckabee has agreed to "Walk A Day In Our Shoes." And the other candidates have not responded well.

CBSNews.com: So they would have to meet those criteria, even to get an SEIU endorsement in the primaries?

Anna Burger: Right.

+CBSNews.com: More broadly speaking, union members currently make up only about 12 percent of the country's work force, which is the lowest since that data has been recorded. Only 7.4 percent of private sector workers are unionized. How does Change to Win, which is the breakaway labor group that SEIU helped found, that left the AFL-CIO, plan to start turning those numbers around?

Anna Burger: You're right, Change to Win came together because we believe that we have to organize workers to have their voices heard. And our federation has been working actively around some core campaigns, and focus on our industries. So as an example, all of our unions went together to support the hotel worker's union in their hotel organizing campaign.

And they organized, as a result of that campaign, more workers last year than they had in their last 30 years total. So in all of our industries, we have been actively working to think about ways of not organizing one place at a time, but taking on the whole industry. Because that's the way that we think that workers can have a voice, and change their lives.

CBSNews.com: So is that the fundamental strategy shift, and the divide between you guys and the AFL-CIO, that basically you take on the entire industry versus one piece of it at a time?

Anna Burger: Yes, that, and putting additional resources into it, and using the strength of all of our unions together to help each other.

CBSNews.com: Health care is obviously such an important issue, not just for labor, but for the country. Have you all made any preliminary judgments distinguishing between the various candidates' health care proposals?

Anna Burger: Not yet. So far, the only candidates that issued their whole plans are, I think, John Edwards and Barack Obama. Hillary has a three part proposal, the first one on cost containment, the two other pieces need to come out.

CBSNews.com: How has the Democratic Congress, which you did so much to help elect, performed in your view?

Anna Burger: We were just running ads in about 12 congressional districts, thanking 12 new members of congress for actions regarding minimum wage. We think that they've begun to act. I think Nancy Pelosi did an incredibly good job, in her first 100 hour agenda, of getting it through.

I know they've had a difficult time getting things through the Senate because they don't have the 60 votes. And they haven't had the cooperation of the Republicans. So it's been very frustrating.

We think that they need to take stronger action around the war. We have a grassroots effort in congressional districts making sure that our members' voices are heard around the critical issues. And we recently did a poll of our members, and found that they are incredibly unhappy with the direction of the country.

They are incredibly unhappy with the direction that the president has taken us on the war.

I think that our members are very concerned. The war being the number one issue. And health care being the second top issue. And all other economic issues following closely right behind. So, I think that they understand that it's difficult in Congress, but they want action.

CBSNews.com: Now in terms of the war, is that a labor issue per se?

Anna Burger: It is our members and their children and their brothers and sisters who are fighting this war. It's working class kids who are on the frontline. And not only are they on the frontline, all the money that's going to this war is what is preventing us as a country from being able to provide health care, provide adequate funding for education, provide funding for higher education so our kids can go to college.

So, this war impacts us both directly because of our kids and indirectly because of the impact on the budget and what we cannot do in this country because of the war. And so we as a union in January took a position, very strongly, against the escalation, and we joined the Americans Against the Escalation and war in Iraq. I think we're the only union that stepped forward and did that.

CBSNews.com: A lot of Democrats I've spoken to are concerned that Change To Win and the AFL-CIO are going to have parallel voter mobilization efforts in the fall of 2008 that could overlap, that could be duplicative, that aren't going be as well coordinated as they have been in the past. How do you respond to that?

Anna Burger: You know in 2005 when we first split, a lot of people said, "Oh, this is gonna be terrible, because we're gonna have competing programs. We're not gonna be coordinated." And we had the best election that we had had. We won the Governor's race in Virginia. We won the Governor's race in New Jersey, and we defeated all the terrible initiatives in California.

We went in 2006 to again coordinate our work where we could and where we agreed on candidates and had an incredibly successful coordinated effort. My expectation is that we will do the same thing for 2008. And I think that we'll be more effective than we've ever been.

Anna Burger is Chair of Change to Win and Secretary-Treasurer of the Service Employees International Union. Burger oversees the SEIU's political operations, and has been a force in pushing the union to embrace abortion rights and comprehensive immigration reform. Burger began her career in 1972 as a Pennsylvania state caseworker and union activist before her election as SEIU Local 668's first female president. She has been a delegate to every Democratic convention since 1984.

By Brian Goldsmith