Largest US union federation’s first female president takes charge at critical moment

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Olivier Douliery/Pool/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Olivier Douliery/Pool/Reuters

For 12 years, Liz Shuler was No 2 to Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, main union federation in the US, but after Trumka’s unexpected death in August, Shuler became the its first-ever female president at a time that organized labor in the US faces deep problems – and extraordinary opportunities.

Many union members are hoping that Shuler, a well-liked, hard-working 51-year-old, will figure out how to capitalize on those opportunities. Public approval for organized labor in the US has climbed to its highest level in more than 50 years, as many young workers are flocking into unions and millions of overstressed, underpaid frontline workers are impatient to improve their lot.

“The biggest challenge that labor faces is whether we’re ready for the opportunities in front of us,” said April Sims, secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, a federation of that state’s unions. “Union favorability is at a long-time high. We’ve learned from Covid how much our society and economy depend on workers. We probably have the most pro-labor president since FDR. The challenge for us as a labor movement is, are we able to take advantage of this moment?”

At the same time, Shuler – and all of US labor – face some daunting obstacles.

A mere 6% of private-sector workers are in unions, the lowest level in a century. The Republican party is intent on weakening unions, and most US corporations – led by behemoths Amazon and Walmart – are fiercely opposed to unionization.

Among many union leaders, there is an eagerness, sometimes bordering on desperation, to reverse labor’s decades-long decline. “My cry for 30 years is our biggest challenge is that collective bargaining has been systematically rubbed out – private-sector collective bargaining now covers just 6% of workers, having dropped from 30,” said Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America and now chair of Our Revolution, a progressive group spun out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. “I think Liz Shuler and the AFL-CIO have to be almost singularly focused on that.”

There are many encouraging stories of workers pushing to unionize, Cohen said, pointing, for example, to Starbucks employees in Buffalo. Shuler will undoubtedly back these efforts, Cohen said, but he said she needs to press the nation’s unions to do more to support and expand organizing.

Bill Fletcher Jr, a former AFL-CIO education director and now executive editor of Global African Worker, said labor leaders need to see that unions are often using timeworn strategies to fight the last war. The field of battle has changed vastly for labor, Fletcher said. There are far more gig workers, tech workers and immigrant workers; corporations have grown more sophisticated in battling unions; and young workers are showing more interest in unionizing than in decades.

This is a completely different labor movement and what does that mean for the AFL-CIO?

Bill Fletcher

“That’s what Liz Shuler and other labor leaders have to think about,” Fletcher said. “This is a completely different labor movement and what does that mean for the AFL-CIO?”

To help labor win on today’s new battlefield, Fletcher said the AFL-CIO and its member unions should marshal large amounts of resources to ensure some breakthrough victories – perhaps some big organizing wins in the south. That would create momentum and optimism and inspire more workers to turn to unions. Fletcher also called on Shuler to push for labor to do far more large-scale organizing, to unionize thousands of workers at a time.

After Trumka died on 5 August, a few union leaders floated the idea of electing a caretaker AFL-CIO president until the federation holds its convention next June. Some who backed the caretaker idea voiced concern that Shuler was not inspiring or visionary enough at a time labor could use lots more visibility and inspiration. Some leaders also voiced concern that Schuler, unlike Trumka – who once headed the United Mine Workers – had never led a union or a strike. Before becoming the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer, Shuler was an assistant to the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

But many union presidents brushed those concerns aside when they overwhelmingly elected Schuler on 20 August to fill Trumka’s term through June. Many labor leaders like Shuler, respect her hard work, and believe that she can bring people together. Moreover, many felt there shouldn’t be a divisive leadership fight right after Trumka died.

“Liz was a very effective second to Trumka,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. As secretary-treasurer, Shuler oversaw the federation’s finances and its outreach program to young workers.

“People trust her because they know she will listen before she acts,” Weingarten said. “There’s a great amount of trust because of her collaborative nature. She doesn’t see collaboration as kumbaya. She sees collaboration as a way to move a very disparate federation.”

***

The AFL-CIO is a federation of 57 unions and nearly 10 million union members. It includes industrial unions like the steelworkers, public employee unions like the teachers, and unions representing the construction trades – generally the federation’s most conservative unions. Some union leaders fear that Shuler is tied too closely with the conservative building trades.

But Jimmy Williams, president of the International Union of Painters, said, “It’s ridiculous to say she’s controlled by the building trades unions. Far too often things get made of where an individual comes from. Liz has spent the last 12 years at the AFL-CIO, representing union members as a whole.”

Trumka had signaled that he wouldn’t run for another four-year term, and it was widely thought that two candidates would vie to succeed him: Shuler and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Nelson has enthusiastic support among many rank-and-file workers because of her progressive politics, up-against-the-boss rhetoric and her gifts as a speaker.

Nelson declined to be interviewed, but one labor leader who knows her said she might run next June, in part to press her case that the AFL-CIO needs to do far more organizing and mobilizing of workers.

We need more innovation and creativity. We can’t continue to do things the way we’ve always done them.

April Sims

There’s a longstanding debate about whether the AFL-CIO should mainly service its member unions and do lobbying for them or whether it should be a forceful leader, pressing unions to do more on organizing, politics, immigrant rights and civil rights. Some union presidents want Schuler to just serve member unions, but others say that to reverse labor’s slide, she needs to turn the AFL-CIO into a more muscular institution that plays a bigger role in organizing and politics.

“People grow into roles, and I think she’ll grow into this role,” Weingarten said.

One challenge Shuler faces is everyone has advice for her.

Cohen says she needs to build a bigger tent, to reach out more to non-union workers and to bring into the AFL-CIO three large unions not in the federation: the Teamsters, the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union.

Washington state’s Sims said, “We need more innovation and creativity. We can’t continue to do things the way we’ve always done them. We have to challenge ourselves to think more outside the box.”

Williams of the painters’ union said more union organizing and more political organizing were needed. “The two go hand in hand,” he said – labor-friendly lawmakers are needed to defend against GOP attacks and to enact laws making it easier to unionize. ‘The biggest challenge is how to organize our members post-Trump, to reorganize them around the truth and values.”

Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, said labor needed to do more to defend America’s democracy. “In terms of our main challenge, it’s that things are falling apart, our democracy is falling apart,” he said. “The challenge is, how do we be a force and really become a much stronger movement in the face of these relentless attacks on the very things we have taken for granted, things that we care about.”