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The AFL-CIO on Friday is expected to name former President Richard Trumka’s No. 2, Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, to finish out his term, a choice that members of the federation say will carry on the late president’s agenda and, they hope, the labor movement’s renewed momentum.
But behind the scenes, Trumka’s sudden and unexpected death earlier this month has forced AFL-CIO officials to consider uncomfortable questions about the future of the movement and how it can reverse its eroding membership — discussions that many expected to confront in years, not months.
The loss presents the AFL-CIO’s 56 affiliate unions with the first real opportunity in more than a decade to change the direction of the powerful national organization when it chooses a permanent successor for Trumka next year.
Organized labor appears to have the best odds in recent history to expand federal labor law with self-described “union man” President Joe Biden in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress, albeit a razor-thin one.
The AFL-CIO’s executive council — made up of top officials from its affiliates — is scheduled to meet Friday, and it is expected to choose Shuler to serve the last 10 months of Trumka’s term, making her the federation’s first female president. Many expect Shuler to seek the permanent position next year and several executive council members say she has broad support.
But the debate over whether Shuler should lead the federation for the longer haul and what course it should take is likely to spill out into the open as the June 2022 election for a permanent replacement gets closer.
“The AFL needs to be a big player, and I think that Liz is able to carry on with that right now. But I think the bigger question is not just who was going to lead us, but how do we see ourselves, how do we reimagine ourselves at a time when we've lost so much of our membership, and so little of the American workforce is part of unions,” said an executive council member who, like others interviewed for this story, requested anonymity in order to speak freely about inside matters.
Public support of unions and collective bargaining is at an all-time high, in part because of the inequities in low-wage industries that were exposed by the pandemic.
"People have all of these new issues at work all of a sudden," said Ileen DeVault, academic director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School. "I think the pandemic has made it really clear to a lot of people that their employers do not have their workers interests really in mind when they make decisions about things ... the only way you get any of that, is by coming together collectively and forming a union."
But some council members say the labor federation isn’t taking full advantage of that changing attitude.
“We’re not having that conversation right now, that’s not happening,” said one. “We’re looking at a real discussion leading up to the convention, not this week.”
Some factions within the federation have called on national leadership to pivot its strategy away from trying to influence policy in Washington and allocate more of its limited resources to grassroots organizing and building membership, especially among younger generations that may be unfamiliar with unions and are now dominating the workforce.
“You can't just look at it through the inside-the-Beltway lens,” the member said. “There's so much that we can do, and that we're just not doing. And we're sabotaging ourselves, and it's a lack of inspiration.”
But AFL-CIO leadership has asserted that federal labor rights have eroded so much over the years that it’s made more sense to focus their spending on changing federal law.
Under Trumka’s leadership, they had recently been singularly focused on backing Democrat’s Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would broadly expand collective bargaining rights to more workers and make it far easier to organize unions. So far, though, Democrats haven't been able to round up enough votes in the Senate to pass the plan.
Business groups are fighting the legislation, saying it would erode workers’ free choice to opt out of union membership and increase litigation and business costs.
"I think everyone in the labor movement has been very excited as Biden came into power, thinking, 'Wow, maybe this is an opportunity.' And, you know, maybe it is," said DeVault. "But given the refusal of Republicans in the Senate to move an inch on anything. I don't know what's going to happen."
"I don't envy whoever comes in to replace Trumka," DeVault added, noting that if it is Shuler "she's taking over at a time that is going to continue to be really difficult."
In interviews with POLITICO, members of the executive council say the legislation alone isn’t enough to turn around the movement’s losses and were frustrated by messaging from the AFL-CIO leadership that the legislation is labor’s last chance for a revival.
“I think the PRO Act is crucial, because labor law no longer reflects the reality of what happens in organizing campaigns,” said one executive council member, "...but it's not sufficient. We really have to take a hard look at ourselves and see what else it is that we need to do to grow this movement.”
“Shuler cannot get the PRO Act done,” another member said. “And the only way we're going to get the PRO Act done is if we actually have a living breathing labor movement, outside of Washington.”
Shuler, whom many expect to seek the AFL-CIO presidency in 2022, has been lauded as a natural successor for Trumka and she’s received three endorsements from affiliate unions to finish out Trumka’s term.
Several executive council members who spoke with POLITICO said that there wasn’t time to consider anyone else. The AFL-CIO’s constitution required that Shuler announce a meeting date within 10 days of Trumka’s death to elect a successor to fill the remainder of the term.
Those members also acknowledge there have been conversations within the executive council questioning her ability to not just lead the organization long term, but propel it forward.
Some wonder if she will be a strong enough presence to galvanize younger workers and stir up excitement and attention to the movement’s efforts.
“There's a sense of what we need is someone who is going to be out there in the public eye, constantly advocating for working people, not just someone who's going to be able to play for the Washington scene, but someone who is going to be the public image of the American labor movement,” one board member said. “And, you know, I think that the question between now and the convention is whether or not Liz is going to be able to do that.”
Others said that Shuler shouldn’t be underestimated and were confident she would be elected to the position permanently in 2022.
She’s not afraid to look at “what’s right and what’s wrong” with the labor movement and “to see what we can do about it,” another member said. “I think people are gonna be surprised by how open she is to change, but not change for change’s sake.”
"She's very capable at what she's doing," another member added. "She's been shepherding the next-gen issue. She's been the one who took that on, and helped the AFL-CIO and the affiliates develop their programs, about how to bring up the next generation of trade unionists. I think she comfortably has a foot in both the building trades, and with the industrial unions."
If Shuler faces a challenge at the 2022 convention, all eyes are on Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
Nelson comes from the more progressive wing of the organization and believes that the federation should be brasher in its organizing efforts and focus on fights at the local level that produce direct results for rank-and-file members. She has argued that the federation could also grow unions’ public profile by partnering with and supporting other progressive grassroots movements.
Nelson has split with positions the AFL-CIO took under Trumka’s leadership on a number of issues, including vaccine mandates and whether to expel police officer unions from membership.
She has not commented publicly on her plans for 2022 since Trumka's death.
“The sudden, tragic death of Richard Trumka triggered an AFL-CIO constitutional provision to put in place a new president within a matter of days. Working people deserve the time to be a part of this conversation," Nelson's spokesperson said in a statement when asked about Nelson's prospects for the 2022 convention. "There is no doubt this next year leading up to an open convention provides a basis for lively discussion and debate about how to make unions and the rights that come with them accessible to all working people.”
AFL-CIO Communications Director Tim Schlittner said in a statement that "Acting President Shuler is hard at work leading the AFL-CIO through this difficult moment and beyond and is proud to have the support of a united labor movement behind her."