AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler on the future of America's labor movement
Liz Shuler is the first woman ever elected president of the AFL-CIO.
She took over a time when the world of work has been turned upside down.
Union organizing is happening in some unexpected places, and sometimes in ways that disrupt the traditional union playbook.
“If you have established unions, it’s great to have their support,” Brett Daniels, an Amazon union organizer, said. “But if they’re not the ones that are actually on the inside, maybe workers can’t relate to that as much, because who knows the warehouse conditions better than Amazon workers themselves?”
Today, On Point: A conversation with AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler.
Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO president. (@lizshuler)
Full Show Transcript
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. In 1955, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged to form the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in America. Separately, the two labor organizations date back further to the 19th century. From 1955 to 2005, AFL-CIO member unions represented nearly all organized workers in the United States.
Union membership peaked in 1979, when the AFL-CIO counted nearly 20 million members. Women have consistently played a critical role in the labor movement. Their influence grew as their presence in the labor market grew, as union member Wanda Garrett describes in the 1981 documentary A Time of Challenge.
WANDA GARRETT [Archival Tape]: There’s a definite place for women in the labor movement. Just for the simple fact women make up a very large part of the national labor force. More women coming out of the family circle and working, having to be far more aggressive and being aggressive means looking out for what is yours. And of course, the best way to do that is belonging to a union.
CHAKRABARTI: However, throughout its long history, the AFL-CIO never had a woman president. Until last year, when longtime President Richard Trumka suddenly died. Liz Shuler was the union’s secretary treasurer, the number two at the AFL-CIO. And she became the union’s president, the first ever woman to lead the AFL-CIO and the most powerful woman in the history of the American labor movement.
She leads the union at a remarkable point in American labor history. Overall, membership remains at a moribund low in comparison to Labor’s heyday, while at the same time unions are experiencing something of a renaissance in new sectors of the American workforce. So, she joins us today to talk about that. Liz Shuler, welcome to On Point.
LIZ SHULER: Thank you so much, Meghna. It’s an honor to be with you.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, first of all, I’d love to get to know sort of how long unions and the labor movement has been in your life, or in your family’s life.
SHULER: Absolutely. I grew up in a union household. My whole family worked for the electric utility company in Portland, Oregon. So I grew up very familiar with the power of what unions can do. My dad was a power lineman. My mom worked in service and design and I worked at the utility going through college as a clerical worker. So when I saw how the power linemen were treated, because they were in the union, and then the clerical workers were not in the union, it became really clear to me, up close and personal, what a difference that can make to have a voice on the job.
CHAKRABARTI: What can you tell me more about that? Because your father, Lance, right? So he was the unionized lineman for PG&E and your mother was not. I mean, what difference did you see in even how your father and mother were treated by the utility?
SHULER: Absolutely. The power lineman had obviously good wages and benefits. They had a union contract, but they also had a measure of dignity and respect that it’s almost hard to put into words. Because once you have that contract, you have a measure of security. You know that you can speak out and not be afraid. Whereas the clerical workers would often feel just grateful to have their job and afraid to step out or speak out when something might be going wrong in the workplace.
So I saw that very much upfront and personal. And then we tried to organize a union, and we knew that the electrical workers union would be a good fit because they were already representing the power linemen. And what a great opportunity it would be to have your working conditions in writing, to have a grievance procedure that you could turn to with the union if something happened. … Like sexual harassment or discrimination on the job, which we see so often.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, hang on here for just a second. So first of all, did you and your mom ever talk about sort of the differences that you observed?
SHULER: … Absolutely, yeah. And in fact, when … the women in the clerical unit at Portland General Electric decided to form a union. I was just having graduated from the University of Oregon hearing about this. And so that’s how I got involved in the labor movement, is joining that organizing campaign. Because I knew a lot of those women that worked there and my mom was still working there. So we actually were on the organizing campaign together. We knocked doors and, you know, visited workers in their homes to talk about their concerns.
And the company did what most companies did, which was to do the union-busting tactics that we see so often, like we see at Amazon. Where workers become very afraid to to join a union because they’re intimidated, they’re harassed, they’re threatened, they have captive audience meetings to talk about, Oh, you don’t need the union, it’s just you and me, the company and you. You don’t need a third party in between us. You know, they pull out all the tactics. So I saw that firsthand. And unfortunately, the campaign was not successful. But that’s where I turn to the union itself. And went on to work for the local union. And bringing a voice to working people has become my passion.
