International President Lonnie R. Stephenson stands with Portland, Ore., Local 125 member Liz Shuler outside the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., just moments after Shuler was named the federation’s president on Aug. 20. She is the first woman and first IBEW member to hold the position.

Liz Shuler, a member of Portland, Ore., Local 125 who served as an executive assistant to former International President Edwin D. Hill, made history on Aug. 20 when she was named president of the AFL-CIO.

Liz Shuler with then-International President Edwin D. Hill [center) in 2009. Shuler, who was Hill’s executive assistant at the time, was named president of the AFL-CIO on Aug. 20. Larry Neidig Jr., then the executive assistant to the Hill, is to the right.

Sister Shuler is the first IBEW member and first woman to hold the position, the most visible in the U.S. labor movement. She had served as the federation’s secretary-treasurer for the last 12 years and replaces Richard Trumka, who died on Aug. 5.

“This is huge for the IBEW and for the labor movement,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. “Liz is more than qualified for this role. This comes at a somber time after the death of President Trumka, but I know he would want someone taking his place who will take the labor movement forward in a positive direction. Liz is that person after serving side-by-side with him for more than a decade.”

The AFL-CIO’s executive council, consisting of the top representatives of its 56 member unions, selected Shuler to serve out the remaining 10 months of Trumka’s term. The AFL-CIO represents about 12.5 million American union members.

“I am humbled, honored and ready to guide this federation forward,” Shuler said. “I believe in my bones the labor movement is the single greatest organized force for progress.

“This is a moment for us to lead societal transformations – to leverage our power to bring women and people of color from the margins to the center – at work, in our unions and in our economy, and to be the center of gravity for incubating new ideas that will unleash unprecedented union growth.”

 Stephenson is a member of the council and formally nominated her for the position.

“Not many people realize the IBEW isn’t just a construction union,” he said. “About half of our [775,000 members and retirees] are non-construction. We’re almost like a mini AFL-CIO, and that’s another thing that makes Liz so qualified for this role. She’ll be representing workers from all different walks of life. That’s what she did for us and that’s what she has been doing for the federation.”

Trailblazing is nothing new for Shuler. In 2009, she became the first woman elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO when she served as Trumka’s running mate. The pair were re-elected twice since. She also was the youngest secretary-treasurer in federation history, just 39 at the time of her initial election.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, the first IBEW member and first woman to hold the position.

With the AFL-CIO, Sister Shuler led the development of the federation’s Executive Paywatch, which tracks CEO pay at America’s largest companies and calls out corporate greed when it comes at the expense of the nation’s workers.  She also launched the AFL-CIO’s Next Up Young Workers Initiative, designed to create more opportunities for leadership and activism among younger members. 

Prior to that, she served as executive assistant to Hill, beginning in 2005. Hill, a legendary leader not just in the IBEW but all of labor, retired in 2015 and passed away three years later.

“I know he would be very proud and very happy for her,” said Ed Hill Jr., a Business Development international representative. “He felt she certainly had the capability to take on a role like this. She’s pretty astute and pretty assertive. She’s always on top of things and got the job done on everything that was assigned to her.”

Shuler grew up in an IBEW family. Her father, Lance, is a longtime Local 125 member and now a retired power lineman for Portland General Electric. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1992 and was hired onto the Local 125 staff a few months later as an organizer.

“One of the highlights of my electrical career is having a business card from Liz Shuler that reads ‘Local 125 organizer,” said Larry Browning, a longtime member of Local 125’s executive board who now serves as its president and remains a close friend.

“She truly is a national treasure because she’s out there making a difference in so many lives.”

Browning, who has known Lance Shuler for decades, said it was obvious his daughter was headed for big things from the start. One of her early successes was organizing a broad-based coalition that thwarted energy giant Enron’s attempts to convince the Oregon Legislature to deregulate the energy industry.

That’s when she caught the attention of Hill, who temporarily assigned her to California, where she worked with local unions in the Golden State to defeat an attempt to pass a so-called “paycheck protection law” in 1998. Such laws require union members to alert their local unions that they wish to remain members on a regular basis, usually annually, thus requiring unnecessary paperwork and slowing organizing attempts.

Not long after, she was named an international representative in the Political Department and traveled the country assisting IBEW local unions.

“She made such an impact with her professionalism and the way she carries herself and he way she promotes the IBEW that the International Office noticed,” Browning said. “She is just a fabulous, bright woman who advocates for the IBEW and union labor. To see here blossom and move forward at the AFL-CIO has been very gratifying.”

International President Lonnie R. Stephenson greets then-AFL-CIO secretary treasurer Liz Shuler before she speaks to delegates at the 2016 International Convention. Shuler was named AFL-CIO president on the Aug. 20.

Local 125 Business Manager Travis Eri said Shuler’s ability to relate to younger members and their needs also helped make her a standout.

“I think she captures the younger members’ perspective pretty well,” Eri said. “She relates well to nontraditional methods of communicating and organizing and makes sure we are strong in all of those areas.”

Stephenson called Shuler a “consensus builder” – a quality he thought was on full display when she worked with the AFL-CIO’s member unions to develop a plan to save troubled multi-employer funds that were in danger of collapsing. (The overwhelming majority of the IBEW’s funds are in great shape, but it lobbied on behalf of other unions and for the protection of the system as a whole.)

Earlier this year, the American Rescue Plan that was passed into law and signed by President Biden included $83 billion to save the troubled funds.

“She will sit down with all the different constituencies, who all have their own point of view, and find something that will work for all,” Stephenson said. “That’s really one of her strengths. She’s made it clear that she can work with anyone.”

Shuler has not formally announced her candidacy for a full, four-year term but is expected to run for re-election at the AFL-CIO’s convention in Philadelphia in June 2022.

“This is an unfortunate event that has thrust her into this position,” Browning said. “But we know we are in capable hands. We know she will do a great job for the trades.”

The executive council selected Steelworkers international vice president Fred Redmond to replace Shuler as secretary-treasurer. He is the first Black American to serve in that role. Tefere Gebere will continue as executive vice president, a position he has held since 2013.