As a graduate of the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism, Elizabeth (Liz) Shuler, like many young people today, pieced together part-time jobs, lived at home and struggled to find decent work in the early 1990s. Experiencing uncertainty in the economy made her realize that every job is an opportunity to stand up for the underdog. Today, as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, the second-highest position in the labor movement, Shuler serves as the chief financial officer of the federation and oversees operations. Shuler is the first woman elected as the federation’s secretary-treasurer, holding office since 2009.
THE DIFFERENCE A UNION MAKES
Shuler grew up in a union household—her father, Lance, was a power lineman and longtime member of IBEW Local 125 at Portland General Electric and her late mother, Joyce, worked as an estimator in the company’s service and design department. A summer job in the payroll department at PGE during college revealed for Shuler how the clerical workers, who were not in the union, didn’t have the same bargaining power or respect on the job as their unionized counterparts. In 1993, Shuler was hired at Local 125, where she was thrust into a full-fledged campaign to help the clerical workers organize. The organizers on staff at the local were all men, so Liz was assigned to house-calling, since most of the clerical employees were women. “Those were challenging times,” she recalls. “The company was holding captive-audience meetings and people were scared, so it was really tough to even get invited into their homes to talk.” That organizing experience showed Liz how important it was to build mobilizing capacity within the local union, particularly for women workers.
As most union representatives do, she wore many hats while working at the local: she traveled across the local’s multi-state jurisdiction conducting organizing training for the 5,000-member local’s 36 different bargaining units; developed a political action committee and member education; formed local networks to bolster the union’s legislative power at the state capital in Salem.
A PASSION TO GET THINGS DONE
Shuler’s work to build member activism within the local union paid off nearly five years later when energy giant Enron tried to muscle electricity deregulation through the Oregon state legislature. Many young people today may not remember this scandal-ridden and now bankrupt corporate giant, but it is now known as one of the earliest national icons for corporate fraud and abuse. Shuler worked with a broad-based coalition of labor, community and environmental activists to challenge and ultimately overcome Enron’s powerhouse lobbying campaign, a victory that sparked her passion for mobilizing workers to make change even when faced with overwhelming odds.
Later she would look back on that victory as a warning sign of things to come. Enron’s reckless corporate behavior resulted in a bankruptcy that devastated thousands of workers. Many of Shuler’s fellow union members, including her own father, lost their pensions because of Enron's deplorable business practices.
HARD WORK CREATES OPPORTUNITY
Shuler’s outstanding work made the IBEW take notice. In 1998, then-Secretary-Treasurer Edwin Hill temporarily assigned her to California where she mobilized IBEW members to help defeat Proposition 226, the so-called “Paycheck Protection” proposition that threatened the lifeblood of union political fundraising. That victory prompted then-President J. J. Barry to hire her as an international representative in the union’s Political/Legislative Affairs Department in Washington, D.C. She lobbied Congress on such issues as energy and electricity, telecommunications, Davis-Bacon, health care, transportation, apprenticeship and training, pension reform, unemployment and telecommunications; raised PAC funds; developed political education programs; and mobilized local unions throughout the country during elections. In 2004, she was promoted to assistant to the International President, advising President Ed Hill on program implementation and strategy and overseeing the work and budgeting of 11 departments ranging from Utility and Manufacturing to Telecommunications and Government.
She is especially proud of the role she played in advancing the IBEW’s Code of Excellence, a program adopted by Hill in 2005 to renew union members’ pride in workmanship and guarantee to employers that workers were committed to a hard day’s work for a full day’s pay. It began with the construction branch of the IBEW and Shuler worked to broaden it to the professional and industrial branches.
“If we’re going to rebuild the labor movement, we need to start with a commitment to quality work to show that unions make a difference not only for workers and their families, but also for our employer partners,” she says. “Unions add value, and the IBEW is demonstrating how this added value translates to new work opportunities for its members.”
ORGANIZING THE NEXT GENERATION WORKFORCE
Shuler recognizes the labor movement’s future depends on its ability to reach out and engage young people in their unions and communities. Shuler led the launch of the AFL-CIO’s Next Up Young Workers Initiative to open up leadership opportunities and create a space for youth activism.
Today’s young workers are part of the largest generation to enter the workforce since the baby boomers and the most diverse and technologically savvy generation in America’s history. Although they suffer the nation’s highest unemployment—about twice the national average—and the fewest job opportunities in today’s economy, this generation of young people is engaged and ready to reverse economic and social injustice. AFL-CIO young worker councils across the country are bringing young workers together into a powerful progressive coalition with students, civil and human rights advocates, LGBTQ activists and many others.
Shuler’s efforts to broaden the union movement to engage young people and her work to improve the economy for all working people challenges assumptions about the “old fashioned” labor movement. Shuler looks at technological change as an opportunity to be relevant to the next generation workforce. Technology offers new opportunities and challenges to strengthen worker voice and new pathways for workers to learn skills and stay relevant in a changing economy. She knows that digital tools can help workers organize in new and powerful ways, and that the labor movement should be on the cutting edge of change.
Shuler also plays an active role in community and allied organizations, serving on the boards of the National Women’s Law Center; Institute for Women’s Policy Research; AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust; Alliance for Retired Americans; the Solidarity Center; and the Committee on Worker’s Capital and Women’s Committee of the International Trade Union Confederation.
Shuler lives with her husband, David Herbst, and their black Labrador Trader in Washington, D.C.