Speech | Future of Work

From the Great Resignation to the Great Resurgence

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks at a polling briefing at the AFL-CIO Headquarters on April 20th.

Good afternoon, everyone. I want to thank everyone here in DC and those of you tuning in across the country for joining us - we’ve got a great program for you today and some incredible new insights into the mindsets of working people to share. 

Over the past few months, we’ve heard a lot of talk about the Great Resignation - and rightfully so. 

Last year, nearly 48 million workers quit their jobs – a record high number. A number that high clearly means something bigger is at play – 48 million people don’t leave their jobs and search for new ones for no reason.

We all know the reasons. We’ve talked to friends who couldn’t wait to leave an unsafe, under-staffed workplace, and moms who were tired of working two jobs on top of homeschooling. 

We know people who were sick of having hours that were so unpredictable that they could never make plans, and others who were told their options were to work with COVID or be sent home without pay. 

But to truly do working people justice, we need to go beyond just the anecdotal evidence … and we need to look beyond the pandemic and recognize this was a problem years in the making.

To do that, we worked with Avalanche Insights … and I know that Wasay Rasool from Avalanche is here, who worked on this research with us, thank you Wasay Rasool. Together, we talked to more than 10 thousand people about the state of work – and we heard them loud and clear. 

And we are going to walk you through the findings from our research today. But you’re also going to hear directly from three people about how the past few years have changed their jobs and the way they think about work:

  • Donyale Whitaker, who is on leave from her job as a guest room attendant at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center to work on staff at her union UNITE HERE Local 25; 
  • Aaron True, a Senior Outreach Associate at the Alliance for Justice and co-chair for the Alliance for Justice Union; and
  • Clare Berke, who is an English Teacher and Washington Teachers Union Building Chair at DC’s Benjamin Banneker High School. 

We’ll hear from them and dive into the numbers in a minute, but the bottom line is that people are fed up with working bad jobs for even worse pay hearing they are essential one minute and expendable the next. 

Just one top line I’ll preview from the research is that we found that nearly half of the workforce has negative feelings about work. 

One of the most surprising things we discovered was that while many people did quit their jobs over issues with income and pay, more respondents said that the way they were treated at work was what pushed them to leave their jobs. Time and time again, we heard workers say unfair treatment, poor management, and toxic environments were the worst part of their job. 

That makes sense. If your job is miserable, if your workplace is miserable, if your boss is miserable … then you’re probably going to be miserable, too. 

So we know people left because of bad conditions, but we wanted to know more than that - we wanted to know what could have fixed it and made them stay. Not surprising, better salary and benefits were top of mind, but again we saw that better treatment, better hours and better management would have made the difference. 

And coming from our perch here at the AFL-CIO, we know that unions are the best way to get all of those things … but we wanted to know if workers also thought collective action could have solved the issues at their workplace. And half of the respondents said yes.  

It’s not a coincidence that working conditions have hit rock bottom after two years of workers being isolated and separated from one another – by COVID, but also by design as technology takes hold. 

And it’s not a surprise that people see the solution to these problems starts with joining together and tackling these issues collectively. 

Working people see that speaking with a collective voice is more powerful. Those who felt collective action could help their workplace issues said they thought it could specifically improve working conditions, communication, and accountability. They’re right - that is exactly what unions advocate for. 

And we’re seeing the power of that advocacy as working people all over the country join together and win uphill battles against corporate giants like Starbucks and Amazon. 

That’s why, when I look at the Great Resignation, I see something else - something we’re calling The Great Resurgence. This a rebirth of worker power and a moment unlike any other in the history of the labor movement. 

As you’ll hear in greater detail  – people are rethinking their relationship to work and reevaluating what it is they want from their employers. 

People have never done more work and gotten less in return – less money, less respect, less predictability. And they know that the only way to turn bad jobs into good jobs and to reset the balance of power is by coming together. The tides are turning, momentum is building and the doors to the labor movement are wide open. 

With that, I’ll turn it over to Michelle Penson, our Director of Data and Technology who will walk us through our research. 

And while these numbers are so compelling, they are also more than just numbers. Each data point represents someone who is trying to work hard to make a living and finding it more and more difficult every day. 

Today, we get to bring these numbers to life with three people who have seen the working world change dramatically over the last two years, felt those changing power dynamics, and taken action to right the course. 

First, is Donyale Whitaker, who has worked in the hospitality industry for more than 12 years. 

She is currently on leave from her job as a guest room attendant at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center and is working as a staff member of UNITE HERE Local 25, the union of hotel, restaurant and casino workers in the D.C. metro region. And right now, she is helping the union’s campaign to organize hotel workers across the DC region. 

Also joining us today is Aaron True, a Senior Outreach Associate at the non-profit Alliance for Justice. Aaron is also a union co-chair for the Alliance for Justice Union, affiliated with Washington-Baltimore News Guild, TNG-CWA Local 32035. 

He played a key role during contract negotiations to secure the union’s first collective bargaining agreement, which was signed just two months ago – congratulations, Aaron. Their new contract includes several key workplace improvements he can tell us more about. 

And last but certainly not least, we have Clare Berke  who has been a teacher at Benjamin Banneker High School, a part of DC’s Public School System, for more than 13 years. 

She is also a Building Chair for the Washington Teachers Union, advocating for our heroic teachers who have done so much during the pandemic and for the students who rely on them. 

Aaron, Donyell and Clare, thank you so much for all you do and for joining us here today. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to hear from you all about your experiences navigating our changing workplaces, and about your thoughts on the Great Resurgence of worker organizing.

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