Liz Shuler Acceptance Speech at the AFL-CIO 2017 Convention

St. Louis, Missouri

Thank you so much. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your vote.

It’s been an honor serving as your Secretary-Treasurer and I look forward to another four years with my partners Rich and Tefere. 

To my brother Lonnie Stephenson, thank you for nominating me. I would not be standing here without the love and support of my IBEW family. To Lorretta Johnson and Cindy Estrada, two fierce sisters, thank you for seconding my nomination. I am truly honored. 

You all know I’m a proud IBEW member -- and electricians who travel sometimes joke that IBEW stands for “I’ve Been Every Where.”  Since you elected me in 2009, our work together really has taken me everywhere. (And my husband Dave can attest to that...thank you honey). 

Yes, everywhere...celebrating with people who found the courage to form a union… and crying with workers who just lost their jobs and families reeling from natural disasters. 

I've stood on the picket line … and walked the halls of Congress. 

Covered the 5 a.m. shift change to talk to members about campaigns.. and marched with student organizers at Yale…

We are joined in work that contributes to something greater than ourselves...and I’ve been a part of some incredible high points in our movement. 

But, I’ve experienced some low points, too. 

I’ve talked with young people, women, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQ workers about the exclusions they’ve felt. 

I’ve listened to stories from union members working hard behind the scenes, eager to make their unions better, but frustrated by a culture that too often discourages taking risks.

I’ve had my own failures, too. Some of the initiatives I put forward didn’t go as far or move as fast as I had hoped. There were setbacks and false starts. But that’s okay. I think we need to do that more: Try things, take risks and not be afraid to fail.

That’s how we tripled the number of young worker groups since the last convention… that’s how we won a new multi-million dollar grant for apprenticeships in hospitality and manufacturing… and by taking risks, that’s how we transformed our entire federation under incredibly difficult circumstances.

And, yet, brothers and sisters, standing in front of you today, I feel almost breathless. Breathless from the rate of change. My head is spinning as the world increasingly careens in unexpected turns. My head is spinning because we, the labor movement, aren’t moving as fast as the rest of the world. We’re not doing enough to get ahead of change and transform it into opportunity.

Last week, we saw women raise their hands and their voices against sexual harassment. With two simple words, and in a matter of hours, women launched a national conversation about sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.

We’ve seen people rise up in new ways against corporate greed…poverty wages ... racial injustice…illegal travel bans…bathroom bills…and attacks on our free press. These uprisings are organic, large scale and immediate. They relate to our lives both at work and in our communities.  And they are happening around us, often without us.

What is our role when technology connects people at work, in communities and around the world, yet deepens inequality, threatens jobs and diminishes worker power?

Google, Glassdoor and Facebook have more data on our members than we do!

How do we fight for good jobs when they are increasingly automated or distorted as the nation’s social compact is under relentless attack?

We have reached a tipping point -- just focusing on protecting what we have, is far more dangerous than taking risks.

When automation threatens millions of jobs in the not-too-distant future...we can’t afford to be cautious.

When millions of people use their power online to oust CEOs and advocate for change, we need to harness that activism and use it to build a massive movement of working people.

Together we can build the support, leadership and encouragement for more unions to get in the game, experiment and find new strategies for success.

We know we have a huge target on our back. We know what true worker power can do. We know how sustained, collective activism can literally change the world!

So we do have to protect ourselves. And we will. We’ll mobilize our members, stop attacks on the basic rights of working people, argue our case before the Supreme Court and organize like never before! 

But we also have to ask ourselves: what are the new ways we can make unions relevant and indispensable to someone’s life? 

If we demonstrate our value to people…yes, with our contracts, but also through cutting edge training and education that helps them ladder up to better jobs…through the support they need outside their workplace…through the actions we take to improve communities, like responding to disasters and showing the union cares...if we demonstrate value, we become essential.

And right to work becomes irrelevant, because workers will want to join us.

Earlier, I said I was breathless. It’s because I feel the urgency of this moment. But I also feel energized by the challenge. What if we all left St. Louis with a commitment to accelerate our change…to be bold...and take risks like never before?

WE ARE the most powerful force for working families on the planet…We built the middle class, won retirement security, created safe workplaces, and defined what a fair economy could look like for the free world. Today all of those protections are at risk.

So we must be a beacon – not just debating the future of work but defining it. Not just building worker power but using it. Using it every day. For the next generation. For the working people who count on us. For the movement we love.

Thank you.