CHAKRABARTI: So to not put too fine a point on it, your first endeavor in unionizing failed. Correct?
SHULER: Yes. But failures aren’t failures. They’re learning experiences. Right?
CHAKRABARTI: That sounds like it was a real turning point in your life. Because it wasn’t clear whether or not sort of becoming a union activist, union leader was sort of what you had dreamt of growing up. Because you went to journalism school at the University of Oregon, right?
SHULER: That’s right. Yeah, I wanted to be Nina Totenberg on NPR.
CHAKRABARTI: Don’t we all?
SHULER: Yeah, exactly. But you’re right. Our lives take different twists and turns in unexpected ways. And once that campaign quote ‘failed,’ I had the opportunity to join the staff of the local union that was organizing. And I thought, Gosh, if I can, you know, bring justice to the workplace for other people. Maybe it didn’t happen in our workplace at Portland General Electric, but you know, this could be something that I could lend my passion and enthusiasm to as a young person.
And certainly that’s what happened. And shortly thereafter, Enron purchased the utility, and not many people know the name Enron anymore. But basically, this fast talking company from Texas took over the sleepy little utility company. And they went into bankruptcy. And unfortunately, many of my family friends, people that I had grown up with, my dad’s friends on the power line side had lost their pensions, including my own father.
And so that was also something that lit a fire under me, too. Seeing what happens when workers feel powerless, they feel like they have a lack of control. That really banding together is the way that you tilt the scales back in favor of working people. And when you’re up against corporate giants like Enron, you need all the help you can get.
CHAKRABARTI: So he lost his pension even though he was a union member and had the contract.
SHULER: That’s right, the pension was they were matching stock. And the culture of the company at the time was, we’re doing great! Enron! You know, we’re so successful. It was around the time that they were deregulating the electric utility industry. And so the company was matching stock instead of cash contributions. So all the employees were overweighted in Enron stock. And which of course, had been looked into after the bankruptcy. We learned a lot of lessons from that. But that was sadly for long-time employees, especially my father who was about ready to retire. You know, he saw his pension turn from dollars to dimes overnight.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, wow, the legacy of the Enron criminality and implosion is still with us to this very day. But following the failed unionization attempt at PG&E in the early 90s, you went on and actually had a successful legislative endeavor. If I remember correctly here. And speaking of Enron, it had to do with your political activity or coalition-building around trying to stop efforts to deregulate Oregon’s electricity market. Can you tell me about that?
SHULER: Sure. And in fact, electricity deregulation was a really hot issue coming out of California. Because California did deregulate. And we’re still kind of paying the price from those failed policies, back in the ’90s. But we knew that the Oregon and Washington state, in particular with the hydroelectric abundance of generating cheap power, was what Enron really had its eyes on. Because they could get access to hydroelectric cheap power and wheel it down to California and make a ton of money.
So we banded together. We knew we could see the handwriting on the wall that this would mean threats to not only jobs and livelihoods of the workers, but it was a real roller coaster for consumers. Because you’re used to having reliable, safe electricity. And especially in times of need that that would be very disruptive to the system, so we joined together with consumer activists, even farmers, social justice groups to band together in a big coalition and fight off, which we thought was almost impossible. This enormous company that had gained a lot of traction, and it was still to this day can’t believe we were able to stave that off.
CHAKRABARTI: I grew up in Oregon the exact same time that you were there, and I remember very well we used to joke with my friends that we keep sending our power down there and they keep sending Californians up to buy houses. But before we get too inside baseball about Pacific Northwest snark, let me ask you, though.
So this is early in your career that you made this move from your dreams of being, you know, a public radio superstar to being a union organizer, activist and leader. What was it like as a young woman then in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, where your career took you. Because it’s not exactly a place that popularly we would associate with tons of young people.
SHULER: Well, of course, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, I always say the sisterhood is implied. But it’s a longstanding union that represents millions of not only electric utility workers, but construction workers and manufacturing workers. And those are male-dominated industries. So I was one of the only women on the team, and it was absolutely a journey that I learned so much. But the labor movement itself, now, fast forward is the largest organization of working women in the country, and not a lot of people see us that way.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we have to take a quick break here. We’re talking this hour with Liz Shuler. She’s the president of the AFL-CIO, the organization’s first ever woman president. And by the way, full disclosure, WBUR’s newsroom is unionized with a SAG-AFTRA, which is a member organization of the AFL-CIO. We’ll have a lot more when we come back.
