October 2, 2006

Unions Look to Unify Service Workers

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Anna Burger, chairperson of the Change To Win Federation, spoke Friday on the current challenges facing the labor movement, as well as the strategies her organization is using to shape the labor movement in the 21st century.

The highest ranked woman in the American labor movement, Burger delivered the School of Industrial Labor Relation’s annual Labor Convocation speech in Ives Hall.

“The reason we are here is because we passionately believe it is our responsibility to turn the labor movement around,” she said.

Burger addressed problems with the working poor in America, including those impacted by Hurricane Katrina. She said American workers are plagued by increasing costs and stagnant earnings.

“Healthcare crises are the number one reason people file for bankruptcy in the United States,” Burger said. “Utilities, healthcare, costs of living have all gone up, while wages have not. Over the past 24 years, the stock market has risen 793 percent, CEO compensation 743 percent and worker productivity 68 percent. Earnings have remained the same, and this needs to be changed.”

Burger also presented several examples of workers coming together to achieve positive results. She pointed to recent campaigns such as Justice For Janitors, and others involving hotel workers and meat packers.

“There are four main principles of Change To Win. We are organizing each union by its core industries, taking on joint campaigns by two or more unions, running large campaigns that would be too big for one union and building global partnerships,” she said.

Several of the ideas in Burger’s speech were topics covered in labor classes in the ILR School.

Jerry Ruoti ’08 said that she found the speech interesting because Burger “talked about a lot of things we have gone over in our classes.”

As for the future of the labor movement, Burger was very optimistic.

“We want to organize people who work in service industry, people in retail, leisure and hospitality, construction, transportation because these are jobs that aren’t leaving America.”

Many of the ILR faculty approve of the way Change To Win is approaching the future of the labor movement.

“They’re doing a great job. That they focus on organizing of the labor movement is vital to its success,” said Prof. Lowell Turner, ILR collective bargaining.

Change To Win consists of the Teamsters, SEIU, UNITE-HERE, the Carpenters and the United Farm Workers’ Union. The Change To Win Federation split off of the AFL-CIO in August of 2005. When asked about this historic rift in the labor movement, Burger suggested the division was the result of ideological differences.

“There was a fundamental difference in how we approach our work,” she said.

Burger is the first woman ever to hold the chairmanship of a major labor federation. She began her work in the labor movement as an activist in the SEIU Local 668.

Many ILR faculty who attended the convocation were pleased with her speech.

“It was a good sum of the current challenges facing the labor movement,” Prof. Rebecca Givan, ILR collective bargaining, said. “Organizing and focusing on the poorest workers is a very positive strategy.”