Editor’s Note: The Electrical Worker’s August cover story features Liz Shuler’s journey from Portland, Ore., Local 125 to the top of the AFL-CIO. In addition to our interview, President Shuler graciously answered written questions on a wide range of issues.
EW: You've pledged that over the next decade, "We will organize and grow our movement by more than one million new working people." How? Tell us more about the Center for Transformational Organizing. What is it and when will it be up and running?
|Bullish on union jobs and union growth under the Biden administration, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler says, “Unions will be the engine changing our country's crumbling infrastructure system… And with this influx of new employment opportunities for union members, union enthusiasm will only continue to grow.”
Liz Shuler:The Center for Transformational Organizing is a deep collaboration between AFL-CIO unions to organize workers into unions in a way that's never been achieved. The CTO will provide needed funding, resources, training, and strategy development to worker-led, cross-movement campaigns to fight deep-pocketed corporations.
The CTO will catalyze the energy of this moment into worker organizing at a magnitude not seen for decades. The CTO will bring together the brightest minds in organizing, technology and capital strategies to develop, implement and scale powerful campaigns to build union density. By concentrating resources and coordinating to achieve the biggest wins, the CTO will leverage the power and strategic capacity of the U.S. labor movement to meet this moment for working people.
This is also a commitment by AFL-CIO and affiliated unions to create 1 million newly organized workers in coming years, with an immediate infusion of support to lift existing campaigns, build new ones and quickly scale organizing efforts. One million new members is the floor; we want every worker who wants a union to have one. And we are creating a new, dedicated funding stream devoted solely to organizing to support workers on the ground.
EW: The pandemic laid bare just how essential unions are, but there was a lot of momentum already. Now organizing drives and victories are mounting every day. How can we maintain that level of energy and enthusiasm?
Liz Shuler:We can maintain this energy by doing what we have always done — making workplaces fairer, safer and giving workers a seat at the table. Throughout the pandemic workers were told they were essential, but treated as expendable. They watched corporations pull in record profits but none of those gains made it to the workers who created that wealth. They're sick and tired of the status quo, and they are not going back. It's up to us to prove that the labor movement is the place to go to make the change they're hungry for in their workplaces. Once they take that courageous step forward and begin their organizing drive, unions need to be there for them, answering their questions, helping to negotiate that first contract that will transform their workplace for the better.
We need to listen and learn from workers who are standing up and taking risks. And we have to invest the time and energy to ensure their success. We have to be prepared to do the work to keep this trend going.
EW: With regard to the union surge, what surprises you most? Certain sectors or industries? Employer responses?
Liz Shuler:I am mostly surprised by the sheer diversity of union drives. They aren't confined to one region of the country or one industry. It is everywhere. Just a few years ago, could any of us have imagined that video game workers or baristas would be making headlines for their organizing efforts?
What we in the labor movement have to recognize is that whether you're writing computer code, making french press coffee or repairing high voltage power lines, the needs of workers remain the same. Workers want fair pay, they want paid sick time, they want a working environment where they feel safe from physical or sexual harassment. Those basic needs stretch across all sectors.
Sadly, I'm not surprised by the reaction of many employers. Let's not forget, an employer can voluntarily recognize a union if their employees want to form one — but they rarely do. The tactics remain the same: intimidation, disinformation, and captive audience meetings. What is different now is that when a movement takes hold, when workers everywhere stand up, those tactics will not be able to stop them.
EW: Within the core industries of the IBEW and the other trades, what are the best organizing strategies today? Do we have different challenges and opportunities than other sectors of the labor movement?
Liz Shuler:I believe that regardless of the industry, every organizing strategy starts the same way, with a conversation between workers. But in today's political landscape, to successfully organize we need to use all of the tools and resources we have at our disposal. One of our greatest assets, that the IBEW was instrumental in creating, is Action Builder. Action Builder is a tool built by and for organizers.
Action Builder empowers and democratizes organizing, making it more accessible for people historically on the margins — women, people of color, young people and people who have never organized before. It allows more people to participate and capture the information instead of it just being an exclusive circle.
There will always be challenges to organizing any sector, but the IBEW's collaborative approach to organizing uniquely positions them to be better prepared to reach and actively engage their members.
EW: The historic $1 trillion investment in infrastructure under President Biden is already funding critical projects around the country, with the potential to create hundreds of thousands of union jobs over the next 10 years. How could infrastructure alone affect union growth?
Liz Shuler:President Biden promised to be the most pro-union president in our country's history, and he is delivering on that promise. Central to this transformative piece of legislation is union jobs. Unions will be the engine changing our country's crumbling infrastructure system. And with this influx of new employment opportunities for union members, union enthusiasm will only continue to grow. Allowing millions of workers to see the good jobs, pay and benefits that unions provide will then help us grow our labor movement. Because when people see the union difference first-hand, they will want to join our movement and become our members.
EW: The infrastructure rollout includes many green-energy projects, including a national network of electrical vehicle charging stations. How important is the IBEW in the transition to clean energy? How great of an opportunity is it for us?
Liz Shuler:It is unprecedented, and the IBEW will play a critical role in reshaping our country as it transitions towards a clean energy future. This is a chance for IBEW members to use our world class training to expand into new industries like offshore wind. Unions have always been the pathway to good jobs as industries evolve and new jobs come online. We are the change-makers, whether it was creating the weekend or improving worksite safety. Now, with the IBEW leading the way, we will be changemakers for a cleaner planet for ourselves and our future generations.
EW: More broadly, you've made climate-change policies part of your AFL-CIO agenda. Not all union members are on board. How do you persuade them?
