In the conclusion of this two-part episode, Liz Shuler, the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO and Dean Alex Colvin discuss the Fight for 15, the gig economy, and the role millennials will have in the future of unions.
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Work is all around us. It defines us. The future of work, impacts nearly every person on our planet, and the ILR School at Cornell University is influencing policy and practice, around the world. In the second part of their conversation ILR school Dean Alex Colvin speaks with AFL CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler about the Fight for 15, and the role Millennials will play in the future of the union movement.Alex Colvin :
Another topic I was interested in talking a little about is what's been going on in the minimum wage. Another area that I think I was taken a little surprised by is just how powerful and successful the Fight for 15 campaign has been, you know, in the states like California and New York where it's really translated into changes the minimum wage that have really been dramatic and come into effect quickly. At the same time, we still have $7.25 as the federal minimum wage and it's been that since 2009, where do you think we'reLiz Shuler :
Not to mention the tipped minimum wage. People are making just over $2 an hour.Alex Colvin :
$2 an hour right and and maybe diverging even more there in New York there's currently a state effort to to address the tips, the tipped minimum wage. But you know we're, we're having success in some states right but we don't seem to be able to get movement at the federal level. You know, are we going to sort of and I worry that we're going to end up as you know two nations, right. Nations with solid minimum wages and then others where it's just stagnating far beyond below you know even what's going to be paid at a fast food restaurant.Liz Shuler :
Absolutely. Well, and we had to go to the state level because of the inaction at the federal level and quite frankly not a lot is getting done in Washington DC. Right, so the states have become the place where action happens and we actually have invested a lot in state strategies for that very reason to bring the policy debates and and the mobilization to the places where it's actually going to net results. And so you have been seen this sort of patchwork quilt approach to the minimum wage, because that's where the action is happening. And I will say that half the country's population is going to feel the boost of minimum wage increases in 2020, after years of hard work. That, to me will be, you know, a historic moment it's like the greatest jurisdictional pay raise in US history we could say, all at once here. And we're really proud that we've been on the frontlines of that because not only do we have a labor movement in every state and every major city in the country with our network, we have a whole host of union members getting elected to office to make those changes right. And I love using the example of Connecticut, where Julie Kushner, who you may be familiar with who was a former officer of the UAW, actually assured that minimum wage increase in Connecticut as a new state senator. So, we are super excited because we're electing thousands of union members to office at every level, and particularly had some very successful wins for women candidates. And so that's the strategy has been deliberate to some degree, but it's not the answer in terms of getting a minimum wage passed nationally which is long overdue.Alex Colvin :
It's pretty clear that none of this change in terms of major increases the minimum wage would have happened without the labor movements support, and really enthusiastic support backing it, but one of the dilemmas almost for the labor movement I think is that it puts its effort behind the minimum wage increases, but that benefits everybody whether their union member or not, right you don't get any extra dues money because of a minimum wage increase right. How do you build the movement out of successes around increasing the minimum wage. You know, it's a great labor success but but how does that then feed into the building of the labor movement.Liz Shuler :
Well the issue of income inequality is an issue the issue of our time. And we believe that it is our role as the labor movement to fight for higher wages and a better quality of life for everyone. Everyone who works for a living. So that's why the minimum wage is key right that we have that rising tide as they say lifts all boats, but it also helps us with our collective bargaining if we raise the floor, the disparity between union and non union isn't as extreme. So, that is, you know, something we fight for because we want to make sure that actually minimum wage is a living wage and that's why the Fight for 15 is so powerful that you remember when they first started talking about the Fight for 15 people thought it was insane right. Oh my gosh, $15 an hour. You're kidding me. Yeah right. Now, it's widely accepted. So I take my hat off to the movement because they have done such an amazing job of being, you know the megaphone for so many working people even though it was targeted at fast food. It's now spread to, you know, a number of different sectors and then certainly we aspire to make the minimum wage a living wage.Alex Colvin :
But I think it is. It is because it does go back to a kind of an old labor strategy right you know, in addition to the collective bargaining strategy which is still central where you represent the workers, you get a collective agreement in place, there is this role of the labor movement as the advocate for workers in general, right. That it's going to achieve change through getting legislation passed and, you know, one of the things maybe we're seeing nowadays is this change of perception where we're seeing an increase in positive views of unions and of the labor movement amongst particularly younger Americans, which has been a really interesting shift right. If you look at the current generation the millennials the Gen Z's, I guess, Gen Zed, I'm Canadian so I say Gen Zed but the increase in positive attitudes towards unions, is something really striking were seeing in the data.Liz Shuler :
It's very exciting and when I first came to the AFL CIO that was one of the things I set my sights on right away. I was quote young when I got here 39 years old. But we started an initiative called Next Up to engage young people in the labor movement and really build relationships and really integrate with each other the youth groups and activists on campuses, for example, and other young worker groups and youth who are on the move right. So we wanted the labor movement to really be embedded in in their movements and see them as one. And we wanted to look through our policy work through a youth lens and we developed a young worker economic platform to be spokespeople and advocates for, you know, the affordability crisis with with higher education to certainly at that time it was all about jobs jobs jobs. When we were, you know, on the tail end of the financial crisis and young people having seen their parents retire and then have to go back to work, because they either lost their retirement savings in the crashed, didn't have retirement savings and needed to continue to work into old age. So this generation has seen and experienced an economy that has absolutely failed them. And so I think they're looking for answers and they're finally seeing that the labor movement can be a pathway for them.Alex Colvin :
