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For Chairwoman of Breakaway Labor Coalition, Deep Roots in the Movement

Published: October 10, 2005

WASHINGTON, Oct. 7 - Anna Burger has come a long way since that rollicking 1995 victory party in which John J. Sweeney, just elected president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., presented her with a nine-tailed pink leather whip.

David Y. Lee for The New York Times

Anna Burger, chairwoman of the coalition, is also secretary-treasurer of the service employees union.

Mr. Sweeney was thanking her for being his efficient campaign manager and whip, but now she has become his chief rival, having recently been elected chairwoman of a breakaway labor alliance, the Change to Win Federation. That has made Ms. Burger the highest-ranking woman in the history of the American labor movement.

Ms. Burger, an energetic former social worker, said she used to be confident that Mr. Sweeney's victory would revive organized labor.

"It gave us an opportunity to change the labor movement, but unfortunately the labor movement didn't take it," said Ms. Burger, who placed the whip on her office wall, alongside labor, feminist and civil rights posters.

Ms. Burger said the four dissident unions needed to leave the A.F.L.-C.I.O. last summer because, in her view, the federation had done far too little to stop labor from sinking into oblivion. Unions now represent just 7.9 percent of private-sector workers, down from 35 percent 50 years ago.

"I respect John Sweeney; he has spent his whole life working for working families," Ms. Burger said. "But we are in a critical moment in our history for working families. Things are getting worse for them, and time is running out to turn things around. The urgency to rebirth the labor movement is much stronger than my loyalty to individual friendships."

Ms. Burger now has quite a platform from which to trumpet her message. The coalition she heads, a seven-union federation that represents 5.4 million workers, has become an instant challenger to the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which represents about 9 million. She says the guiding principle of the new group is to unionize hundreds of thousands of workers.

Ms. Burger is also secretary-treasurer of one of the breakaway groups, the Service Employees International Union. It is the nation's fastest growing union and has 1.8 million members, including nursing-home aides, janitors, security guards and state employees.

The union's president, Andrew L. Stern, is viewed as the visionary, and Ms. Burger as the get-it-done administrator. "I'm the chairman," Mr. Stern said, "and she's the C.E.O."

The new federation also includes the Teamsters, laborers, carpenters, farm workers, food and commercial workers, and Unite Here, which represents hotel, restaurant and apparel workers. As chairwoman of the coalition, Ms. Burger will have to deal with the presidents of those unions.

"She's able to work with men who are accustomed to working with only men," said Eileen Kerlin, director of the service employees' division for public employees, which has 800,000 members. "She's tough and strong, and she has an ability to lead in a way that's not threatening, but is inspiring. She also brings a side that's incredibly compassionate."

What Ms. Burger described as her greatest strength should help her in her new post. "I'm good at bringing people together to really work together," she said.

As for what she calls her greatest weakness, "I talk fast, I move fast," she said. "Sometimes I'm impatient. Sometimes because I talk so fast and move so fast, people think I'm more impatient than I am."

At Change to Win's founding convention on Sept. 27 - her 55th birthday - Ms. Burger showed a rare personal side. She talked about growing up in Levittown, Pa., her mother a nurse, her father a Teamster who was maimed in a truck accident when she was 9.

In 1972, shortly after graduating from Pennsylvania State University, Ms. Burger took a job as a social worker in Philadelphia. Her office was in an old Cadillac warehouse, and a month after starting, she led a wildcat strike when a huge rainstorm caused water to pour onto the workers from the ceiling.

Ms. Burger consulted her father, fearing that she might be fired. She recalled what her father told her: "Anna, whatever you do, stick to the union. It's what makes a difference for working people like us."

She added, "That was the one thing that my dad told me that I listened to."

During the walkout, Ms. Burger met Mr. Stern, who was also a Philadelphia social worker. They both ascended quickly in the union.

Ms. Burger soon became a union steward, then a business agent, then secretary-treasurer and finally president of the Pennsylvania social services union.

In 1986, Ms. Burger showed her grit when Gov. Dick Thornburgh ordered the state police to arrest state employees who were registering lower-income Pennsylvanians to vote on state property, including areas outside unemployment and welfare offices. To defy the governor, Ms. Burger set up a registration table in the Capitol rotunda, taking her month-old daughter with her. She dared the police to arrest mother and baby, but they left her alone.

Her daughter, Erin, now 19, said her mother never put work before raising her. Whenever Ms. Burger was on the road, they had lengthy phone conversations each morning. Whenever Ms. Burger gave a speech, she would give her cellphone to a colleague in case Erin had to reach her.

One day the staff of Ms. Burger's Pennsylvania union local went on strike because she had rejected their demands about car allowances. After several weeks, they went back to work, accepting a contract largely on her terms.

"They sort of underestimated Anna as a woman," Mr. Stern said. "They underestimated her resolve. She was known for being such a collaborative, cooperative person."

In 1990, Mr. Sweeney, then the service employees' president, brought her to Washington to direct the union's policy and field operations. Then she managed his successful A.F.L.-C.I.O. campaign. When Mr. Stern succeeded him as the union president, Ms. Burger became Mr. Stern's executive assistant. She then went on to serve as the union's executive vice president before becoming secretary-treasurer.

Ms. Burger told a story recently that brought tears to her eyes. After her mother and father died, she and her siblings discovered a box of their parents' most important papers, including their earliest love letters. At the bottom of the box was a little black book, her father's original Teamsters membership book.

"I worry about the labor movement and about the next generation," she said. "Kids like my daughter deserve a better life, but I worry that they're inheriting a worse life because of the economic shambles for working families. It's our responsibility to do something about it."