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti, and today we’re having a conversation with Liz Shuler. She’s the president of the AFL-CIO, the first ever woman president of the nation’s largest labor organization. And Liz Shuler, it was really great to hear that history from you about how you got involved in the labor movement. Because it makes me now wonder several decades later, after your first efforts in the early ‘90s, there is something about unions that hasn’t changed in the United States, and that’s the truth about its low membership.
I mean, I was looking at a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently, and it said in 2021, the number of workers belonging to unions continued to decline, minus 241,000 to 14 million in this country. And interestingly, in terms of those Americans who are unionized, the union membership in the public sector was 34%, more than five times higher than private sector workers at 6%. So those numbers tell me that even though there may be renewed energy in certain parts of the economy for unionization, the overall truth about the labor movement still doesn’t paint a pretty picture. And what do you think about that?
SHULER: Well, I think that, yes, there are a number of reasons why that number has been stubborn. We’ve faced a lot of barriers. Workers face barriers in organizing, and so it’s makes it difficult to grow unions when you know, we see a lot of the anti-union animus out there among companies. And certainly the law itself has been tilted over the course of time in favor of corporations. And we’ve seen what has happened recently, even, with workers who’ve been trying to form unions. That companies will come at us with everything they have. They hire union-busting consultants, they try to intimidate and harass people. And basically there are no consequences.
So that’s one reason I would say, but also over time, as the laws have improved, you know, safety and health and, you know, workplace discrimination and harassment, I think a lot of people view it like, Oh, we don’t need unions anymore because we have laws. And in some ways we’ve gotten complacent as a society that we just sit back and sort of take what’s given to us. Or, you know, show up in a workplace. And there’s really not much you can do about it. And unless you sue your employer right through the court system. But that’s an outdated view of what collective action means and how unions can be relevant to the modern workplace.
And in fact, workers coming together collectively is exactly what we’re seeing in so many different forms. Because people are fed up, they are fired up, especially coming out of this pandemic, knowing that they’ve put their health and safety on the line and often are being treated as expendable or disposable. And the economy is broken because we’re seeing more and more inequality with folks at the top doing better. And most other people struggling to get by. And they just haven’t connected the dots at scale, I would say, that the labor movement or unions are a solution to that.
CHAKRABARTI: Well there’s never going to be any one thing that we can point to as the causal factor in a long term trend, like we’ve been seeing with the labor movement in the United States for, you know, 50 or 60 years. The sort of increased power of corporations, the perhaps the lack of enforcement from the federal government. We’ll talk about that vis-a-vis Amazon in just a minute here. But also, I mean, we have to be honest, like there was a period of time where if you asked the average American, what are unions for, they would have said for corruption. But has the labor movement come far enough along now to sort of shake that off? Or do you think that in the minds of, you know, many American workers, that’s still an issue?
SHULER: There are a lot of old stereotypes out there. And I would say there is the main one that comes to mind for me is just that unions are for kind of the industrial type of work. That if you worked in a factory or a manufacturing facility that unions are for you. Which is true, but we represent workers in all types of jobs. And in fact, no matter where you work. I would argue that having a safe workplace that’s free from just discrimination and harassment, that actually you have a mechanism to have a say in how your work is scheduled, which I know is a big issue for most people.
To be able to have a decent job that you don’t have to work one, two or three jobs to get by, that you’re actually making a decent wage with health care. Can you imagine? … It’s a human right, everyone should have health care coverage. And so that’s what you have the ability to do. When you come together collectively and form a union is to negotiate these things across the table from your employer. And in fact, unions have been doing this, you know, for over 100 years. So I would say that that model is very much alive and well. We just need to bust those myths and get over the stereotypes that unions are sort of the past and not relevant to today’s economy.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s interesting because I always actually appreciate the complex and subtle views that our listeners have on the issues that we bring to the table here. Because just as we’re talking about, like, what do people think about unions? Liz, we got this comment here from listener Sam Babbitt, who says: I was a union carpenter for a few years. And if those guys, and he’s talking about the union guys, and he says, I mean, all guys, white guys worked half as hard as the nonunion carpenters did, I could see the point. But what I witnessed, Sam says, was basically a protection racket for racist white guys with no real skills. It doesn’t take a $40 an hour carpenter to put up steel studs and drywall six hours a day. That being said, Sam says, I’m all for bargaining power for workers, but doing a little bit work on the side might look good. Well, how do you respond to that?
