The executive council of the AFL-CIO held a special meeting last week to name their next leader, following the death of the labor federation’s longtime president, Richard Trumka. For the first time in the organization’s history, they chose a woman.
Liz Shuler, 51, had served as the federation’s second-in-command under Trumka since they were elected together in 2009. Despite the sad and unusual circumstances of the succession ― Trumka died on Aug. 5 of a heart attack, at age 72 ― Shuler said assuming the presidency marked a historic moment for women in the labor movement.
“I am extremely humbled by it,” she said in an interview. “We are a movement of women. We are finally stepping into the leadership positions, and really bringing the voices and hopes and dreams of women in our movement into the decision-making roles.”
Shuler takes the reins at a critical time. The AFL-CIO is not a union but a league of 56 of them, responsible for advancing the interests of member unions and the labor movement as a whole. With Joe Biden in the White House and Democrats holding threadbare control of Congress, unions have an invaluable but probably short window to accomplish big legislative goals, like passing an infrastructure package and landmark labor law reforms.
“I spent my formative years basically in an all-male environment. It’s a school of hard knocks. You have to toughen up."”
Shuler said her predecessor was “at the top of his game” when he died. Trumka was close with the Biden White House and had probably achieved his maximum political influence. But Shuler’s backers say the last 12 years have prepared her for the top role at the federation, and they see her bringing stability at a turbulent time.
“She’s been a loyal second to Rich, so you don’t always see her leadership abilities because she’s been in the background a lot,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the federation’s largest unions. “But any of us who know her have a lot of confidence in her. She has become really respected among many of the leaders and she always has our back.”
She added, “Liz can move the agenda without missing a beat.”
A major piece of that agenda is overhauling labor law so that it’s easier for workers to join unions. Democrats in the House have passed a sweeping bill that would accomplish that — the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act — but the bill does not have enough support in the Senate to overcome a filibuster.
Some union officials have advocated for getting whatever pieces of the PRO Act they can through budget reconciliation, a process that could allow Democrats to pass reforms on a party-line vote if all Democratic senators join the effort. Some Democrats think a provision that would create fines against companies for illegal union-busting could pass muster under reconciliation rules.
Both unions and Democrats have insisted they want to pass the PRO Act in its entirety, but Shuler said they would have to consider other options, given the political realities.
“We’re going to continue to make the demands … but we also have to be creative. We have to work to get every bite at the apple we can find,” she said. “We’re in the first year of an administration, and we have multiple years in front of us of opportunities to reform this law. So we’re going to pursue both [strategies].”
One criticism of Trumka’s tenure was that the federation focused too much on advocating for policies on Capitol Hill, rather than trying to rebuild the labor movement through rank-and-file organizing. Asked if she had any regrets about how things had been run at the AFL-CIO over the past 12 years, Shuler said they should have developed a greater “culture of experimentation” to boost collective bargaining.
There is plenty of testing going on within the labor movement these days. One example is the Fight for $15, a union-funded effort to improve pay and working conditions in fast food and other low-wage industries. The campaign, spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union, which is not an AFL-CIO member, has won higher wages for workers around the country but has done so mostly outside of traditional collective bargaining agreements.
Shuler said the federation needs to operate on two tracks: trying to pass legislation like the PRO Act, but also looking at “new strategies” even though they might fail.
“You have to take risks and experiment. A lot of people are afraid to make those mistakes, you’ll be criticized,” Shuler said. “But if you’re not making mistakes you’re not doing anything. You’re sitting around comfortably.”
Shuler came up in organized labor through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, part of the federation’s building trades wing. While cultures vary from one union to the next, the building trades as a whole still carry a reputation as being unwelcoming to women. Shuler said she worked in a local union that represented mostly power linemen but branched out into organizing clerical workers in the industry, many of them women.
“I spent my formative years basically in an all-male environment,” she said. “It’s a school of hard knocks. You have to toughen up and be able to push through on your agenda. If there’s something you feel strongly about, you gotta get creative because there are those barriers when you’re young and female.”
For some progressives, Shuler’s closeness with the building trades is a cause for concern. The AFL-CIO can be a fractious enterprise, and the building trades often stand across from the more liberal service-sector unions on contentious issues like how to address climate change.
“I have been stereotyped my whole life, and I look forward to defying stereotypes.”
They also wonder where Shuler will come down on progressive priorities like police reform. As In These Times reported, Shuler was part of an AFL-CIO subcommittee that produced a report rejecting calls for the federation to cut ties with police unions following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Like Trumka, Shuler has advocated for trying to change the culture of police unions rather than separate from them.
Shuler told HuffPost that it was wrong to assume she would line up with the building trades amid internal fights over the federation’s direction.
“I have been stereotyped my whole life, and I look forward to defying stereotypes,” she said.
After choosing Shuler to serve out the rest of Trumka’s term, the executive council tapped Fred Redmond, a longtime United Steelworkers official, as her replacement. Redmond is the first Black man to serve as the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer. The federation’s vice president is Tefere Gebre, who came to the U.S. as an Ethiopian refugee in the 1980s. The AFL-CIO says the trio comprise the most diverse leadership team the federation has ever had.
But leadership could change soon. Top officials are selected at the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial convention, where member unions vote for officers on a per-capita basis, meaning the larger unions have more sway. Trumka was slated to step down at the end of this term, and Shuler was expected to run to replace him.
She was also expected to be challenged — possibly by Sara Nelson, the charismatic president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. Nelson is beloved by progressives but has rankled many in the building trades with her public support of a Green New Deal.
The AFL-CIO delayed its next scheduled convention until June 2022, citing the pandemic. Shuler will enter the confab as an incumbent president, one with a nine-month record to be debated.
For now, Shuler said she is focused on getting an infrastructure bill over the finish line, and rallying the federation’s unions around the new leadership.
“The federation is the glue. You take 56 different unions, it’s 56 different perspectives and cultures and opinions,” Shuler said. “What I’ll strive for is to bring as much unity as I can.”