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Elizabeth Shuler, President of the AFL-CIO. Credit - Courtesy of AFL-CIO
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As a burgeoning labor shortage precipitated 10 million job openings and millions of Americans voluntarily leaving their jobs in August, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler was handed an extraordinary job at the nation’s largest labor union federation: Running it.
She was elected to fill the shoes of former AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a beloved third-generation coal miner who cemented strong ties with the last two Democratic Presidents and with the federation’s roughly 12.5 million members between 2009 and his unexpected death from a heart attack in August.
Shuler wasn’t merely taking the reins during a once-in-a-century pandemic, but also in the midst of a revolutionary inflection point, where workers are emboldened by nationwide labor shortages to exact better wages, hours and general working conditions from their employers. As a record-breaking 4.3 million laborers voluntarily quit, swaths more decided not to resign for better opportunities elsewhere—but to strike for them at their current jobs.
Tens of thousands of cameramen, makeup artists, lighting technicians and other behind-the-scenes television show professionals represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) have threatened to strike for bigger profit shares from the streaming boom and more humane hours, in an effort that could result in the largest coordinated labor action in Hollywood since World War II. More than 10,000 United Auto Workers members from 14 John Deere facilities have walked off their job sites after rejecting the agricultural behemoth’s latest union contract offer. Over 14,000 workers from cereal giant Kellogg’s have been picketing for weeks over what they call an unfair, two-tier system of benefits. Meanwhile, more than 20,000 Kaiser Permanente employees authorized a strike earlier this month, and thousands more Nabisco workers recently returned to work after successfully striking for higher pay.
“They’ve had enough,” Shuler says of the season, which many have dubbed “Striketober.” But as ripe as the current labor market conditions are for successful strikes, the current moment is also a critical juncture for the future existence of the very labor unions that make such revolts possible. Private sector union membership has fallen from roughly 32% in 1960 to 6% today, and stands to decline even more as older generations—who are more likely than younger ones to be in unions—near retirement age. “This is the challenge of our time. Something like 10,000 people a day are retiring,” Shuler says, “and that silver tsunami is about to hit us.”
Shuler spoke with TIME about what the workers participating in this historic wave of strikes are fighting for, how union membership can help them get it, and what the AFL-CIO is doing to bolster its ranks—especially with young people—to preserve its collective bargaining power in the decades to come.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
It’s Striketober! Tens of thousands of workers have voted to authorize strikes in recent weeks, building on a year of extraordinary labor activism. A strike database from Cornell University shows more than 250 strikes have taken place since the start of this year. As the brand new chief of one of the biggest unions in the country, how do you capitalize on this momentum?
I’m glad you actually started from the beginning, because this is a moment in time, but it’s been building for a while. And everywhere we go, every person we talk to on those picket lines are just fed up. I think if you could sum it up, it’s just that they’ve had enough. We have over 30 strikes happening right now. Around 100,000 workers are either on strike or have authorized a strike at this moment, and so it’s the culmination of going through this pandemic, where workers were told they were essential, and now are being treated as expendable. They’ve sacrificed so much, and then now are faced with takeaways, and a basic lack of respect and recognition. And so it’s both economic forces at play here with a broken economic system—wages have been flat for so long—and the growing gulf that we’re seeing in the economy, but also just the recognition, the basic respect of being able to come to a workplace, have a decent paying job, have safety protections from a pandemic, and be able to return home safely at night back to their families.
But at the same time, overall union membership is still roughly half of what it was in the 1980s. Do you think that this current wave of labor activism marks an inflection point of a possible union resurgence?
Yes, the answer is absolutely yes. And if anything, working people in the country are now seeing the labor movement in a different way, we’re more relevant than we’ve ever been before. We’re more popular than we’ve ever been. You probably have seen the recent polling—68% of the public supports unions, 77% of young people [do]. They see unions fighting for change, and they see us out there fighting for better jobs. And so we do believe this is a moment where working people are feeling their power, and they’re ready to take risks and stand up more than ever before, because they’ve been the victims of a broken economic system for far too long. And we do have a shortage of good paying sustainable jobs that give people a fair share of the wealth that they’re helping create. They’re seeing CEOs being paid, like, 351 times what the average worker is making in the economy today.