SHULER: Sounds like Sam’s local union needed some shaking up, and that’s exactly what members coming together in a democracy do. And I would say the opposite, from my experience with the electrical workers, we had what we called the Code of Excellence. Where the union itself led with a model of high performance, highly skilled, highly trained, most productive electricians you can find on the planet. And it was up to the union to bring that to the table, not the employer.
So we actually, you know, think that the union provides the advantage to employers, a competitive advantage. Because you know, you’re bringing higher skills, higher capacity to bring a competitive edge. But the idea here is that we want to raise wages for everyone. We think that everyone deserves a good job that can provide for their families, put food on the table and have some measure of respect and voice. And we don’t think that that’s too much to ask.
CHAKRABARTI: So here’s one more from listener Ray Russell. Ray says: In the area of Ohio, where I was raised, unions destroyed the entire manufacturing and mining base. When they first appeared, the workers did benefit. The demands by the unions eventually grew to a point where the businesses either folded or moved. The problem, Ray says, is that union leadership must continually demand benefit and wage increases.
SHULER: Well, I think we can be good partners, too. And so if the companies are profitable, then doesn’t it make sense that the workers should get their fair share of those profits? So as unions help, you know, represent the workers who are actually bringing the value to companies. I think that that’s essentially what a contract does. Is say, you know, when companies are doing well, we should all be doing well.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So isn’t this interesting because this is one place where I see what you’re saying about protecting and helping grow workers so that the businesses that they work in also grow. But one thing that unions haven’t been able to do, or I don’t see them making that much headway at the moment. Maybe it’s not possible. Is that, you know, companies like the ones Ray’s referring to, maybe they eventually up and leave because they face a moment where they have to make a decision.
Do we transfer some of the wealth away from shareholders and to workers, but vis-a-vis the contracts that we’re bargaining? Or do we not? And I think a lot of companies are saying, Well, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to retain the portion, the majority portion of the profit for shareholder benefit. OK, so there have been suggestions every now and then about maybe changing the law so that companies would have to have union members or some kind of union representation on their boards. But, you know, did you think that that fundamental tension between shareholder interest and worker interest is going to change in the near future?
SHULER: Well, there has been a lot of talk about that. And in fact, the Business Roundtable I remember a few years ago issued a statement and said that shareholder return is not going to be their sole focus. That, you know, the S in ESG, for example, is going to be more of a priority for the businesses that belong to the roundtable. We have yet to see any real enforcement or proof that that commitment has been made real. Because you’re right, there is more and more of a focus on the shareholder returns, more and more about profits and making the folks that run the company and the shareholders wealthier and wealthier.
While the people who are doing the work and actually making the company successful are left with the crumbs. And we think that that’s fundamentally unfair. We think that we can do both, that workers can make a decent living and the economy can continue to do well. And I think this notion of having a worker on the board of directors is a good idea.
And we’re seeing that. Of course, in Europe, they have models, you know, sort of tripartite approaches where you have business, labor, government kind of sharing the responsibility of how to make a society more equal and sustainable. We don’t have that model here in the U.S. So we’re sort of set up to be more of a confrontational or adversarial model. Because unless someone forces a company to share those profits more equally among the people who are making them, those workers, you know, they’re not going to. They’re going to continue to put more money at the top, which is why we have such a problem with inequality in this country. Where we have so many people living on the edge of poverty in the richest country in the world.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, you know, every once in a while, something does happen. And we’re in the midst of some some things happening in different parts of the U.S. economy that previously were definitely not hotbeds for labor activity. You know, Starbucks and Amazon, let’s just focus on them for a second. Now, since that first Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York, voted to unionize, the Starbucks Worker Workers United union has mushroomed nine Starbucks stores. Now …173 stores across the country now filed to hold votes of their own. So Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz here in a leaked tape of an all staff meeting on Monday, said this.
HOWARD SCHULTZ: [Tape]: Now here’s where it gets a little sensitive. Because I’ve been coached a little bit, but I do want to talk about something pretty serious. We can’t ignore what is happening in the country as it relates to companies throughout the country being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionization.
CHAKRABARTI: Liz Shuler, that tape was leaked to Vice News and in a partial transcript Vice put out, Howard Schultz also says that he’s not anti-union, but pro Starbucks. So two quick things. First of all, your response to Schultz calling unionization a threat to the company.
