25 Years in the Labor Movement, Over 100 Years in the Making

Shari Semelsberger

Shari Semelsberger’s journey at the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD) began on February 8, 1999, but her roots in the labor movement date back much further. On either side, Semelsberger’s family’s history within the American labor cause dates back to more than a century ago.  Her identity and her values are intertwined with the principles of labor unions. 

“My first experience in the labor movement was when I was six years old. My mother took me  to the first Solidarity Day March in Washington  1981,” she recalled. 

Each branch of Semelsberger’s family tree tells the story of a blue-collar worker, beginning with her maternal great-grandfather’s arrival to the United States from Italy in 1913. Roughly a decade later he became a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689, where he worked on the street car tracks in Washington, D.C. Three generations of men on her father’s side worked for Washington, D.C.’s railroad and transit systems. 

Her paternal great-grandfather was a police officer at Washington Railway Terminal and her grandfather began his career at the young age of 17 working on the railroads and after 48 years of service retired as Yardmaster in Charge at Union Station. Her parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins have belonged to over a dozen local unions since the early 20th century, including IAM, ATU, IAFF, CWA, various units of the AFL-CIO, OPEIU, Letter Carriers, Operating Engineers, Teamsters, and Yard Masters under SMART-TD. They have worked in public service sectors such as firefighting, postal service, and law enforcement, as well as news publication and union administration.  Members of her immediate family, including Shari, collectively have over 200 years of membership in OPEIU Local 2 alone. 

“[Unions] provided a life for me, for my family,” Semelsberger said. “I remember when I was little, every time I was able to go to work with my mom or go to conventions or see my aunt, it was always exciting, I guess because they were proud of where they worked. People were happy to be there– to see you. You could take your kid to work.” 

Semelsberger insists that thanks to unions, the women in her family broke through the financial constraints and societal expectations of the status quo. Semelsberger’s maternal grandmother, Toni, a single mother of six, had no choice but to begin working full-time the same year her youngest son was born. An occupation that provided anything less than fair wages, good benefits, and job security would not be enough. As a shop steward, Toni spent two decades at the International Association of Machinists and  Aerospace Workers  (IAM) headquarters. 

Semelsberger’s father, Alton “Moe” Grimes, a veteran and a member of multiple union chapters throughout his life, served in the Vietnam War during the Tet Offensive campaign. During that time, Semelsberger’s mother, Marie, secured her first job within the labor movement, serving as a temp at the D.C. Labor Council. 

“Back then, most women stayed at home. She was a young mother and considered a single mother while my dad was overseas. She had to work, she had to provide,” Semelsberger said. By chance, her placement at the DC Labor Council turned into a 16-and-a-half-year stint, and Marie became secretary to the President.  After her 16-and-a-half-year stent, she continued her dedication to the labor movement when she joined the International Association of Fire Fighters.  Marie retired in March 2007 after 23 and half years at the IAFF, and 40 years in the labor movement. 

Semelsberger’s mother was adamant about buying American-made, union-made goods. Semelsberger speaks to her mother’s passion and dedication to workers, a trait she would inherit herself. 

“When she was in management, she still gave a voice to the workers. She has always been very dedicated to the labor movement. If you think about it, it was the foundation that gave us a good life,” Semelsberger said. 

Before joining the Transportation Trades Department, Semelsberger worked as a marketing associate in a non-unionized workplace. She was overworked, underpaid, and sacrificed her health for the sake of her job on multiple occasions.

“I wouldn’t take lunch or bathroom breaks,” she said. “I ended up in the hospital with kidney stones.” 

Semelsberger’s mom found a job posting for a receptionist position at TTD, and the labor federation hired her in February of 1999. From an entry-level position, Semelsberger worked her way up the ranks in office positions, including assistant to the executive director and office administrator. Shari would go on to earn a union administration degree from the National Labor College, graduating in 2003. She learned about the business side of unions: PAC and FEC reports, prevention of misused funds, negotiations, and mediation. 

On November 30, 2020, her and her colleagues’ worlds would shift when Larry Willis, TTD’s president, tragically and unexpectedly died from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident. Then secretary-treasurer, now President Greg Regan asked Semelsberger to be his partner in leadership—and she initially refused. 

“I hesitated and said I didn’t want to sacrifice time with my kids or my own time. My commute is long, I volunteer at my children’s schools, and I don’t have the extra time—but Greg said, “You’re already doing the work,” she said. Previous TTD leadership told Semelsberger that her talents were best suited for numbers, for business, and for working with people. 

She ultimately accepted Regan's offer and ran alongside him in the election. TTD’s Executive Committee, comprised of (then) 33 union leaders, unanimously elected her as their secretary-treasurer on February 17, 2021. 22 years after starting at the Transportation Trades Department, she was now second-in-command at the largest transportation labor federation in the country.

