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Group Aims to Organize Industry Workers

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Leaders of a breakaway labor movement say they want to stop the nationwide decline of unions. Now they have to try to make good on their promises. Several major unions split away from the AFL-CIO over the summer. They formed a group called the Change to Win Coalition. We wanted to learn more about their plans, so we sat down with the group's new leader, a longtime labor official named Anna Burger.

Ms. ANNA BURGER (Head, Change to Win Coalition): Our seven unions believe that we need to organize and grow again and that we need to use the strength of all of our unions together to take on some corporations that are larger than any of us.

INSKEEP: Now you just said all of our unions together...

Ms. BURGER: Our seven unions.

INSKEEP: ...but not all the unions anymore.

Ms. BURGER: Right. Because we're the ones who are committed to organizing and growing. We've been losing members every single day of my life, and I think that we need to do something about it.

INSKEEP: What are you going to do that's any different from what's always been done?

Ms. BURGER: We're going to look at taking on whole companies, whole industries all at one time as opposed to doing small shops at a time. You know, the reality is the world's changed, corporations have changed. They've gotten bigger and bigger, and if we keep on thinking about organizing small groups of people one at a time, it's going to be very hard to have the massive kind of power we need for them to have a voice.

INSKEEP: Do you mean instead of trying to organize the employees at one Wal-Mart, to give an example, you might do every employee in the country if you can?

Ms. BURGER: Yeah. Well, as when we organized janitors, we don't organize one janitors in one building at a time. We organize all of the janitors in one city at a time. It's the only way we really can have them be able to have a loud enough voice to stand up to the contractors and be able to have a decent rate of pay. When we organized child-care providers in Illinois and some other places, we weren't organizing one at a time, we were organizing all 42,000 of them at one time because that was the only way that we could really have an impact on the laws and the rules that affect them.

INSKEEP: What's your strategy for trying to organize workers at Wal-Mart, the biggest employer in the country?

Ms. BURGER: We think that we needed really to think about taking them on globally. Now Wal-Mart is an incredibly large corporation and it drives down standards not just for the workers. It drives down standards for their suppliers, and it drives down standards in their communities. It drives down standards around the world as they move production of their materials around the world.

INSKEEP: What are some concrete things that you could do to raise that issue on a global scale?

Ms. BURGER: Well, first, we are actually reaching out to unions in other parts of the world who either represent Wal-Mart workers now or are trying to organize Wal-Mart workers.

INSKEEP: Which countries?

Ms. BURGER: There are a number of the European unions. We've had some with unions in other parts of the world as well.

INSKEEP: In most cases, when Wal-Mart employees have voted on the issue of forming a union at a particular place, they've voted no.

Ms. BURGER: And I would say that when workers voted to form a union, they fired them and gotten rid of their whole work force. So the first time meat cutters ever organized in Wal-Mart, they not only closed that department in that store, they closed it across the country.

INSKEEP: Well, if they're willing to change their entire business across the country to keep unions out, how do you counter that?

Ms. BURGER: I think that we have to take them on in terms of all the problems that they cause, whether it's the environmental problem, the wage discrimination that they are involved in, the hours of work. I think we will take them on in lots of different ways.

INSKEEP: James Hoffa, the head of the Teamsters, one of the unions that broke away with you, has said for a number of years that he has wanted the union vote to be more in play. Is that what you want?

Ms. BURGER: I think that some elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, take it for granted about where we stand, and as a result, some Democrats vote against our working families' interests and they get away with it and we support them the next time. I don't think that that's right.

INSKEEP: Is there any part of the Republican Party agenda that make sense for your unions to support?

Ms. BURGER: I can't think of any at this moment.

INSKEEP: If there were some kind of an alliance between your labor unions and Republicans, what would it look like?

Ms. BURGER: Well, I would hope that there are some moderate Republicans who do care about working families' issues. And over the years, we have worked with some of the Republicans around critical issues about nursing home care. We had some Republicans who stood with us on CAFTA. So there have been a number of times that moderate Republicans have stood with us, and so we should reward them for doing that when they stand with us.

INSKEEP: Ms. Burger, thanks very much.

Ms. BURGER: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Anna Burger heads Change to Win, a coalition of labor union that broke away from the AFL-CIO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.