Taking the lead at the AFL-CIO

Taking the lead at the AFL-CIO
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Liz Shuler’s ascension to AFL-CIO chief comes at a critical time for the nation’s largest labor group, which is grappling with declining union membership, union-busting corporate giants and a Democratic Congress that is struggling to pass pro-worker priorities.

Shuler was elected president of the AFL-CIO on Aug. 20, becoming the first woman to lead the federation in its 65-year history. It wasn’t the first milestone for Shuler, who swiftly rose up the labor ranks — to the surprise of some of her mostly male colleagues — and was elected as the youngest AFL-CIO official in 2009.

She’s pressing ahead with her work as she grieves the loss of Richard Trumka, the federation’s longtime president and a beloved labor leader. Trumka’s unexpected death in early August was a “gut punch” for Shuler, who served as his second in command for more than a decade.

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“I had a working partner for 12 years. We worked side by side, day to day together, and then it just happened so suddenly,” she told The Hill in a recent interview.

Shuler has been preparing for this moment for much of her life. Her pro-labor convictions were forged early on as she saw firsthand the impact that organizing — and unchecked corporate power — had on her hometown.

Born into a union household in Portland, Ore., Shuler entered into her first labor negotiations at age 11, when she and another local babysitter organized to ensure that they both received the same hourly pay.

Her father, Lance Shuler, worked as a lineman at Portland General Electric, the local utility. Liz Shuler became keenly aware of how much better the unionized utility workers were treated than unorganized clerical workers in the area, who later turned to Shuler to help them form their own union.

“The linemen had a voice. They were respected and they could speak out without fear. Clerical workers were always scrambling for crumbs,” Shuler said.

After college, she took a job at the Portland utility workers’ union in 1993. She quickly shot up the ranks to find herself facing off with Texas energy giant Enron, which was lobbying the Oregon legislature to deregulate the state’s utility industry.

Shuler ultimately won the battle with Enron, but her community later emerged as one of the biggest losers of the company’s accounting scandal.

Enron purchased the local utility in 1996, then converted employees’ retirement portfolios into company shares. The firm urged employees to buy more shares as its stock price shot up, and some linemen took out loans to buy more. Enron’s fraud was later exposed, causing the company’s stock to plummet from around $90 to less than $1 and leaving the linemen, including Lance Shuler, with nothing.

“It was the classic corporate greed story where workers were left holding the bag,” Shuler said. “My own father lost his pension. That drives me to this day.”

Shuler’s high-profile clash with Enron helped earn her a spot at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). The union deployed Shuler to California, where she successfully defeated a 1998 ballot initiative that would have prohibited unions from using dues to fund political contributions.

IBEW later named Shuler as chief of staff to union President Ed Hill at age 34 — young in labor years — despite skepticism from some in the male-dominated Brotherhood.

“I always say, if I can stand up in front of a room of power linemen, I have no problem standing up in front of members of Congress or CEOs, because that is the toughest audience you’ll ever find,” Shuler said.

Part of Shuler’s mission is to redefine the labor movement as being for workers of all backgrounds and in every industry. She often notes that of the federation’s roughly 12.5 million workers, nearly half are women.

“I think it’s important to have a woman in this role so that women in the workforce see the labor movement as the movement for them,” Shuler said. “We’re the largest organization in the country of working women, and I don’t think a lot of people see us that way.”

Shuler aims to expand the labor movement to growing parts of the economy that remain largely nonunionized such as the tech sector, including gig economy firms that are circumventing the traditional employment structure.

Unions were dealt a high-profile loss earlier this year when Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama voted against unionizing. Amazon’s hard-line tactics to crush the union drive signaled the need for Congress to strengthen labor laws, leaders said.  

Shuler never thought she would stay in Washington, D.C., for too long. Now she’s deeply entrenched in the nation’s capital and spending large chunks of her time lobbying Congress and the White House, calling President BidenJoe BidenBiden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day Business lobby calls for administration to 'pump the brakes' on vaccine mandate Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping MORE “the most pro-union president in history.”

The AFL-CIO is among those pushing Democratic senators to abolish the legislative filibuster, which is allowing Republicans to block bills on voting rights, immigration and labor reforms. The federation is focusing its efforts on the PRO Act, a sweeping pro-union bill that would greatly expand protections for workers aiming to organize.

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Shuler and other labor leaders successfully lobbied Democrats to include the PRO Act’s severe civil penalties for employers who commit unfair labor practices in the party’s $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. Now she is pressing them to come together and pass both the larger spending package and the $1.1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“Especially in a moment like now I think of Rich, because he definitely was at the top of his game when he passed and was really enjoying the federation’s role in everything that’s been happening with the administration, the Hill and this moment that we’re in with our country,” Shuler said of Trumka.

Labor unions’ success on Capitol Hill has been limited so far during this Congress, but Shuler is excited to see a wave of union efforts to secure better contracts. Unions representing Hollywood crew workers, Kaiser Permanente clinicians, John Deere manufacturers and several others are threatening strikes unless their employers offer better collective bargaining agreements.  

“That is symbolic of what we’re seeing throughout the economy,” Shuler said. “Working people who have gotten us through this pandemic, who have worked incredible hours, made incredible sacrifices, are now saying, ‘Really, this is the best you can do?’ ”