Why Workers Unite

Anna Burger.
Huffington Post
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.