Speech | Gender Equality

Shuler: AFSCME Women Showed Up for Our Communities

Hershey, Penn.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks as prepared to the AFSCME Council13 Biennial Women's Conference:

Good evening AFSCME women!

Wow you picked a perfect place for the conference — there’s chocolate everywhere…it smells like chocolate in the hallways…even the shampoo in the rooms was chocolatey. And thanks to the BCTGM Local 464 chocolate workers union for making it all possible!

Thank you, Michele [Brookins], for the kind introduction, and for your decade of dedication on the Women’s Committee. And thank you to everyone on the Women’s Committee who put in the time and effort to put on this conference. It’s amazing isn’t it?

And to the men: Dave [Henderson] thank you for your steadfast leadership of this great council, which truly does make Pennsylvania happen. And to Rick [Bloomingdale] and Frank [Snyder], thank you for your incredible dedication and passion for Pennsylvania’s working families and for our movement.

And it’s an honor to be speaking between two fabulous women. Gisele [Fetterman], I’m so inspired by your work with female entrepreneurs. And joining a spouse on the campaign trail—as a mother of three—I can’t imagine...but it can’t be for the faint of heart.

And Elissa [McBride], you have not only been a force within AFSCME, but a smart, savvy and strong leader within the AFL-CIO, and I appreciate your support and leadership so much.

It’s so great to be in the same room with so many amazing women! I’m excited to be here with you all to kick off the weekend…what a fantastic program you have scheduled between tomorrow’s sunrise and sunset yoga sessions! 

We could all use some more mindfulness in our lives right?

Because these last two years…we have battled haven’t we? It felt like we were being hit from all sides…from politics to the pandemic…and per usual, working women took the brunt of it.

Women kept our country running throughout the pandemic. And that includes the women in this room…and women in every county, township, and corner of Pennsylvania….who worked in our hospitals and schools, on our docks and police forces, who drove buses and drove policy… 

You showed up and you improved our communities when we needed it most. 

I want to thank you for everything you’ve sacrificed. You are absolutely essential—and not just during a pandemic.

But so much more is owed than just saying thank you. 
Women have been underpaid, undervalued, and expected to take on most of the unpaid work at home even since before the pandemic.

And this balancing act that many working women have been pulling off for decades—between home and work, kids and career—has become even more complicated. For the past two years, many working women have lived in a world of constantly shifting schedules and mounting uncertainty.

Dependent care has gotten harder to find—or disappeared entirely. Schools closed—or went online.

Our situations have gotten harder, not easier. But we kept fighting. We kept showing up to work, showing up for our families and showing up for our communities.

And because we showed up for each other, America has the chance to rise from the ashes of the pandemic stronger than before. And the labor movement…with women at the center…is leading the way. 

We have a generational opportunity to turn the momentum you’ve created into concrete victories…to galvanize workers and win better contracts…and push Congress to pass transformational legislation.

For the first time in a long time, America’s workers are using their leverage to demand fair wages and dignity at work from Erie to Philadelphia.

And they’re seeing unions as a vehicle for making that change more than ever before. Public support is off the charts…especially among young people.

There’s an energy out there and we need to harness it to grow the labor movement, and reimagine an economy that works for working people. Everyone included, no one left behind. 

And because we showed up for each other we have everything lined up. In 2020, we voted Joe Biden and the most pro-worker administration in history into office.

This commonwealth was absolutely critical in delivering that victory. The advocacy and outreach of Pennsylvania’s working women…the voter registration campaigns…the canvassing and phone banking…writing letters and postcards to voters…it made all the difference. And of course the face-to-face conversations. We need to have more of those in the workplace now that it is becoming safer to do so. Those in-person conversations will be crucial if we want to lay the groundwork and educate our members about the issues and the candidates that will bring about the greatest change for working people.

And we already have plenty of examples for those conversations…how our votes translate to legislation that supports working families. 

The American Rescue Plan and the historic investment in infrastructure—those were huge victories.

It will put people to work across the country fixing roads and bridges, improving our ports and airports and water infrastructure, installing broadband…millions of good, union jobs for men AND women. Vice President Harris said it best: “Hard hats are unisex.”

And we’re not done. We are still pushing Congress to Build Back Better and deliver more for working families. Because infrastructure is more than just roads and bridges and broadband. It is also health care and home care and education.

Because that new road or bridge isn’t so great if you can’t use it to get to work because you don’t have access to reliable dependent care. 

We’re working hard to make sure quality, affordable child care remains a priority. We've heard it over and over again that many people, mainly women, have been sidelined during the pandemic because they’re primary caregivers. The childcare system in our country is woefully insufficient and that has to be fixed.