Liz Shuler:Climate change is the greatest existential threat we face. Just think back to last summer, when we witnessed power lines melting across the northwest amid record high heat waves. Rising sea levels, record breaking heat and once-in-a-generation storms have become the new normal. But we can't look at this moment without realizing that we have a chance to take advantage of new opportunities in the renewable energy sector. Union workers are the highest-skilled workers who are best suited to address this climate emergency and we need to get that message out to our members.
Whether it is installing solar panels or manufacturing wind turbines or carbon neutral public transit, we have a powerful new green economy emerging and unions are central to it. This means that we have to adapt, as we always have, to emerging technologies and economic demands. It means that the workers in one industry receive new job training from their unions in order to be able to swiftly transition to another sector.
We can help build infrastructure that will better protect our cities and towns from flooding; we can demand workplace protections that ensure that workers will not suffer from heat exhaustion on the job; and we can prepare for future climate challenges with union-made renewable energy technology.
If we want to protect our children and future generations, we have to stand together ready to meet the climate crisis head on.
EW: Over and over, President Biden has made good on his pledge to be the most "pro-union president you've ever seen." What does that mean to individual workers and working families? Is it just as important to workers who have strong unions already, like the IBEW?
Liz Shuler:It is absolutely as important to not-yet-union workers as it is to those in the IBEW. President Biden's support for the PRO Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act demonstrate his administration's commitment to make joining a union possible for anyone who wants to. He appointed pro-union members to the National Labor Relations Board so that companies who engage in union-busting tactics will have to answer for their actions. Appointing Marty Walsh, a card-carrying union member, as secretary of labor shows that expanding union rights is a priority at the highest level. And the infrastructure bill's funding for apprenticeship and training programs will create the next generation of skilled union workers. President Biden is investing in the future of our movement and making sure that the strong union protections that members of the IBEW have are not out of reach for working families who are striving to find a pathway to the middle class.
EW: You've said, "This year we are building more than a 'political program' — we are mobilizing for democracy." What does that mean?
Liz Shuler:Our first priority is to start with the issues, identifying what matters most to our members. Whether it is rising costs or health care benefits, we are engaged in a listening campaign that will dictate where we need to focus our attention this cycle and beyond. We have identified battleground states that will determine whether we continue to have a pro-union administration and elected officials who share those values in office. This means we need to also serve as a source of information for our members. Trust in government has plummeted because of misinformation. It is our job to get people out of their online bubbles that limit their access to accurate information. And who do people trust? They trust their coworkers, the people they see every day. That gives unions a unique opportunity to reach the unengaged voter and to inform them of the threat our democracy is facing, whether it is through voter suppression laws or through anti-labor ballot initiatives.
There's too much on the line — our very democracy is on the line — and union members have always stood in solidarity with marginalized and disadvantaged communities. The urgency exists; we need to get out the vote to make sure that our government works for us, not the wealthy and not the corporations. We have the tools to do it, and we are moving.
EW: How vital is it to elect union members to office? Not only statehouses and Congress, but city councils, school boards, utility boards, etc., as well as service as appointed members of government task forces and committees? How is the AFL-CIO encouraging and supporting union candidates?
|“I could not be prouder or more encouraged by IBEW's commitment to diversity. The IBEW showed me early on in my career that everyone has a home in the labor community,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler told the EW.
Liz Shuler:It is critical. Decisions that impact our everyday lives don't just happen in Washington, D.C. Those decisions are made in town halls, on school boards and in state capitals. When union members are represented by their allies and peers, the change is immediate and clear. We need to elect people, especially union members, who share our values and who put workers first. That will result in guaranteed change.
And we are not just focused on the national level, we are working with states to organize at a local level because we know that grassroots organizing is the key to any major change. We are engaging in worker-to-worker organizing efforts so workers have a voice and they know who is on their side. We can't just get out the vote every four years, we have to be active participants in every voting cycle. And that is where our focus lies.
EW: You're the ultimate role model for one of your top priorities: elevating union women to leadership positions. What are your strategies? How far have we come already and how far do we have to go?
Liz Shuler:Many people do not realize that the labor movement is the largest collection of working women in our country, and there are already so many inspiring and dedicated leaders, but we are only at the beginning. Progress has been made, but there is so much more to do. And we will continue our work to reach these women, and to elevate them in our leadership structure by fostering an environment where women feel empowered and welcome to take on greater roles. But we can only do this by taking proactive steps through communication and through our hiring process. I look forward to the day where a woman assuming a role like mine is not groundbreaking, but common.
EW: Same question with regard to young people, minorities, and the LGBTQ community. How essential is diversity to the strength of today's unions?
Liz Shuler:With my partner Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond, we have made clear that every single person, no matter where they come from, who they love or how they identify, they have a place in our movement. Unions have always been the vehicle for change because we are democratic; every person has a say. And we need leadership to reflect our diverse membership. We are informed by the personal experiences of our members, and this is about bringing those who for too long have been marginalized into leadership. We are stronger together. There is still work to be done, but through programs like Pride at Work, our Younger Worker Task Force and our community of color outreach, we are making inclusivity a priority.
EW: Delegates to the 40th International Convention in May enthusiastically reaffirmed the IBEW's commitment to diversity. What does that mean to you as an IBEW member? What do you think of the progress so far?
Liz Shuler:I could not be prouder or more encouraged by IBEW's commitment to diversity. The IBEW showed me early on in my career that everyone has a home in the labor community. For too long there has been a misconception that the labor movement is male-dominated and monolithic. That could not be further from the truth. By proclaiming support for increasing diversity and showing that all are welcome at every level, from frontline workers to leadership, the IBEW is making a difference. Is there more to be done? Of course. Is the work IBEW is doing to support diverse backgrounds and voices a critical step towards a fairer, more equitable future? Absolutely.
Click to read the accompanying August EW feature: “History Maker: Liz Shuler First IBEW Member, First Woman Elected to Lead AFL-CIO”