Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, and Dean Alex Colvin discuss the atmosphere of today’s unions. The duo examines the surge of strikes nationwide, the increase of worker activism and the growth of diverse union leadership.
Fill out this short questionnaire to provide feedback, or to suggest a guest or topic for a future episode.
Learn more about ILR by visiting us on the web at ILR.Cornell.edu!
Work is all around us. It defines us. The future of work, impacts nearly every person on the planet, and the ILR School at Cornell University is influencing policy and practice around the world. In this episode of "Work! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment, Dean Alex Colvin begins a two-part conversation with Liz Shuler the secretary treasurer of the AFL CIO.Alex Colvin :
So to start things off. One of the things that I think caught us by surprise was the degree of upsurge of worker mobilization in the streets and seeing the number of strikes that have happened. We had the biggest strike year since the 1980s. The Red for Ed strikes were obviously a huge part of it with teachers all around the country striking, the longest General Motors strike in decades, the Chicago teachers strike, the grocery workers strike in New England. This is something that you know I'm a labor scholar and it caught me by surprise. You know I was sort of something that, you know, I'd be wondering if would happen but I didn't really expect it. Do you have any thoughts as to you know what's why now why is this finally happening now because I think a lot of us thought for a long time, maybe, you know, there'd be the pushback but why is it coming out?Liz Shuler :
I think people are finally connecting the dots so to speak right that they see that we've had a generation of bad economic policies that aren't working for working people. Certainly trade policy, Right to Work policy, that people are finally seeing that coming together in Union actually can create power. And so once workers start taking risks, it's contagious. And if you rewind back to 2018 when those first teacher strikes were happening organically in places like West Virginia, some of the most conservative places in the country, those came up basically through movements that were local and on the ground and workers saying enough is enough we have had it. And they were willing to stand up, facing tremendous odds to have their voice be heard and to make change. And so I think that once you see that is possible, that that ends up, inspiring other people to do the same thing and so we saw in 2018 it was a record year I mean you refer to it it's there were more strikes in that year than at any time in the previous 30 years. And then, in 2019, we actually had one week in October where 85,000 workers were on strike at one time. So it was tremendously exciting and it's mainly because of, as I said, the economy, not working for working people. Health care costs are skyrocketing right, despite the low unemployment wages are not keeping up, and whether it's workplace issues like like wages and benefits or issues like affordable housing where you have in the shadows of some of the wealthiest areas in the country, take Silicon Valley, for example, people commuting hours at a time to get to their jobs. And so the labor movement is then part of a coalition of of folks who have, you know, stood their ground and said wait a second affordable housing is a workplace issue. And so we're going to work in coalition with community groups, allies and partners to to take a stand against you know the rising cost of housing, in some of the wealthiest places in our country, So I think that's what's been contagious. And then also, young people, right a lot of these a lot of millennials, for example, who are just entering the workforce and are seeing that it takes you know one, two and three jobs like we've been seeing, you know the pattern emerge that you know their, their generation is used to working in collaboration and used to coming together and are very civic minded and and know that, you know, we, when we are coming together in numbers that we have strengths. And so to me that's what's also exciting is the young people that want to come together and in union and show force and see the union movement as a pathway for that.Alex Colvin :
Yeah, it'd be one of the things that I wonder if if we missed a little bit was when the Occupy movement happened, which is almost a decade ago now, you know, it was really active in a powerful movement, but then for a while, it seemed like it, it had faded right in terms of the impact was there going to be any kind of follow through from it. But maybe what we're seeing now is this recognition that this is connected to these bigger trends of inequality, and that actions needed to follow through from looking at inequality and recognizing the issues in society.Liz Shuler :
I liken that almost to the Google walkout. You know if you think about tech workers who took a stand against sexual harassment and non disclosure agreements and you know accommodating these executives who, you know, were harassing people and abusing people, and that Google walkout was an exciting moment, the occupy movement was an exciting time, but really to sustain movements we need institutions. And I know a lot of people think institutions are boring and you know outdated and outmoded and slow but in reality in order to have the law behind you, and in order to sustain that momentum you need some type of organization. And so I think that's why people are starting to give the labor movement a second look and even Google workers who then were fired after that activism right they walked out and then a few months later, you know the Google Four were fired. So, the way they were contacting us saying hey what is the labor union thing what can we do to join something like that. And I think that gives us a moment in the labor movement, the traditional labor movement, to say how can we actually be more nimble and modern and relevant to workers in some of these emerging industries who really don't know what a labor union is. And to show them that actually it's just a group of workers coming together to create collective power.Alex Colvin :
Yeah, I think that is one of the really interesting questions right is there going to be taking advantage of this moment to really turn around, I think the fortunes of the labor movement in terms of the number of workers who are represented by unions and covered by collective bargaining I mean you think of the 30s, right, another period of great labor conflict right it was sort of, at the beginning of the decade a pretty dire period for the labor movement, but by the end of it right you see the start of the kind of greatest wave of organizing we've had in American history. Right, so you know there's always that great uncertainty in times of change and times of turmoil. You mentioned a little about, you know, the labor movement needed to be nimble to respond to these kinds of changes and think about how to take advantage of this. Do you have any thoughts about you what the labor movement should be doing to position itself, you know, to take advantage of the opportunity of kind of this rise of worker activism and kind of be ready to take advantage of this over the next decade or so.Liz Shuler :
