Andy Stern will be remembered as a successful and controversial union leader at a time when labor had little power. Though he and other leaders still lack the clout to win labor’s biggest battles–and though he gave rise to schisms within the labor community that have angered many, the outgoing SEIU President raised the profile of a declining movement, and successfully pushed for worker friendly reforms in Washington. With his impending retirement now official, the process of replacing him will soon touch off, and all eyes are on his number two, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer, and Stern acolyte Anna Burger.
SEIU’s Constitution holds that Burger will begin serving temporarily in the role of President. That post will end when the Executive Board selects a new, permanent president in an election that must occur within 30 days. Labor insiders believe Burger is likely to prevail, though she will likely have rivals.Burger has belonged to the union for decades. Working with Stern she helped turn SEIU into the largest, fastest growing union in the country, and joined him, when SEIU and several other unions broke away from the AFL-CIO, to create a new coalition called Change to Win. Her closeness to Stern, and their shared vision, lead some labor veterans to expect a smooth transition if she wins. However, publicly, and behind the scenes, the two are much different.
“She’s really, as I understand, a very ardent kind of extension of Andy,” says one long-serving labor official, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the leadership change.
Noting the strain Stern sometimes caused within his own coalition, the official explained, “I would view her as a more pleasant face of Andy, and only more pleasant in that anyone would be a more pleasant face than Andy.”
“She gets along well with all of her peers,” the official went on. “Internally, inside baseball, she’ll be just fine. She knows the key players. Running the union, she might actually be better. She’ll be more focused than Andy.”
But they differ in perhaps two key ways. Burger doesn’t have the same charismatic and strategic reputation Stern enjoys.
“She doesn’t give a good speech,” the official said. “Inside the union, I don’t think she’s been thought of as a key strategist. Mary Kay Henry really has been.” Henry is SEIU’s executive vice president, and a potential challenger in the coming election.
One of the biggest questions hanging over the labor world is the future of Change to Win. Speculation has run rampant that Change to Win and AFL could reunite in the near future. But though Stern’s departure, and the bad blood he takes with him, might help bring the two factions closer together, it won’t be sufficient.
“It can’t hurt,” the official said. “[But] breaking an egg is much easier than putting it back together.”