We just had a meeting this morning to talk about what we can do as a labor movement to bring more solidarity and support and unity to these fights, and the full breadth and power of labor movements to bear here because this is about our future. This is about preserving the middle class, and fighting back against rollbacks that are taking us back to times where we were fighting for the weekend. And in fact, in 2021, you saw the IATSE that was about to go on strike, they were fighting for meal and rest breaks, to not have to go to work after clocking out on a Friday night and then returning to work Saturday morning, less than eight hours later. So these are basic things that we’ve been fighting for for decades, that we should be far beyond in the year 2021.
It’s also quite a moment for you individually. What has the transition to President of AFL-CIO been like for you in the wake of Richard Trumka’s unexpected death?
It’s been exactly 60 days since I was elected. And it has been quite a responsibility to both step into some big shoes and to really keep this labor movement moving forward. Because we have such an opportunity in front of us, we can’t miss a beat. We’ve got this opportunity in Congress with all the investment that is poised to pass and create millions of good, well-paying jobs. And we have workers out in the streets, taking risks and looking for change, looking for hope. And the public sentiment is with us. I think that the labor movement can be the place where working people chart a path for a new future. A bold, dynamic, inclusive labor movement is going to be the path to that change. So we want to show every working person that they have a place in the labor movement, and that we are dynamic and relevant and are ready to meet the moment for this very diverse and changing work workforce, but also the economy that’s changing around us.
When you were elected to replace Trumka, you said you were “humbled, honored and ready to guide this federation forward.” What does moving the union forward mean in real terms? Is it about becoming more accessible to young people, or ramping up social media outreach more?
All of those things, yes. Of course, appealing to that next generation to show them that they can see themselves in our labor movement and rising into leadership, making the change that they want in their workplaces and using the labor movement as a vehicle for that change. To show women and people of color, who were in the emerging sectors of the economy that are growing that the labor movement is a place for them and that we make the difference in workplaces and close pay gaps for women and for people of color. And that as technology is changing our workplaces and disrupting the business model, we would be the place to have a voice and a seat at the table for working people to negotiate that change, and to not be sitting back waiting for it to happen. So we think the labor movement is the place where [we can manage] the big workplace changes that are on the horizon, but also the policy changes on Capitol Hill, and then to unleash unprecedented organizing, because the bottom line is we need to grow the labor movement, and represent more people to have more strength and to make that voice even louder. And especially with young people, the marquee of millennials and Gen Z is collaboration—they’re very civic-minded. They’re used to coming together and working in teams. That just naturally translates to the labor movement.
We’ve seen some extraordinary grassroots movements take center stage in recent years, such as the global school strikes led by Greta Thunberg for climate activism and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder. Is AFL-CIO taking inspiration from those movements? Are there any other movements that AFL-CIO is learning from?
Yes, and in fact, many of our members are either at the front leading or very much active in those movements. Our headquarters is on what’s now called Black Lives Matter Plaza. And I remember coming down many times to join those protests and walk the streets, not only in DC, but in different parts of the country. And so we are learning from those movements, because they’re very dynamic. They’re led by young people, and we have so much in common, so it makes sense for us to be joining forces. In the labor movement, we have a network of state AFL-CIO [and] city level AFL-CIO bodies in over 400 cities that can actually make activism happen. Often, we work collaboratively with these various movements and partners and allies to make the change that so many of us are hungry for.
We saw the Netflix walkout. And in the past, Google walkouts over sexual harassment. These are all workplace issues. Our job is to connect the dots—the change that people are hungry for can happen more effectively through the labor movement, because we have a permanence about our structure that really doesn’t happen anywhere else. When you walk out for a day, and then you go back to work the next day, it becomes very clear that it’s not sustainable unless you have a union that gives you the legal standing to sit across a table from the employers and demand change and actually have a mechanism to enforce the policies and bargain the change that you want to see.