Yeah. One of there, one the specific things they face is so many of them, ending up in the gig economy right in these work situations that aren't permanent jobs they're temporary they're kind of contingent. What what does the labor movement have to offer them to address that issue of being stuck in the gig economy.Liz Shuler :
Yeah, I mean the gig economy is not a new phenomenon because we've been seeing, you know misclassification, we would say for some time where employers don't want to take responsibility, they don't want to pay benefits, they don't want to have to pay workers compensation. And, you know, gig workers, so called gig workers, are workers like anybody else, and whether they're independent contractors in the truest sense, or they're misclassified, they need protections. And so that's why this has been so interesting to watch the California debate around Assembly Bill 5, which prohibits the misclassification of workers as independent contractors. And now we're seeing other states pick up the mantle and use that as a model, including New York and New Jersey and I think Illinois and others, or I think it's Missouri, who are saying yeah actually we need to hold these corporations accountable and what kind of society, what kind of economy do we want to live in for not taking care of our workers. And so we're seeing, you know the labor movement has a particular unique role in terms of how we advocate for these policies and especially as the future of work is upon us. And I think companies like platform companies and say hey we're just a technology company we don't really employ anyone, they want that to be their new business model so that they can escape the costs and the responsibilities of a traditional employer. But often, when people have a side hustle or a gig job they count on either another job that's a traditional job that would pay those kinds of benefits like health care and decent wages or they have someone in their family or that they can rely on to help support them while they're working one, two and three jobs. So we believe that you know everyone deserves a good job. And then if we want a future of work that's actually going to work for, for our country, for the real people that are, you know, trying to provide for their families, that they need a decent job that has those kinds of protections, the safety net, retirement security, health care benefits, and the ability to have a voice on the job and bargain collectively.Alex Colvin :
We've covered a lot of ground here. Just to finish off, are there any one or two key points that you might like to emphasize or anything additional that we haven't touched upon.Liz Shuler :
Well as the future of work is becoming more and more a topic that everyone seemingly you know it's at the kitchen table it's in Congress and every foundation and think of the university is talking about it. And that working people need to be at both tables. I'm amazed how many future work conversations happen and there aren't any workers at the table. So that's number one that you know workers need to have a voice in this process and I would argue need to be not only at the table but leading the table. And that innovation can't happen unless you have working people at the very front edge of that. And if anything. I hope people see unions, as modern, as, as I said earlier nimble, as a movement for the future, because if we don't restore balance in this economy, inequality is going to widen, the future of work is going to run away from us. Technology is going to make a few people rich, and we're not going to be able to share the benefits of technology across our society. So I would argue that a worker voice is so incredibly important as we look to the future.Alex Colvin :
I think that's, that's a great point. It's something we've studied here at the ILR School for decades now is, you know, changes in technology that have been happening for many years in our economy and one of the things that's run through it all the way is that worker voice makes a difference. It changes how we think about what's going on. It helps the work be done better, but it also makes sure that workers are actually benefiting from these changes which is hopefully what we want to see happen.Liz Shuler :
And unions are innovators. If you think back to the beginnings of collective bargaining we have changed and adapted to technological changes over the course of our history. And so you think about the innovations that we've come across over the decades and decades of experience we've had. I think we should be seen as cutting edge and bringing a worker as I said a worker voice or perspective to things like changes in transportation I mean I was just at the Consumer Electronics Show. And you know you're seeing the use of drones when it comes to inspecting bridges for safety for example or you're gonna have an iron worker on that bridge, that's going to be sent up to repair repair that infrastructure. You have, you know the the Building and Construction Trades training programs that are constantly adapting to new technology so that we can have the most highly skilled, highly trained workforce, ready to go to work, to power this country and to move people throughout this country on our infrastructure. And then certainly Unite Here, the hotel and restaurant workers union went on strike against Marriott to make sure that when technology enters their workplace, as we know we're checking into our hotel rooms, we're checking, we're using technology in the hotel lobby in some cases robotsAlex Colvin :
Delivering food service.Liz Shuler :
Yep. They actually used their collective bargaining agreement to negotiate with the employer to make sure that anytime technology enters the workplace, that we're keeping workers in mind, and how it's used and deployed, but also if it's going to displace someone, or someone needs training and new skills to be able to ladder up to a better job, or prepare for the future, that they're able to make that transition through a fund that's been set up through their collective bargaining agreement.Alex Colvin :
That's, that's a great example. You know, I think we sometimes assume that technology determines the future but I think that's a great message that the future is up for people to debate and to discuss and to make a more human future for us all.Liz Shuler :
The choice is now.Alex Colvin :
Exactly. Thanks very much Elizabeth for joining us. It's been a real pleasure talking today.Liz Shuler :
Thank you so much, and I appreciate you and the role that you're providing and leadership you're providing also at the ILR.Julie Greco :
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