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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.
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, (IATSE), has warned that thousands of TV show producers, including cameramen and makeup artists, could strike to obtain larger profits from streaming and longer working hours. It is a move that may lead to the most coordinated labor dispute in Hollywood history. 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. Over 20,000 Kaiser Permanente employees called for a strike this month. Many more Nabisco workers also returned to work recently after striking for better pay.
“They’ve had enough,” Shuler says of the season, which many have dubbed “Striketober.”However, as favorable as current labor market conditions may be for strike success, this moment also represents a crucial juncture in the existence of labor unions. These unions are what make these 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 edited to be more concise.
It’s Striketober! In the last weeks, thousands of workers voted for strikes to be authorized. This follows a year of remarkable labor activism. Cornell University has compiled a strike database that shows over 250 strikes occurred since January. What can you do to capitalize on this momentum, as the chief of one of America’s largest unions?
I’m glad you actually started from the beginning, because this is a moment in time, but it’s been building for a while. Everybody we meet on the picket lines is tired. I think if you could sum it up, it’s just that they’ve had enough. These days, there are more than 30 strikes. 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.
However, union membership overall is roughly half as high today than it was in 1980. Are you unsure if this wave of labor activism is a signal of a potential union resurgence.
It is definitely true. 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 beforeIt is. 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 are able to see the unions fighting for changes and see us fighting for better job opportunities. 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.
Today’s meeting was to explore what the labor movement can do to support these struggles and bring greater solidarity, support and unity. This is our future. It is all about protecting the middle class and fighting against any rollbacks to the system that will take us back in time when we were just fighting for the weekend. You can actually see the IATSE going on strike in 2021. These workers were fighting for meals and rest breaks after working on Friday nights and returning to work on Saturday, 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.
Continue reading: U.S. Workers Are Realizing It’s the Perfect Time to Go on Strike
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. It has been quite an honor to step in to some large shoes, and keep the labor movement going 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. There are people on the streets taking risks, searching for opportunities, and seeking out hope. The public is supportive. My belief is that the labor movement may be the platform where people can chart a course for a brighter future. It is essential that there be an inclusive, bold and dynamic labor movement. 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? What does it mean to be more accessible and more active on social media?
Yes. To appeal to this next generation and show that they are capable of becoming leaders, making positive changes in their workplaces, and using the labor market as a tool for change. Women and people of colour, especially those in emerging economic sectors that are expanding, should see that the labor movement can be a home for them. We make a difference at work and reduce pay disparities for both men and women. As technology changes our work environments and alters the business model, the labor movement would provide a platform for workers to voice their concerns and get a seat at negotiating that change. The labor movement, we believe is where it all happens. [we can manage]The big changes in the workplace are coming, as well as the changes to the policies on Capitol Hill. This will allow for unprecedented organizing. Because the bottom line is that we must grow the labor movement and make it stronger and more powerful. 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. It naturally leads to 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. Are those examples being used by AFL-CIO? What are other movements AFL-CIO could be learning from?
Many of our members have been involved in these movements, either as leaders or active participants. Our headquarters is on what’s now called Black Lives Matter Plaza. It was a place I used to frequent, and it is where we have our headquarters. 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. We have an AFL-CIO network that includes state AFL-CIOs in the labor movement. [and]There are over 400 city-level AFL-CIOs that have the ability to make change happen. We often work in collaboration with the various movements, partners and allies that we seek to bring about the changes many people are seeking.
The Netflix walkout was a common sight. We have also seen walkouts by Google over sexual harassment in the past. These issues affect all workers. 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. This is the process of negotiating with employers for better work conditions and pay, as well as some social issues. [such as]civil and human right; diversity, equity and 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 remain high among people aged between 45 and 64. They are much lower for younger people. What can AFL-CIO—and unions more generally—do to recruit and retain the younger Americans?
It is the greatest challenge we face today, as 10,000 people retire each day. We are about to be hit by the silver tsunami. Our young members are being engaged with us. Young people are able to show that the labor movement is dynamic and modern. It is also interested in what they care about. Our Next Step program was launched when I joined the AFL-CIO. This program is for young workers and is an innovative initiative that addresses important economic issues. We [also]We created a national network of youth worker organizations at each central labor council within our network so that young unionists could collaborate with activists in the field in communities in order to push 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. Many of the Next Step leaders we invested in are now on or running to be elected as political officers. Investing early pays off, and those young leaders will soon be in high-ranking positions. We need to make sure that we’re doing the succession planning for our movement.
The private sector is growing at its lowest rate of growth in over 100 years, despite the fact that it has been around for a while. 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. What gives you hope for a possible turning point despite these difficulties?
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 special moment. The PRO Act is a very important legislation. Our labor laws in the country are so broken that it requires absolute heroism just to rise up and confront 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. Amazon was a prime example of this, with their willingness to harass, intimidate and discriminate. [against]Bully [and]Unions are open to firefighters. 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 will ensure that employers are punished for breaking the law. We’re working to try to make sure that gets passed in reconciliation.
Continue reading: Alabama’s Preliminary Union Vote: Amazon Wins
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. Are you inclined to agree?
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 unacceptable. Over 30 years, wages have remained flat. Prices continue to climb. The cost of health care is increasing. There are very few retirement funds available to people. We can only fix this by making a decision as a nation that we will invest in those who make our country tick. Certainly the essential workers throughout this pandemic are Exhibit A for why that’s important. By working together, we can balance the economy and ensure dignity and respect for all workers. That’s all they want. They desire to be treated fair.