We’re seeing a lot of young people that are using collective bargaining as a tool for non-traditional subjects of bargaining, like the carbon footprint: You raised Greta. This is something that the labor movement has front and center where there are workers who are sitting down at the table saying, ‘What can we do as an organization as a company to address climate change more forcefully as an organization?’ A lot of people don’t understand collective bargaining. It is essentially that give-and-take process with an employer to negotiate, of course, better pay and benefits and working conditions, but also some of the social issues, [such as] civil and human rights; diversity, equity, inclusion; climate change and sexual harassment. These are some of the things that folks in our society and our economy care deeply about, but they don’t necessarily see unions as the path forward. That’s our challenge is to make that case to more working people outside of unions to see us as the path forward.
Union membership rates continue to be highest among workers who are 45 to 64, and much lower among the younger generations. What can AFL-CIO—and unions more generally—do to recruit and retain the younger Americans?
This is the challenge of our time, something like 10,000 people a day are retiring. And that silver tsunami is about to hit us. We are very much being intentional about engaging our young members. I think having young people in leadership helps show other young people that this labor movement is modern, and dynamic, and is interested in caring about the things they care about. When I first came to the AFL-CIO, we launched our Next Step program, which is our young worker program, and put together a pretty bold initiative to address economic issues that matter to young people. We [also] created a network of young worker organizations across the country at every central labor council in our network, so that young unionists could work with young activists on the ground in their communities to fight for change.
We also started young worker groups at our affiliate unions so that within each union, they are looking at investing in young people, leadership training, making sure that we’re not just waiting around for years and years so that leaders are paying their dues and [saying], ‘You can’t lead until you’ve been here for 10 or 15 years.’ That’s not the case. Most of the young leaders that we have invested in during our Next Step program are actually now either on executive boards of their unions or running for political office, running for union office. That investment pays off because you invest early and then certainly those young people will be landing in positions of authority and power. We need to make sure that we’re doing the succession planning for our movement.
Age aside, private sector union membership is still at its slowest rate in a century. The PRO Act, while it passed in the House with a little bit of Republican support, doesn’t seem likely to pass in the Senate, and some of the country’s largest companies—especially Amazon—continue to successfully squash unionization attempts. Despite these challenges, what is giving you hope that this is a potential turning point?
When I walk the picket line with bakery workers and I see their determination, their tenacity, their courage, that’s what gives me hope. This is a moment. I think the PRO Act, of course, is very much needed legislation, because our labor laws are so broken in this country that it takes an act of absolute heroism to stand up and face down Goliath. That these companies are so powerful, they’ll throw millions of dollars to bust the unions, hire union busting consultants, they actually have a playbook that they operate from. And you saw it alive and well at Amazon, where they would go to no end to intimidate, harass, discriminate [against], bully, [and] fire workers who want to form a union. So we’re going to keep fighting for the PRO Act. But we’re also going to look for opportunities to get meaningful reforms in other vehicles that are moving. We want to make sure that the penalties for employers who break the law are meaningful. We’re working to try to make sure that gets passed in reconciliation.
A striking Kellogg’s employee of local 50G in Omaha likened Striketober to a second industrial revolution, citing record profits some companies are seeing but not passing down to their employees and the increasing wealth gap. Would you agree with his assessment?
There’s no doubt that our economy is broken. He is absolutely right, that this is our chance to get it right—to invest in workers and to right the ship. This is unsustainable. Wages have been flat for over 30 years. Costs continue to go up. Health care gets more expensive. People have barely any retirement savings to rely on. The only way we can remedy that is to make a choice as a country that we are going to invest in the people that make this country hum. Certainly the essential workers throughout this pandemic are Exhibit A for why that’s important. Only by coming together collectively can we balance the scales of the economy and fight for the dignity and respect that we need on the job in addition to the pay and the benefits and the working conditions that are just absolute basic necessities for most working people. That’s all they want. They want to be treated fairly.