By DON McINTOSH
After graduating from University of Oregon, Liz Shuler went to work in 1993 at Portland-based IBEW Local 125, her father’s local. Today, 51, she’s America’s top union leader, AFL-CIO president. Back in Portland March 19 for an address at the Oregon AFL-CIO convention, she sat down for a conversation with the Northwest Labor Press.
LABOR PRESS: You’ve been given such a huge responsibility now, with the death of your friend Rich Trumka [In August she was appointed to serve the remainder of his term.] But the entire time you’ve been involved, labor has been struggling to come back. Do you have a secret plan? What can the AFL-CIO do to rebuild the labor movement?
AFL-CIO PRESIDENT LIZ SHULER: The AFL-CIO has a role to play in capturing the country’s imagination and connecting the dots. But we need more local unions organizing. We have 57 affiliate unions. All have different approaches. We as the federation can create new tools, new strategies, and provide the space for unions to come together and help each other across sector. We have great examples in the last couple of years with our Presidents Organizing Initiative, in which we’ve gone deep in three cities to test the waters. So in Seattle, for example, we have a staff person working with our Central Labor Council and state federation. They formed a digital hiring hall, finding ways for stadium workers to be integrated into our labor movement before they’re even union members.
You are the spokesperson and the representative of the entire labor movement. But I often think of the AFL-CIO as like what Napoleon said about the Pope: “How big is his army?” You can lead by example. You can suggest. But you don’t have the ability to direct the labor movement. Is that something you wish you had?
People have talked about this over the years. We’re constantly redefining our role in the labor movement. You know, there are sectors of workers that don’t have representation. Could there be a new model where the AFL-CIO steps in to provide voice and value to workers that aren’t in unions? But right now, what we’re focused on is how work is changing, especially coming out of the pandemic. Work has changed. And that’s what we’re working on now through our organizing committee—the presidents of each individual union coming to a table. We will [at the national AFL-CIO convention] in June have some ideas that we’re going to put forward to bring more unions together developing targets together.
In all of the calamity that we’ve experienced lately, what what makes you hopeful?
Workers taking risks and not being afraid. Clearly, we’ve got the environment that makes them feel more bold, whether it’s the administration and Congress on our side, you got the Gallup poll … people are saying unions are the way to go. And workers taking risks. And it’s almost leading us, the institution, to kind of start to pivot into more risk taking. People don’t want to take risk, because it’s scary, and a lot of people get criticized if they fail, and if you don’t fail, means you’re not doing anything.
You started at IBEW Local 125 in Portland. And then you went into the IBEW International. And then the AFL-CIO. Was there any lesson that you took with you from home?
Well, as you know, I worked for IBEW, which is pretty male dominated. And so as a young woman, it was always front and center the challenges that women have in our movement. And I think what’s stuck with me all these years is just the notion that it’s time for women to step up into leadership. Half the country, half the workforce, is women. We will be half the labor movement officially in 2025. Yet we don’t have women leaders in as many places as we should. And it’s this, ”If you see it, you can be it,” kind of concept. Back then I didn’t really see it. I never thought of myself as a leader. So I think the more you get women in leadership, the more you say, ‘Hey, okay, maybe that is for me.’ And maybe my style is different. Maybe my leadership approach is different. That’s okay. That can actually be a good thing, right? Labor has this storied approach to leadership, it’s a lot of table pounding, in your face, and that can be intimidating for women who may not necessarily have that style. So I think we need all kinds of styles of leadership and all types of members.
Three decades ago you were part of an unsuccessful organizing campaign among PGE workers. What was it like?
It was textbook. I remember going to a captive audience meeting and, you know, this ‘third party’ argument they make every single time. [You don’t need a third party to represent you.]And my mother at the time was working in a different department, but the clerical workers all had the same issues with baseline respect, being able to have a voice and, you know, bring their opinions forward without feeling like you’d be fired. And it was less about pay than it was about respect. And she got called into a captive audience meeting with the CEO.
Your mom did?
Yeah, one on one. Because she was very quiet, but very well respected. And a lot of people followed her. She wasn’t intimidated. It was pretty amazing. And he kept going, “You don’t need someone else to represent you. Look at us, we’re just talking here.” And you know, she said, “Well, actually, I like the idea of having a contract. I like the idea of having a process where I can bring things forward and not feel afraid.” But they succeeded in [defeating the union.]
Is there any hope of the PRO Act [a top-priority labor law reform] passing? I mean, the House has passed it twice.
We are likely going to get the penalties aspect [greatly increased penalties for employer unfair labor practices], in whatever new form of Build Back Better.
Is that going to get to 50 votes in the Senate?
We think that we have a good shot at it.
That would be transformative.
I know. It would. That would be the most significant change to labor law since its passage in 1935. That would be huge. And I hope people don’t minimize that, because the PRO Act was this aspirational bill that would have obviously changed the trajectory of organizing. But it’s also got many, many provisions in it that we knew probably would not pass Congress. But to get this particular provision passed would be huge.