Yeah, I think we need to ride this wave this momentum it's the most exciting time that we've seen in decades. You had said there were these surge moments right like in the 30s and, and then fast forward to the, you know, 60s and 70s, the public sector organizing. It's like these spikes of action and a lot of people are speculating that this could be the next spike that workers are ready for it they're ready to take risks they're out there, you know, raising their voices and fighting. So I guess the trick is to connect the labor movement to that activism and show that we are a pathway forward, and especially for young people as I said who aren't really familiar with Unions as institutions, they see us as, you know, an institution like like government or even companies sometimes right that there are these storied organizations that don't really relate to them. So I think our job is to get out and really show people what we're all about and be on the front lines of that activism, not just at work, but in our communities, and we've been trying over the last 10 years at least since I've been here, to really make those connections, not just transactional, when you need each other for a particular campaign but really be embedded in the community for the fights that are going on in people's lives and their whole lives. I mentioned affordable housing earlier, but I know that as a woman labor leader, I want to make it my mission to show that the labor movement is a place for women for example that we're out there on the front lines of fighting for things like equal pay and fighting against sexual harassment and using collective bargaining as a tool to make advances in terms of those policies, family medical leave, parental paid parental leave. Collective bargaining is actually the most powerful tool you can have. To sit down at a table with your employer and not feel threatened and be able to talk about issues that matter to women like sexual harassment and get real policies in place to fight back against it. To me that is absolutely showing that we are a labor movement for working women. And we just heard last week, you know that women officially became 50% of the workforce. We will be 50% of the labor movement in, I think three to four years, according to projections. So a lot of people think that the labor movement isAlex Colvin :
Old white man.Liz Shuler :
Your granddaddy's labor movement right. That's not the case. We're the largest organization of working women in the country with six and a half million women, the largest organization for people of color in the country we are the center of gravity to fight for the policies and, you know, the workplace changes that the growing demographic in this country meetAlex Colvin :
it raises a really important point that you know the labor movement has become a more diverse movement, African Americans have higher unionization than other groups in society, as you mentioned. Women and men are approaching equality in union membership. But you know one of the challenges has been getting a leadership that's reflective of the modern labor movement, and making sure that, you know, we don't have a labour leadership that looks like the old stereotype of the past, labor movement. What should we be doing to keep ensuring that we diversify the leadership of the labor movement, you know, as prominent women in the labor movement, you know what, what do you see as kind of the key steps to bring other women into the labor leadership, and obviously underrepresented minority leaders. What what are the steps we should be taking there?Liz Shuler :
Well as a woman who has come up through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, I know this particular challenge very personally, I think, you know, it could be a little lonely, as a woman in a union that was very male dominated, but that said it was about getting the pipeline in place, and making sure that you're nurturing the leadership of those up and comers. And as our numbers increase I think naturally you're going to see more opportunities for women to serve. It's not happening fast enough. There's no doubt about that. But I think I can use the, the women in the trades as an example actually because an organization of women who worked in the construction industry started forming in California, and there are a number of state organizations where women are coming together. But this group in California started holding an annual conference about 10 years ago and they said you know we need a space and a place for women to grow their leadership. And it started with maybe, I don't know, 100, maybe edging up to 150, 200 women at one time. Last year I went to the convening, and it was in Minneapolis, and there were 1200 women at this conference. So it was exploding right and you had every major union president from every trade union there, the National presidents in the room. And so I think that's an example of how you have a strategy, you have a plan, you intentionally recruit, mentor, train provide education and tools and the energy in that room, the commitment, the passion of those trade union women leaders was off the charts. And I said if you could bottle this and spread this around the labor movement we'd be doing fantastically well right. So that's just one example of how it can be done. And I would say the same goes for our ability to create more diverse leadership and inclusive leadership. And we, we took on the challenge of addressing race head on with our commission on racial and economic justice a few years ago, to have the labor movement be the place for the conversations that can be breakthrough moments and create strategies to recruit and retain more diverse leaders. So, we are starting to open up those spaces, again, probably not as fast as it should be, but I think we're making tremendous progress and I think as, as we know the new American majority is emerging in the workforce and so I think we're on a good pathway forward.Julie Greco :
Thank you for listening to Work! Subscribe to our podcast, at work.ilr.cornell.edu, or on iTunes. In our next episode, Dean Colvin finishes his conversation with Liz Schuler as they discuss the Fight for 15 and the roll millennials will play in the future of the union movement. Again, thank you for listening.