Semelsberger's leadership journey began amid the COVID-19 pandemic when many transportation workers were deemed essential. 

“During the pandemic, you had people who were proud to be workers and proud of their jobs. They did it with dignity and their lives on the line,” she said. Despite the sacrifices made by employees during the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown era, some companies failed to show up with benefits like hazard pay, paid sick leave, or even basic safety precautions. 

“You’ll never get back the time you spent away from your family or what you went through physically and emotionally,” Semelsberger said. 

Though the labor movement saw momentum in 2023, union membership rates within the last few years are the lowest ever recorded. Steady gaps in wealth inequality and extreme CEO-to-worker pay gaps come at the brunt of employees’ labor and often exploitation. 

“For these companies not to give employees a share of their profits, it’s wrong. Because of that, people should not have to be pushed to go on strike. The wealth of these companies is in the workers. Without them, what do you have?” she asked. 

Semelsberger pointed to changes she witnessed over the years and the commonality of union-busting tactics used by employers today.

“At the height of the labor movement, when one guild went on strike, the entire job would grind to a halt,” she said, citing construction projects as an example. She notes that solidarity slowly diminished as companies forced workers to cross picket lines and participate in union action only before or after work. 

Companies continue to breadcrumb benefits or wage increases in lieu of supporting organizing workers, promising attributes of union membership while simultaneously intimidating employees from forming one. Current organizing campaigns include Starbucks Workers United, a tri-union campaign at Delta Airlines, and the UAW’s fight to unionize workers at more than a dozen automakers, including Tesla. .

 “Union workers are so essential because they are skilled in their craft, dedicated, and loyal because of what they get back from their employer. In order to receive, you have to give,” Semelsberger insisted. “When workers are disposable, your company will eventually become worthless.” 

Legacy in Labor

“If I had one word to describe the labor movement…it would be family,” Semelsberger said. She recalled a story from September of 2022, during Category Five Hurricane Ian. Her father-in-law, Steve Semelsberger, “Popie,” who lives alone in Rotonda West, Florida—between Ft. Myers and Sarasota—was unreachable after the storm hit Ft. Myers. The next day, Semelsberger’s sister-in-law Jennifer Grimes, who works at the IAFF headquarters, mentioned her worry over losing contact with her father-in-law during a meeting with Pat Morrison, Operations Chief for the International Association of Fire Fighters. Morrison immediately sprung into action, informing General President Ed Kelly, and reaching out to  firefighters on the ground in Tampa. He said, “I will go get him myself if I have to!”  The firefighters went out into the field and found Mr. Semelsbeger safe and at home. 

Semelsberger and her husband Paul, who retired from the AFL-CIO in 2017 after dedicating 32 years in the labor movement, ensure that unions are part of their kids’ lives. “We were so excited when both were learning  about Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers at school.” In addition, When ATU Local 689, her great-grandfather’s union, went on strike, she and her husband visited the members, bringing their two children to drop off food in person at the union hall. On another occasion, Semelsberger joined the picket line alongside Regan and spoke to the members about how proud she is to be part of this movement and honored to stand with and join their fight.  “That was a full circle moment for me.  Local 689 was part of the foundation that started my family’s roots within the labor movement. Not long after being elected secretary-treasurer, I was standing with that same local nearly 100 years later.”  

Semelsberger spoke to the momentum we saw last year in the labor movement and the enthusiasm coming from Generation Z and Millennials around organizing. In a 2023 poll conducted by GBAO on behalf of the AFL-CIO, 88% of Americans under 30 viewed unions favorably, while 7 in 10 Americans overall were supportive of unions. She noted that union jobs are a sustainable option for those who may not be able to afford college or simply do not want to enroll in higher education. The U.S. Department of the Treasury recently published a study showing how unions aid in closing the wealth inequality gap and growing the middle class: 

“Treasury’s report shows that unions have the potential to address some of these negative trends by raising middle-class wages, improving work environments, and promoting demographic equality.” 

Racial, gender-based, and general socioeconomic inequality can be alleviated through good union jobs, while union contracts raise the bar for non-union workers. 

“The good thing about a union contract is that it’s not biased. It’s for everyone,” Semelsberger said. “The trades, the crafts, and the training they provide give workers an opportunity to enter a variety of industries making a great wage and having benefits and a pension to retire on.” 

She believes that every person should get a chance at fair wages, benefits, and the American dream. After 25 years of serving the transportation labor movement and following generations of union membership, she asserts that belonging to the labor family is the best way to do that.

This post originally appeared on the Transportation Trades Department's website.