Speech | Workplace Health and Safety

Shuler to ATU: Worker Power Starts with Democracy

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks at prepared at the Amalgamated Transit Union's 2023 Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C.:

Thank you, John [Costa]! Good morning, ATU family! Are there any Canadians in the room? Bonjour. It’s great to be here with all of you.
Happy Pride! How many first-timers at the conference? Are you fired up?! 

I want to recognize this leadership team, who have been incredible the past few years. 

John Costa, your amazing International President, with the top drawer officer team of Kenneth Kirk and Yvette Trujillo – what a powerhouse – thank you.
And I just want to say a word about John Costa – it’s so rare to find a leader who has both tremendous fight, but also tremendous empathy – he listens, puts members first with a humble approach to leadership and is one of the most respected leaders around our AFL-CIO table. And a good friend. He came into his job as president after the tragic loss of Larry, and I also went through a similar crisis when Rich Trumka died suddenly. And who was there immediately with support and advice? John Costa. And I’ll never forget it.

And to all of your vice presidents who make up the general executive. Thank you for your dedication to the ATU and to all the leaders and activists in the room, your union is smart, powerful and connected.

I looked at those photos from yesterday, and how incredible that your union leadership can meet with the President of the United States, the Vice President, in the Oval Office to bring the concerns of ATU members to the most powerful leader of the free world. When I think about this union I think about people who just find a way. Again and again.

Through a pandemic, through so many sacrifices and difficult moments…

I think about your Loudoun County Transit members of Local 689. Who stood up to Keolis last January. Who went on strike for weeks, in the dead of winter, demanding what was right — and galvanizing the labor movement in Northern Virginia and the surrounding area.  

I think about Local 1447 in Louisville — who beat back those racist divide-and-conquer proposals by management last November and won a great contract at the Transit Authority of the River City (TARC) — even against the headwinds in Kentucky, a right-to-work state.

You stand up, fight back and find a way. Again and again.

And you know what solidarity means. I was thinking back to this time last year. It’s one of the most memorable weeks of my life because I was in Philadelphia, with some of you too, at our AFL-CIO Convention.

We had delegates from our 60 unions (ATU among them of course) where we met to elect officers and chart the course for the labor movement’s future. 

And on behalf of Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond, the first black man elected to that position by the way – historic – and myself, we could not be more honored to fight alongside you as your AFL-CIO team. 

What I talked about that day was building a new, different kind of labor movement. 

The kind of movement we need to win in a world that is radically different than even 5 years ago.

We talked about how everything starts on the ground. And that we have to make organizing our number one priority and grow the labor movement across every type of job in our economies.  

Fast forward to today: we are investing like we never have before in grassroots organizing; in transformative and cross-union organizing; in building power from the ground up.

We are taking on tech and AI. Making sure we as workers have a seat at the head of the table and shaping how technology affects work and workers. 

So that technology makes our drivers and our transit workers safer, more efficient, better at our jobs instead of dehumanizing or replacing us.

But today we’re here to talk about political and legislative action and building an agenda that brings workers together, all over this country. At the local and municipal level, at the state level. And we definitely need to fight right here in Washington D.C.

And the three things that keep me up at night are: Keeping our democracy strong. Keeping our workers safe. Keeping our momentum going.

Let’s start with that first one: our democracy.

We are a federation of bus drivers, teachers, construction workers, writers, airline workers, hospitality workers, pro athletes.

But first and foremost we’re Americans.

We can’t win better wages, better health care, or safer workplaces if our democracy doesn’t exist.

And that’s the fight we are in right now.

We should be alarmed at the extremism that’s building in some corners of the country, and let’s be honest, within our membership. And we can’t be afraid to take that on and talk to our members about the issues.

We need to go into places like right across the river in Virginia — where Governor Youngkin is undoing decades of progress for working people — where we could see historic turnover in the State Legislature this fall that could mean book bans and far-right, anti-union laws if we don’t mobilize and hold the line.

And the attacks on voting rights we’re seeing all across our country – we need to make it easier to vote, not harder.

So let’s keep fighting for: Universal voter registration. Universal mail-in ballot access. Protecting our voter rolls. And eliminating discriminatory voter ID laws.

Worker power does not exist without the basic democratic power we all have as citizens.

The second thing keeping me up at night is: We have to keep our workers safe.

It is criminal that 75% of transit workers “fear for their safety on a daily basis” because they are at risk of physical, verbal and sexual assault from passengers. Criminal!

That’s 3 in every 4 transit workers.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but that is unacceptable.

How about we take care of the heroes who kept our country moving during the pandemic?

How about we hold the federal government and employers accountable for what they’re supposed to do and go after people who would dare attack one of our workers?

For twenty years now our aircraft flight decks have been as secure as a bank vault.

But there’s not one morning I wake up now  without seeing another story about a transit worker who was assaulted, or yelled at, or disrespected. Or worse.

And that doesn’t even scratch the surface. We have members exposed to high-voltage wires. Wet floors. Toxic chemicals. Dangerous fumes. Old equipment.

Worker safety is not a “yesterday” issue. It is a today issue. It is a tomorrow issue. Your members know it, the labor movement knows it and every lawmaker on Capitol Hill should be racing to do something about it!

It’s about time we passed legislation in all 50 states to make sure all workers are covered under OSHA protections. 

Let’s make sure every level of government and every employer prosecutes assaulters to the full extent of the law.

Let’s make sure every ATU member goes to their shift with peace of mind knowing they’ll come back home to their family.

That is not too much to ask!

Finally, the last thing that I worry about all the time is: How do we keep up this momentum and win more for workers.

For the first time in a generation we have the federal investments we’ve been fighting for, both here in the States and in Canada.

We have billions pouring into our public transit system and our infrastructure — modernizing our bus and subway fleets.

We have people talking about training for the first time in a long time. It’s up to us to enlist every state, every transit agency, every city, every community to work with us to invest in the training we need for our members.

Especially when it comes to emerging technology as we are going to a clean energy economy. You referred to a poll that said: 83% of local transit union leaders do not feel that their maintenance and operations members are adequately trained to work on zero-emission buses.

We know the solution: Training. Skill-building. Apprenticeship programs. So we can drive this green transition into the future.

Let’s fight at every level get the resources and show that the labor movement is the place to train for the changing technology.

Let’s invest in human capital.

There’s one more thing we need to talk about before I go which is: The guy who lives just a few blocks from here.

I don’t think I can say it any clearer: The progress we’ve made under Joe Biden has been remarkable.

We have more to do. He’d be the first to say it.

But we have seen generational investment in our infrastructure and our transit systems.

We have seen support for our striking brothers and sisters and siblings. 

We have seen this President stand with our movement in our push for the PRO Act — which would be the most consequential piece of legislation for workers in decades.

Let’s keep going and building forward with the most pro-union President of our lifetime.

Let’s engage our members. Build up your ATU-COPE.

I cannot wait to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you all for the next year to re-elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Elect pro-worker and pro-public transit candidates up and down the ballot.

It is going to be a year to remember.

And there is no one I’d rather be fighting alongside than this ATU family. Let’s get to work. Thank you.