Because this isn’t just a women’s issue. This is a family issue. This is a working person's issue. This is a core economic issue. The pandemic made that clear. Care work makes all other jobs possible. That’s the bottom line.

And care jobs should be good jobs with livable wages, benefits and protections.

None of these are new issues of course. For generations, working women have gritted their teeth and persevered. Despite unaffordable child care, undervalued labor, unequal pay. We simply kept going—because that’s what we had to do.

So it doesn’t come as a surprise that working women found hope in our unions. A voice on the job. The power of the collective where equal pay and benefits like paid family leave are the norm, and a work culture where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

And we found in our unions a strong support network that helped us through tough times, challenged us to go after what we deserved, and pushed us to take on leadership roles.

Everyone here has a story about what brought them into the labor movement. 

For me, it was learning how women catalyze change by connecting with each other. Even in those early days...

When I was 11 years old. I used to babysit...and one day I asked my friend Brenda, the other babysitter on the block, how much she was making. 

Turns out I was getting short changed. So we decided to stand together...and we raised our hourly pay together. 

And I knew I wanted to be part of our movement when I saw how the clerical workers I worked with at my hometown local electric company Portland General Electric—were treated differently. 

We didn’t get the same respect as the power linemen who worked in the field. The difference? The men in the field—and they were all men—they had a union. 

That’s how I got my start: by mobilizing and organizing for equity. 

And we reach leadership through a simple but important strategy: working with and standing on each other’s shoulders — the women in our movement lifting each other up. 

That’s what’s powerful about this conference. You’re supporting one another and building the skillsets we need to lead in our unions and our communities.

And the more women lead, the more we organize, the more leverage we have to win progress…today and for the next generation too.

We are now 6.5 million strong and growing. The labor movement is the largest organization of working women in the country, and we are on track to be the majority of union members in a few years.
I want every woman in every type of job to see they have a place in our movement. 

That we are a force for women’s economic, cultural and political progress.

And I want women to see women leading at every level…

The labor movement needs you. If you’re thinking about stepping up into leadership — or if you’re not, because you’re saying, I’m not “qualified” enough yet — I want to encourage you to think again.

When I was still new to this movement back in Oregon, I was offered a position to work for the  international office of the IBEW in Washington D.C. And I remember I actually tried to talk my future boss out of offering me the job. Out of ALL the talented people he could choose to promote—I couldn’t believe he thought that I had the skills he was looking for. 

Does that sound familiar to anyone? I’ve since learned that this is a pretty common reaction when women are given the opportunity to lead.

But while you’re talking yourself out of it, there’s a guy somewhere, who is less qualified, saying, “yeah, why not? I can do that!” 

Take that next step even if it might make you uncomfortable. 

Taking that job and moving to Washington was the scariest thing I’d ever done. But it was that thing that got me out of my comfort zone and forced me to grow…personally and professionally. 

Still, becoming a woman leader in the labor movement can be tough. I know from experience.

When I joined the staff of my local union nearly 30 years ago, I was not only the youngest person in the room, but often the only woman … surrounded by these big, burly power linemen. 

It was intimidating at times. But I was fortunate to have had some great mentors help me advance through the union ranks. We all need that—not one of us can make that journey on our own. 

More and more women are taking formal and informal leadership roles at every level of our unions and our movement. (Hey!) We are serving as executive board members and vice presidents, we’re organizing workers, we’re mentoring and training the rising generation.

This didn’t happen by accident. It was a deliberate effort by our unions and our movement to put into place structural elements that allowed for the possibility for women to lead. 

Like designing jobs that are more likely to include women…

And recognizing women leaders look at things differently than men and so we should have the freedom to lead in a way that plays to our strengths…like collaborating and offering opportunities for engagement and building consensus… 

We don’t have to mimic a masculine style in order to be an effective leader. We can redefine what leadership looks like. And in doing so, we redefine the labor movement. 

We are building a bold and inclusive labor movement with women and people of color at the center. A dynamic and inclusive movement—a movement that everyone can see themselves in.

We need to bring in every single worker—across age, race, background, and industry—while staying nimble. We need to organize ourselves so we can respond at a moment’s notice, when our collective action can make the biggest difference and the most lasting gains.

That’s my vision for labor: A modern movement ready to meet the demands of the modern economy.

That is the labor movement that is going to help us build back better from this pandemic and go even further. Together, we can change solo fights to collective ones, unjust contracts to fair ones, bad jobs to good ones.

AFSCME women: We have the power to make extraordinary change. We can demand and win better deals for ourselves and for generations to come.

I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished together so far. Let’s keep the momentum rolling. I’m excited to see where we go from here.

Thank you.

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