SHULER: Yeah, it’s unfortunate that he sees it as a threat because as I’ve said before, we can bring tremendous value, and I think they call their workers partners, right? Because we really do believe that workers bring a perspective and a voice to make companies more successful and more profitable when they’re being listened to. And in fact, that leak came from what we call a captive audience meeting, which is what often companies will do when they try to thwart a union effort.
They bring employees in, they give them a talk, they show a slide show, and their union busting consultants tell them why they shouldn’t join a union. That’s a form of intimidation and harassment. Because really, all we’re asking for is for workers to be able to have their their fundamental rights that are guaranteed in the law under the National Labor Relations Act in this country, to be able to form a union if there’s a majority of workers who want to do so, and it’s unfortunate that companies do see this as a threat because we have so many examples where partnership actually can be successful.
CHAKRABARTI: While at the same time, though, on April 4th, Starbucks also announced that it’s going to pause. Speaking of shareholder value, it’s pausing billions of dollars in stock buybacks in order to invest more in employees and stores. Howard Schultz also announced that. Your thoughts?
SHULER: Oh yes, companies do this a lot. Whenever there’s the talk of a union, inevitably the companies try to find a way to up the ante. Right? No better way to quell an organizing effort. Or, you know, make workers think that they’re going to act in their best interests than to give a wage increase or make some kind of promise that they never would have thought of before until the union and workers came together to talk about what their workplace could be or how it could be better.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, but wage increases are exactly some of the things that Starbucks workers want. I mean, so what’s wrong with that?
SHULER: Yeah, threat of a union actually gets companies sometimes to voluntarily start thinking about increasing wages when they never would have talked about that before.
CHAKRABARTI: So I hear you being dubious about Starbucks overall intentions. But on the other hand, you know, pausing billions of dollars of buybacks and an overall plan that was supposed to be $20 billion strong for shareholders. I mean, I’m going to guess you’re going to say that means that the union organizing effort in Starbucks should continue on full force. But is there a middle ground? Is Starbucks actually showing the kind of changes that workers would want that perhaps obviate the need for a union?
SHULER: Well, certainly putting value back into workers is a much better idea than continuing to up the ante with shareholder returns, right? So that putting a pause, absolutely. You know, that’s a good sign. But unless you have the law on your side as we’re seeing workers come together at Starbucks. That’s what they want. They want a seat at the table. They want to have a voice separate and apart from, you know, the employer just, you know, giving them a wink and a nod. And so to be able to sit across the table from the company and have standing and be able to speak out without fear of retaliation and reprisal, that’s exactly what they’re looking for.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, this hour we are talking with Liz Shuler. She is president of the AFL-CIO, and we’ll talk about Amazon when we come back. This is On Point.
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti, and today we’re having a conversation with Liz Shuler. She’s the president of the nation’s largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO, the first woman president in the history of the AFL-CIO. And before we go any further towards the end of our conversation today, once again, just want to offer a full disclosure. The newsroom I work in here at WBUR is a unionized newsroom with SAG-AFTRA, which is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. However, in conducting this conversation today, I am not speaking in any capacity on behalf of that union and approaching this as an independent journalist. So that being said, let’s hear what the president of the United States recently has to say about the union movement.
JOE BIDEN [Tape]: That’s what unions are about … about providing dignity and respect for people who bust their neck. That’s why I created the White House Task Force on Worker Organization Empowerment to make sure that choice to join a union belongs to workers alone.
CHAKRABARTI: President Biden at North America’s Building Trades Unions Legislative Conference yesterday in Washington. Now on Friday, the National Labor Relations Board announced that workers at an Amazon warehouse on New York City’s Staten Island had voted to unionize, the first Amazon workplace to do so in the company’s history. It’s the latest in a series of high profile unionizations across the country. We talked about Starbucks a little bit earlier. We should also mention staff at REI. The outdoor recreation and clothing store and a legally member-owned cooperative voted to unionize a store in New York City.
But about that Amazon vote, what’s interesting about it is that it was done by a union that is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO or any major umbrella union at all. Now, that’s not to say that the Amazon workers were not connected to organized labor. It’s just that they used a very different model to the one typically used by AFL-CIO unions. Instead of professional organizers operating in the open, the Amazon Labor Union was organized by a mix of grassroots workers like its founder Christian Smalls, and undercover activists like Brett Daniels. He’s a longtime left wing activist and what’s known as a salt.
BRETT DANIELS [Tape]: So a salt would be someone who organizes a workplace and joins a workplace with specific intentions of unionizing. I joined Amazon in May 2020, but my organizing background comes from community organizing in Tucson, Arizona, where I was a part of the People’s Defense Initiative, a multi-year campaign focused on human rights, migrants rights, housing justice and more.
CHAKRABARTI: Brett says it’s far more effective to organize from the inside, at least compared to how it’s traditionally done by huge unions like the AFL-CIO.
BRETT DANIELS [Tape]: If you have established unions, it’s great to have their support. But if they’re not the ones that are actually on the inside, knowing what it’s like, then maybe workers can’t relate to that as much. Or that what we’re fighting for in our contract wouldn’t be as inclusive or productive as workers who actually know what those conditions are like.
CHAKRABARTI: But frankly, Brett also says the tactics that he use could only get him and his colleagues so far. Workers had several concerns about unionizing. The main one: fear.
BRETT DANIELS [Tape]: The main thing that it all came down to was job security, the same thing that we’ve been fighting for and that we’re going to continue fighting for, and that a union gives you is the same reason that they as soon as they heard the word union, they were scared for their lives, for their families’ lives and for their job security.
CHAKRABARTI: Brett and the Amazon workers on Staten Island, as you heard earlier, did take a different path towards forming their union. But he does give credit to the AFL-CIO affiliated unionizing efforts at places such as Bessemer, Alabama, which you might recall last year, a unionizing vote at Bessemer failed. But the movement there did inspire Brett’s colleagues in New York.
BRETT DANIELS [Tape]: But then fast forwarding to seeing the potential with Bessemer, that’s when they started gaining hope. That’s when they were like, Wow. Other workers want this all over. So maybe that could be a sign that we could have it as well. So that gave them some hope.
CHAKRABARTI: So to be clear, though, while workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted not to unionize their Amazon location last year, several months later, the National Labor Relations Board found that Amazon’s anti-union conduct had made a free election quote impossible. So last week, Bessemer workers voted again, and that outcome isn’t yet known. Nevertheless, Brett thinks the labor movement needs to learn something from the organizing victory on Staten Island.
BRETT DANIELS [Tape]: If its community powered and worker-led, you have tremendous power more than we can even imagine. Organize workers and motivate them to motivate others, and believe in themselves and believe that you can take on some of the biggest corporations in the world and win. That anything is possible.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s Brett Daniels, an Amazon union organizer. OK, Liz Shuler. So do you think that it’s time for, you know, the heft and the muscle and the experience of the AFL-CIO to operate in a different way, if it’s going to successfully unionize places like Amazon shops?
SHULER: Well, first of all, I just have to congratulate Brett and his coworkers because they were courageous. They stood up at the JFK8 warehouse. It was an incredible victory. We’re all so excited. Because as he said, they took on one of the richest companies in the world and they won. And that fear was real, and I had alluded to it earlier.
That’s essentially what we’re facing in every workplace that tries to form a union across the country. And in fact, in New York City, they are in an environment where there’s a lot of unions. So I think that that helps people feel like, OK, there’s something in the air here. We’ve got the standing and the support of a community that has a rich history of trade unionism in New York City. But Alabama is a completely different story, and I just also have to acknowledge the Amazon workers in Bessemer because they’ve shown tremendous courage as well in a state that has hardly any union footprint.
So the environment is very different there. But I guess I just want to say that, you know, workers movement is a workers movement, and we use the word solidarity in the labor movement for a reason, because we all stand together. And so, you know, whether it’s the Amazon labor union, whether it is the worker center that we’ve seen in Minneapolis. … You know, whether it’s Bessemer, Alabama, through the Retail Workers Wholesale Department Store Union … we’re all in this together.
And, you know, no matter what type of work you do, whether you’re in a warehouse or you’re in a university system or you develop video games. I mean, I think the story here is the consistency around workers needing a voice. Workers needing fairness and equity on the job. And the best way we do that is to come together collectively in a union where you have power, and standing and the ability to fight back against corporate greed.
CHAKRABARTI: … We actually want to just play really quickly, something from Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. Because believe it or not, as we were preparing for this program, Jack regaled us with some stories about his time in a union. For those of you who listen to Jack very carefully, you might be surprised to hear that he was once a Teamster, and he had some reflections to share about both his experience in a union and what his father taught him.
