Michael Bonfigli/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler speaks at a Monitor breakfast on August 31, 2021 at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, D.C. She is the first woman to head the organization in its 65 years, and says women may soon make up half of the nation's unionized workers.

AFL-CIO chief: In pandemic, unions are a source of ‘trusted information’

Liz Shuler, new president of America's largest labor federation, says the U.S. economic system is "broken" and that workers need a stronger voice.

Liz Shuler hasn’t missed a beat. Following the sudden death of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka earlier this month, Ms. Shuler stepped right into his shoes as the nation’s top labor leader, after 12 years as his deputy.

Now, on the eve of Labor Day, President Shuler is carrying on with the 12.5-million-member federation’s goals: passing pro-union legislation, turning around organized labor’s long-declining membership, and improving working conditions – including the safe return to work amid a pandemic. 

Ms. Shuler’s elevation to AFL-CIO president, formalized Aug. 20 by the federation’s Executive Council, made history. She’s the first woman to helm the organization in its 65 years – and a generation younger than Mr. Trumka.

But in a breakfast gathering with reporters Tuesday hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, Ms. Shuler sounded much like her late boss: Workers want and deserve to be heard, she said. Respect and dignity are essential. And the energy to build the labor movement will come from the grassroots, as leaders focus on passing the newly renamed Richard L. Trumka PRO Act, legislation aimed at making it easier for workers to form unions. 

Following are excerpts from the breakfast, lightly edited for clarity: 

What role can unions play in a safe return to the workplace?

Our baseline is that we want a worker voice and perspective when we are creating these back-to-work policies. And I think that's the central thing that we can bring to the table as the labor movement, that we can be the source for reliable, good information, even though there's a lot on social media, a lot of misinformation. The labor movement can be the place where union members and workers can actually get trusted information.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act has passed the House, but doesn’t have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. What next? 

We know the economic system is broken in this country. Working people no longer can just work one job and get by…. Sixty five percent support [labor unions]. So we want to build that support both in Washington and outside of Washington. 

We are fighting for the PRO Act in the Congress and we're going to continue to push to get those 50 plus one votes [in the Senate] and push to reform the filibuster. 

The grassroots is really where the action is, where the pressure builds… And if we don't clear a pathway to free up the agenda that Americans voted for by getting rid of these arcane rules in the Senate, then I think we'll see the results in the next election.

You are the first woman president of the AFL-CIO. How meaningful is that to you personally and to the labor movement?

To me personally, it is meaningful because I came up through the labor movement. I started at 23 years old in my local, as an organizer of clerical workers, who are predominantly women. So I know what it means to see a woman in leadership, how inspiring that can be. 

Women are half the workforce. We will be half the labor movement officially in a couple of years. And so I think it's incredibly important to signal that the labor movement is a movement for women. … We are the largest organization of working women in the country, and not many people see us that way. We need to do more to show women that the labor movement is for them.

You worked side by side with Mr. Trumka for 12 years. What did you glean from that experience? 

Rich was a mentor, he was a partner. I learned a lot, absolutely… The job of federating, as they say, is a very difficult job because you have 56 unions around a table who all have different perspectives and opinions and cultures. And the job really is to find unity and figure out how we align and keep moving forward together. 

As I say, sometimes herding butterflies is not easy.

How do you do that? 

It's a lot of listening. It's a lot of finding common ground, mediating, and having a vision that 56 different unions can rally around and feel inspired by. There are certain things that only the federation can do. You have individual unions out there, advocating for the issues that matter most to their unions. But in terms of the common bread and butter of the labor movement, there's nothing like having that center of gravity to bring more power to, whether it's a policy proposal, a mobilization. 

Politics is one good example of how we bring everyone under one plan. We can mobilize and educate and move people in workplaces all across this country. It's very difficult to do that individually.  

President Joe Biden is a champion of unions yet he won only  57% of the union vote in 2020, versus 40% for President Donald Trump. What do you do about older blue-collar workers in the Midwest who no longer identify with Democrats?

Our job as the labor movement is to educate our members and bring people together, and it can be challenging when you have multiple generations in a workforce.

That’s what's unique to the labor movement: We can actually be a place where workers have those conversations and have those debates, and they can be fierce at times.

We stay laser focused on issues of the economy, the workplace. And really, I think what's increasingly clear is young people are out on the front lines of a lot of the social justice fights that we're seeing in the streets…. And it's part of our baseline values that we think everyone should have a good and decent job, be treated with respect, and be free from harassment and discrimination on the job.

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