AFL-CIO President Elizabeth Shuler

By Patty Friend and Jason Sibert

The labor movement recently lost one of our heroes – American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO) President Richard Trumka. Trumka meant a lot to us because he was a great man and a great trade unionist who advocated for many progressive ideas. As we mourn his passing, we are however buoyed by the election of Liz Shuler, the first woman president of the Federation.

She’s dedicated to organizing the unorganized, which is radical for someone coming out of the building trades. Trumka supported organizing the unorganized, but his presidency coincided with a conservative congress and four years of President Donald Trump and a conservative National Labor Relations board that rarely met or supported workers. Since President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1965, women in America have made tremendous strides, and Shuler is the latest success story.

Her father was an electrical lineman for Portland General Electric and her mother was a secretary for the same company. While in college, Shuler worked summers for GE and received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon in 1992 and was active in the state Democratic Party. Her first job was as a union organizer, one of a small group of women organizers at the time, for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 125. She worked on a campaign to organize clerical workers – mostly women – at PG & E. She became a lobbyist for the IBEW in 1997, representing the union before the Oregon Legislature. One of her chief accomplishments for the union was the defeat of a bill (promoted by Enron) to deregulate Oregon’s electricity market, a terrible anti-union bill. 

Shuler also served on the State of Oregon Management-Labor Advisory Committee on Workers’ Compensation and was appointed an IBEW delegate to the Northwest Oregon Central Labor Council. In 1998, she led the AFL-CIO’s successful effort to defeat California Proposition 226, which would have denied dues check-off to public employees belonging to unions and required all union members in the state to annually give their assent before any portion of their dues could be used for political purposes, another terrible anti-union bill – this kind of legislation has been promoted by Republicans and the right-wing all over the United States. She defeated a bill that was designed to destroy the labor movement and its political power.

After the California effort, Shuler was appointed an IBEW international representative and moved to Washington D.C., where she worked in the IBEW’s Political/Legislative Affairs Department. She was appointed executive assistant to IBEW President Edwin Hill in June 2004, making her the highest-ranking woman in the union’s history, an extremely powerful position. Shuler supervised and coordinated 11 of the IBEW’s departments, including its education, research, political/legislative affairs, public relations, and workplace safety divisions.

Shuler said she intends to spend much of her term reaching out to workers under the age of 35 and using new media to reach out to workers, their families, and union supporters. Organizing the unorganized entails providing new opportunities for the labor movement to engage with workers in the new economy (eg: the gig economy). She also said she would work with the AFL-CIO’s affiliates to balance the federation’s budget, which was running a deficit and whose liabilities exceeded its assets by $2.3 million in 2008.

The story of women in the union movement is a long one, particularly in apparel manufacturing, social services, and hotel and restaurant workers. The International Lady Garment Workers Union, led at one time by social democrat David Dubinsky, was founded in 1900 and had a primarily female membership. The ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, at one time led by social democrat Sidney Hillman, in the 1990 to form UNITE, and UNITE merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Workers Union to form UNITE HERE in 2004. The ACTWU was formed in a revolt against the American Federation of Labor’s United Garment Workers.

More recently, the Service Employees International Union was run by women. The Coalition of Labor Union Women was founded in 1974 and supported by George Meaney, Lane Kirkland, Tom Donahue, and a majority of the AFL-CIO’s executive board who also supported the organizing of women into the unions and endorsed women in leadership positions throughout the movement.  The CLUW supported and worked for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment as well as other progressive legislation. It’s a big deal for a woman like Shuler to emerge from the more conservative building trades. There’s been a lot of progress over the years when it comes to women in these unions.  This is a great day for women trade unionists and a great day for the American labor movement. We predict it will prove to be a great day for the Democratic Party and Americans all over. Congrats to President Shuler – and to us.  

Patty Friend is the National Chair of Social Democrats USA.

Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project.

Editor’s Note: A Happy Labor Day to all AND a Happy Rosh Hashonah – Jewish New Year 5782 – to our Jewish members, subscribers and friends. A rare occasion for both holidays to occur on the same day!


1 thought on “LIZ LEADS LABOR!

  1. Wow…that phrase “organizing the unorganized” jumps out at me. I’ve never worked in a union job, and have, for the past 11 years, been comfortably ensconced in a part-time permanent position doing work I love, while knowing that my company no longer hires in the US, so who knows when they’ll phase out the US offices entirely? I’ve persuaded myself that loving the work, being able to set my own hours, and not having to leave the house are adequate compensation for the precariousness of no unemployment insurance or job security. I think I’m part of the problem. How to stop being part of the problem without having to get dressed and go out the door? Yikes, I’m like the rat family that built a nest under my stove, knowing the old lady’s about to pull the stove out and wreck everything but it’s warm and cozy NOW…

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