JACK BEATTY [Tape]: My father was a schoolhouse custodian in Boston, and he helped to organize the union for custodians. It’s still there today. People have a good living thanks to his work and the work of his friends. And I remember asking him, and the first thing they did was they changed the title of their job. It had been janitor. They changed it to custodian.
And I remember asking, Well, why did you do that? And he said, dignity. Dignity. I didn’t know what that meant, really. And then in my own life, I ran into that, I was in the Teamsters union, I work for a Boston trucking firm and early on in my tenure there, I made a horrendous mistake.
I delivered a load of whatever it was, tons of freight to the wrong address. And over the radio, the boss shouted at me, called me everything in the book, You blankety blank. I felt I needed a job, I just felt, Oh my God, this is the end, I’m just going to get fired. And I drag my tail into the barn at the end of the day and waiting for me on the dock was the shop steward, and he gestured, he said, Come with me.
And we went into the boss’s office and he stood up and I remember this, he buttoned his jacket. He straightened his tie. He stuck out his hand and he said, I want to apologize. I had no right to speak to you that way. Stunned, I shook his hand, walked out of the office and looked to the shop steward. What was that all about? And he said, You are a member of the Teamsters union. You can’t be treated that way. You have dignity. And if the boss hadn’t apologized, those doors of this trucking terminal would have come down.
And we would have gone on strike with the whole force of the Teamsters union behind us because you were treated with indignity. And then he paused and he said, And by the way, you are a blankety blankety blank blank blank. I got a laugh out of that. But dignity, respect, the power of solidarity. That’s the immaterial. And in many ways, I think the more valuable part of the labor movement.
CHAKRABARTI: Liz Shuler, I’ll let you answer the question that I was asking a bit earlier, but I do want to hear what you have to say about Jack. Because he literally used the same word that you used at the top of the show, about unions providing dignity to workers in a way they otherwise don’t often get in the workplace.
SHULER: Well, I caught the tail end of what he was saying, and it just sounded so rich, right? And you know, the fact that we show up to work every day and we’re kind of taking for granted the work that everyone does to make our day possible. You know, you walk into a coffee shop, there’s a barista, you rely on that person every day. We’re walking along a sidewalk, or driving on a road that was paved by someone that, you know, their work makes our work possible.
And so we’ve got to respect that. And we’ve got to see and acknowledge the work that’s being done. And thankfully, during the pandemic, I think work has been, you know, noticed and seen in different ways. And so hopefully when we come out of it, we’ll continue to acknowledge and respect that.
CHAKRABARTI: So we’ve got about two minutes left, and I want to wrap up with your vision for what the AFL-CIO should be. I mean, how does this massive organization need to be different in 2022 than it was in 1955, 1975? Go ahead.
SHULER: Well, we have an opportunity with this momentum in front of us where workers are rising up like, you know, never before. They’re making their voices heard. They’re fed up with how they’ve been treated through this pandemic. And especially as the economy is so broken and they’re doing something about it. They’re striking, they’re walking off the job, they’re picketing, they’re forming unions.
And so we have a moment in front of us to really make a change, both in the economy for working people, but also in the labor movement. And we’re ready for the innovations, and the experiments and to try new things and not be afraid to fail. As we talked about at the top of the hour.
Because workers deserve it, they deserve to be treated fairly with respect, but also to be able to have a good job to support their families. And the best way to do that is by joining together in a union, coming together collectively to bargain your fair share, and we can make this economy work for everyone.
CHAKRABARTI: If I have this right, you’re actually technically the interim president. Is that right?
SHULER: No. I was elected in August, and I’m standing for reelection in June.
CHAKRABARTI: Standing for reelection in June. So it’s a short tenure. But you are going to say you are going to stand for reelection.
SHULER: Correct. Yes. And two months to go.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, and then so just we have about 30 seconds left. My final question to you is for people out there who don’t see such a bright side to unions because again, the numbers don’t lie in terms of the number of Americans who are in unions. What would you say to them that might convince them to look at it differently?
SHULER: Well, unions can be anything you want them to be. That’s the beauty of it. We’re a democracy and you get to define it. And so whether you want to bargain your company’s carbon footprint or, you know, make sure that you have safe workplaces or workplaces free from harassment, you get to define that when you build your union and negotiate your contract.
And that’s what we’re about. Is making the future of unions reflect the emerging jobs of the future and the way the future of work is going to be done.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO. Thank you so much for joining us today.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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