January 2010

Former IBEW Executive Takes On
One of Labor's Top Jobs
index.html Home    Print    Email

Go to www.ibew.org

In September 2009, delegates to the AFL-CIO's convention in Pittsburgh made history by electing Liz Shuler, then the Executive Assistant to the IBEW's International President, to the second highest post in America's largest labor federation. As the first woman elected Secretary-Treasurer, she is, at 39, the youngest person to hold one of the federation's top offices.

Shuler, along with newly-elected President Rich Trumka and Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, is helping to lead organized labor at a time of great hope and major challenges for the union movement.

In her office, directly overlooking the north lawn of the White House, The Electrical Worker sat down with Shuler (who asks people to call her Liz) to talk about the challenges that lie ahead and the bright future she wants to help build for America's working families.

EW: You were the first woman to reach one of the top jobs at the IBEW. How did it prepare you for some of the big challenges labor is facing now?

Liz: I really had the best on-the-job training there was with [International President] Ed Hill as a mentor. When I first took that job, it was somewhat controversial—I was a woman, and I was a relatively young woman as far as labor is concerned, in my mid 30s. But I tried to let my work speak for itself. When someone puts a challenge in front of me, I take it, and I work hard at it. Policy-making and offering advice on high level decisions was a big part of the job there, so it translates well for the job ahead of me here. Plus, the AFL-CIO is very diverse, representing so many different kinds of workers. The IBEW is a very diverse organization too—with manufacturing, telecommunications, maritime trades, transportation trades and more. I was exposed to a lot of different industries and a lot of different issues prior to coming here, so that helped prepare me.

EW: You've reached the top of the labor movement before the age of 40. Now, it's your job to reach out to younger workers. How do you do plan to do that?

Liz: The future of our labor movement is riding on our ability to connect with young workers. I'm considered young in the labor movement. I'm 39, and it seems logical that a top priority of my office is to develop a strategic plan for getting our message to younger people. We are working on an internal component that's meant to nurture and mentor young leaders within the labor movement. We also have the external issues. How do we educate young people—the millennials—people in their 20s who don't really know about the labor movement? This group is suffering disproportionately in our current economic downturn. We have a lot to offer them and now it's our job to figure out the packaging—a way to make all the good things we have to offer attractive to them. We're taking a look at changing the way we do business to encompass this new audience. We'll be trying to marry the social justice issues, class issues, and the serious things in life with a more fun, social component. It's important when trying to reach this group because people—young people in particular—just aren't defining themselves as much by their work these days.

EW: There's the promise of big change and bold new ideas with a new AFL-CIO leadership team. How are people reacting so far?

Liz: There's definitely an air of change in the building [AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington].

Having a new team has injected excitement. People are sensing that we're not doing things like they've normally been done here. That's been fun because we're getting a lot of feedback and people are really enthusiastic, especially about the youth outreach.

As far as reaction to me, personally? Being out in front of audiences has been a bit of an adjustment because I've always been more of a behind-the-scenes person. It's been surprising to see how much it means to some people to have a woman and a younger woman in a position of leadership. I never thought it would be a big deal. But when I speak at state labor councils and local unions, a lot of labor women say that it gives them motivation. If I can inspire someone to rise in the ranks of leadership at their local union, then it's all worthwhile.

EW: Everywhere you go, union members ask you about jobs—where can they find them and what is the AFL-CIO doing to help curb the nation's record unemployment? What do you tell them?

Liz: These are some of the toughest conversations I have. People are hurting. People come up to me and say things like "I don't have a job," or "I can't find a job." I tell them we're working hard on the problem. First, we've encouraged the extension of unemployment benefits, just to help people survive. Next, we're urging politicians to invest in infrastructure. That creates jobs almost immediately and, especially for unions like the IBEW, puts members back to work. We're advocating over there [at the White House] for more infrastructure spending and training programs that are pipelines. Thankfully, labor is at the table with this administration. We really have a voice in the process of how our economy is being rebuilt. We don't have all the answers yet, but we have the tools to find them.

EW: That brings us to the biggest piece of pro-labor legislation in decades. How important is passing the Employee Free Choice Act?

Liz: When we're talking about preserving and boosting the middle class, the Employee Free Choice Act is really going to be critical for us. Our ability to raise wages and preserve benefits relies exclusively on how strong the labor movement is. We're close now, and I think a lot of people are talking about when it will happen. It's pretty evident that, when given a level playing field, people want unions. We're already preparing for the day after the EFCA passes. How are we going to educate folks on how to build the unions? An election is one thing and getting the contract is another, but a real union means having some kind of sustained long-term infrastructure. You really have to have a movement going. It has to be organic. It has to be the workers in that particular workplace being invested.

EW: As Secretary-Treasurer, you're also responsible for the checkbook. That's not always easy in tough times like these.

Liz: Managing the finances and keeping them healthy are critical. And the No. 1 question to consider is: are our affiliates getting the most bang for their buck? We want to be transparent and accountable and make sure we're communicating constantly about where we stand and where we need to go.

EW: So where are we going as a movement? And how will the AFL-CIO fit in, in the years ahead?

Liz: Traditionally, we've been more of a service organization. We have 57 affiliates and they have driven labor's agenda based on whatever challenges are affecting their members. Now, we've started to shift a bit—always keeping that mission in mind—but also representing workers, in general, who have no voice. I mean low-income workers, workers of color, women in the workplace, and we're focusing not just on union membership, but speaking on behalf of all workers. The door is open to so much possibility. The possibility of increasing our numbers, the possibility of building a movement that harnesses different, disparate groups and brings their collective energy together for social change. The youth piece—if we can stem the decline and the negative perceptions that are out there about labor by reaching young people who don't have an opinion yet—we can start the curve going back up. I love my job in the union movement—and I always have—because I get to speak for people in a venue where they wouldn't normally have a voice.

Thinking back to my local union days, I always wondered if I, as an individual, was making a difference. Now I realize, yes, I was. And together all of us can have that same sort of impact. Together, we're building something stronger and better. It's really important for the movement, for our families and really for our whole country. Being part of something so big, so important is just an amazing feeling.


IBEW Staffers Build AFL-CIO Team

When Liz Shuler was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO last fall, she knew she needed a well-educated team of people ready to tackle the big challenges facing the labor movement. She chose an electrician turned organizer and a former professional educator, both with their roots in the IBEW.

Kirk Brungard, previously director of the IBEW's construction organizing, and Amanda Pacheco, former International Representative in the Education Department, are now serving as Shuler's Executive Assistants.

"Kirk has great qualifications and the perfect temperament for this job," Shuler said. "He has a master's degree in public administration, so he knows how to work in a large organization with all its moving parts. As a strategic advisor, he's a terrific fit."

Brungard, a 26-year IBEW member, helps Shuler oversee six AFL-CIO departments and assists in the management of the federation's multi-million dollar budget.

"Words don't adequately convey how exciting it is to be here," Brungard said. "The amount of enthusiasm in this movement is truly palpable."

Pacheco, a former Spanish teacher and the daughter of two union parents, is helping to coordinate the AFL-CIO's new outreach to young people and will work on a new, high-tech curriculum for the National Labor College.

"We want young people to see labor like we do, as a way of life, a good way of life," Pacheco said.

"Amanda has a lot of experience with young people and a unique perspective," Shuler said. "As a Hispanic woman, she brings an important point of view to the table. We've put together a great team, and we're ready to get the job done."

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler in her Washington, D.C. office: "This view is a constant reminder of the huge responsibility we have to help the working people of America."
























































Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, center, works alongside Executive Assistants Kirk Brungard and Amanda Pacheco at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington.