From her seat on stage at the AFL-CIO convention in June, Liz Shuler could see her father standing next to International President Lonnie R. Stephenson and the IBEW delegation behind them ready to cheer.
“Today we’re going to make history by nominating the first woman president of the AFL-CIO,” Stephenson said. “We’re also going to make history by nominating the first IBEW member to be AFL-CIO president.
|AFL-CIO President and IBEW member Liz Shuler speaking at the 40th International Convention in Chicago in May.“I’m home!” she declared to delegates.
“We could not be prouder of our sister, Liz Shuler.”
For the self-described worker bee who never aspired to leadership it was surreal.
She flashed on the business manager who hired her three decades ago, the political director who brought to her IBEW headquarters, on the president, Edwin D. Hill, who made her his executive assistant, and the chance that the late AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka took asking her to run on his ticket as secretary-treasurer in 2008.
In every case — hired, promoted, elected — Shuler was the first woman through the door.
The mentors and colleagues she impressed along the way, who talk about her in glowing terms, are unequivocal: she earned it. And now she was about to shatter the labor movement’s highest glass ceiling.
“You can’t help but think, ‘Is this really happening?’” she said. “It was just incredible pride and an overwhelming sense of gratitude.”
On the convention floor in Philadelphia, Stephenson shook Lance Shuler’s hand and introduced the retired power lineman from Portland, Ore., Local 125 — the same home local as his daughter’s.
“Liz has embodied that IBEW can-do spirit that Lance taught her for the nearly 20 years I’ve known her,” Stephenson said. “Her entire life in labor has been devoted to opening doors and creating opportunities for every working person.”
ELIZABETH HOPE SHULER had been at the helm of the AFL-CIO since Trumka’s sudden death last August.
With every visit to a union hall, every call to action, every meeting with workers seeking a voice on the job, Shuler gained allies and respect.
Now hundreds of convention delegates from 57 affiliated unions were affirming their faith in her with a four-year term.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, literally jumped up and down as she seconded Shuler’s nomination, calling her a “bridge-builder, consensus-seeker, and unifier.”
“She is smart and strategic, an ally and an activist, caring and compassionate, and as tenacious and persistent a champion of the aspiration of workers as you will ever see,” Weingarten said. “Liz is solidarity in action.”
Shuler wasn’t making history alone. Her running mate and trusted friend, former Steelworker Fred Redmond, is the first Black secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.
Like Shuler, he’d been elected by the Executive Council 10 months earlier, moving into her job when she took over for Trumka.
She lights up talking about Redmond, calling him her “partner in all things at the federation,” and someone who shares her collaborative, inclusive approach to leadership.
Trumka was her friend and partner, too, but their style and ambitions are a study in contrast.
Memorialized as a giant in the American labor movement, Trumka could be pugnacious, a political brawler at home in the spotlight. A man who never doubted that he’d rise from the coal mines of Pennsylvania to lead the AFL-CIO.
|Then the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer, Liz Shuler marched with IBEW members in Wisconsin in 2011 as the labor movement fought legislation pushed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker to destroy the collective bargaining rights of public employees.
Shuler never dreamed it was her destiny, and said she struggles with being the center of attention. The work itself propelled her forward.
“I always felt like this notion of hard work takes you where it takes you,” she said. “And so that’s what happened at every juncture. I just focused on doing my job, worked hard, and tried to be the best at whatever assignment came my way.”
People who know Shuler say that’s genuinely who she is.
“Liz’s ambition is to stick up for people who need a union,” Local 125 Business Manager Travis Eri said. “That’s what drives her.”
AT THE 40th International Convention in Chicago in May, Shuler strode on stage with outstretched arms, symbolically embracing her IBEW family and declaring, “I’m home!”
Her IBEW roots date to preschool, when her father’s Local 125 apprenticeship changed everything for their family.
She said he and four siblings grew up in a one-room fruit-picking shack, often going hungry. He joined the Marines, served in Vietnam, and returned home to find work digging holes for Portland General Electric power poles.
Lance Shuler aspired to climb them.
His apprenticeship earnings took the family from a small rental in southeast Portland to a home in the suburbs when Shuler was 5 years old. She and her younger sister spent their childhoods in a safe neighborhood and good school district where she played softball, basketball, and soccer — her passion, still — worked on her high school newspaper, and was student body president her senior year.
She knew her father’s job was dangerous and vividly recalls a near-fatal accident that left a close friend of his with life-altering burns. The man had a young wife and baby and a home that was in disarray from his DIY renovation work.
“I will never forget,” Shuler said. “The local union guys came together and took care of his whole family. They came weekend after weekend until the house was put back together.
“That to me is the story of the labor movement. Whenever disaster strikes, no matter what it is, people rise to the occasion to take care of each other.”
SHULER graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Oregon in 1992 and began working part time in public relations and political consulting, piquing her interest in legislative work and social justice.
Her father suggested she call then-Local 125 Business Manager Bill Miller for advice. Right off the bat, he invited her along for a meeting with lobbyists at the state Capitol in Salem. “I kind of worked the room and asked a ton of questions,” she said.
Miller, who died last year, was sold. Longtime Local 125 President Larry Browning said he’d found “a hidden gem, a jewel.”
It was the first step in an untraditional path through the IBEW for Shuler, but one Browning says deserves no less respect.
“As a lineman, you start at the bottom. You’re a groundman, and you want to get that journeyman status,” he said. “Liz is a journeyman, too. She started at the bottom and worked her way to the top because of her dedication and commitment.”
In Salem, seasoned IBEW lobbyists from other locals took her under their wing and marveled at her instincts, work ethic, and positive attitude.
“If you asked her to do something, she did it right away and she did a perfect job,’ said Greg Teeple, a retired Ninth District international representative and past business manager of Portland Local 48.
Bob Shiprack, also out of Local 48 and the retired head of Oregon’s building trades council, said Shuler’s talents coupled with her youth helped bridge the gap between older lobbyists and the typically young Capitol staffers.
“I’m kind of getting emotional talking about her,” he said. “She was so great to work with. She had that personality that was just conducive to getting things done.”
POLITICAL work was only part of Shuler’s job. Among other tasks over time, she ran trainings, built an early website for the local and wrote its sexual harassment policy.
“I was wearing many hats,” as she put it. One day she told Miller that she should be an organizer, too.
Clerical workers had launched a union drive at Portland General Electric, where Local 125 represented the lineman.
One of those employees was her late mother Joyce, and Shuler herself had worked in payroll at PGE on summer breaks from college.
“Women at the utility company where I had worked, where my mom worked, were standing up and taking a risk,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of that.”
Almost exclusively, Local 125 was a union of men, run and staffed by men, who lived and breathed the lineman culture. No matter their good intentions, she knew they couldn’t relate to the issues that mattered to women in the office.
She and her mother and other colleagues visited workers at home, listening to their concerns and explaining the power of collective bargaining. But PGE hit back with captive audience meetings and other union-busting tactics that ultimately prevailed.
The loss shaped Shuler’s perspective on defeat and spurred her to fight even harder. “I always say it’s not a failure, because you’re always better off having taken that risk. You always learn something.”
She said the late International President Ed Hill felt the same way, encouraging out-of-the-box ideas from the first woman, and youngest person, to serve as executive assistant to the IBEW president. “It’s better to make mistakes than not try new things,” he’d tell her.
EVER conscious of the power in numbers, she tends to think big.
It is the foundation of her high-energy agenda to organize at least a million new union members over the next decade, reversing 40 years of decline.
For once, she says, the stars are aligned, with the most pro-union White House in generations and public support for unions nibbling at a record 70%.
“If not now, when? If not us, who?” she asked IBEW delegates in Chicago. “Think back to our IBEW founders in the earliest days at the dawn of electricity. Think about how much faith they were putting in the unknown, in a new idea.
“They knew it wasn’t a guaranteed success, and that there might be failures along the way. But they took the risk. And look at what they created.”
She sees that spirit as part of the union’s DNA, forever innovating and evolving with changes in technology, industries, and workplaces. “I think the IBEW has its finger on the pulse of what’s happening around us,” she said.
Shuler is especially proud of IBEW Strong, the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative that convention delegates passed in 2016 and enthusiastically reaffirmed in Chicago, where they also made history by electing the first woman to serve as an IBEW international vice president, the Fourth District’s Gina Cooper.
“As a woman who came up through the IBEW and worked at the international office I have dreamed of this day for so long,” she said. “There are so many IBEW women who take such great inspiration seeing a woman like Gina rise in leadership and it just shows that our voices matter. That women can impact at the highest levels the decision-making and the work that the IBEW does.”
SHULER’S first big victory was helping to derail Enron’s bid to deregulate Oregon’s energy industry in the mid-1990s.
“My whole mission in life was to align with a coalition of groups,” Shuler said. “We brought together co-ops, consumer groups, obviously the labor movement, and we had to get the rest of labor to understand what electricity deregulation was. It was a big heavy lift, and Enron had hired every lobbyist in the entire state to work for them.”
Around that time, Shuler caught the eye of Rick Diegel, then the IBEW’s political and legislative director.
Diegel was at a lively labor rally in Oregon — whether Enron or something else, he can’t recall — but with a Texas twang and joy in his voice he remembers what he saw.
“I spotted this young gal that looked like she was heading her delegation,” he said. “They had IBEW T-shirts on, so I knew she was one of us. Every time I got busy with something else, I’d turn around and there she’d be again.
“I thought, ‘My god, this young lady is full of energy and intelligence and in command.’ She was running those old folks.”
The grassroots campaign against deregulation persuaded the GOP-led Legislature, but Enron wasn’t done with Oregon. In 1997, it bought PGE, merged the utility’s retirement plan with its own, and offered matching stock to lure workers to invest their own money. When Enron collapsed in 2001, Shuler’s father and his coworkers lost everything.
The agony of working families ruined by corporate greed was something she now knew intimately. She also knew that while rage and rhetoric have their place, they aren’t solutions.
Last year, her pragmatism helped put an end to Republican inaction that threatened the retirement security of millions of families like her own.
The battle had been brewing for years, as GOP lawmakers rebuffed legislation to shore up troubled union pension plans, well aware that the funds could fail and take healthy plans like the IBEW’s down with them.
Shuler rolled out a methodical game plan for a multi-pronged AFL-CIO task force, selecting International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth W. Cooper to lead the subcommittee on multiemployer pensions. Cooper’s team got the Senate to include language into the 2001 American Rescue Act to ensure the plans’ solvency.
“We’d been waging this war for a long time,” Cooper said. “Liz’s skills and leadership — those qualities in her that we know so well at the IBEW — united the labor movement and took us across the finish line.”
IN 1998, Diegel got the green light to hire an international representative to assist him with the union’s political work.
“I literally scoured the country looking for the right person in the IBEW to fill that slot,” he said. “When it came time to make a decision, hands down it was Liz.”
At 28, Shuler packed her bags for Washington, D.C., figuring she’d stay a couple of years, get some experience, and move back to Oregon. Now, she and her husband, David, a federal employee, try to visit at least four times a year.
|At an IBEW political-legislative conference, Liz Shuler shares a laugh with President Bill Clinton and retired Political Director Rick Diegel. One of Shuler’s mentors, Diegel brought the future AFL-CIO president to Washington, D.C., when she was 28 years old to help him expand the political department and its power to fight for IBEW members. He said he scoured the country looking for the right person for the job and “hands down it was Liz.”
Fitting into the IBEW’s mostly male professional staff at the time had its bumps. While Diegel bristled at any snickering, Shuler assured him she could take care of herself.
“That impressed me so much, how she interacted in a male-dominated organization with ease,” he said, thinking back on her first district-wide progress meeting when she held the rapt attention of local officers and answered their questions with aplomb.
“She was a pro,” Diegel said. “When it was all said and done, and over the years we worked together, I just thought she made me look one hell of a lot smarter than I’ll ever be. That’s how good she is.”
Their teamwork turned a small department into a thriving operation with more resources and greater clout to fight for members on Capitol Hill, fueled by soaring growth in voluntary COPE contributions under their watch.
Then one day in 2004 at a conference in New Mexico, Ed Hill winked at Diegel across a banquet table and said, “Meet me outside.”
“We leaned over this deck railing and he said, ‘Ricky, I need to take Liz from you.’ I said, ‘Oh, OK, how long are you going to need her?’
“Forever,” Hill said, and asked Diegel what he thought about making Shuler his assistant.
He joked that he felt like punching him, but said he wouldn’t be upset with Hill on one condition:
“You don’t let her die in that job,” Diegel told him. “She’s not through yet. She’s got a long way to go.”
TODAY, Shuler has a picture-postcard view across leafy Lafayette Park to the White House with the Washington Monument rising behind it.
She is careful never to take her access to power for granted, reflecting on how her parents’ wisdom and model behavior has always kept her grounded.
“You cannot get lost in the notion of those halls of power being any different or more significant than people struggling to put food on the table,” she says.
She thinks about that when she heads across the historic park for labor meetings with President Joe Biden and his staff.
“I always make it a point to walk and really take it in,” she says. “I never forget that it’s not me. The reason I get to go meet with Joe Biden is because of the power of 12.5 million working people sitting on my shoulder.”
Click here to read an IBEW Q&A with President Shuler