Speech | Gender Equality

Shuler to CLUW: This is Our Time

Seneca Falls, N.Y.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler' delivered the following remarks at the Coalition of Labor Union Women's 50th anniversary celebration:

Good evening, CLUW ! What a joy it is to be here with you all tonight!

I want to thank my IBEW sister Crystal Herrera for that warm introduction, Elise Bryant for her incredible leadership, Executive Director Virginia Rodino, and every woman in this room who has built CLUW into the incredible coalition it is over the past 50 years!

We all know being in this movement means wearing a lot of hats, doesn’t it?

But of all the affiliations I’m lucky to be part of, every job title I’ve ever held in my life, there’s not a single one that I’m more proud of than this: I am a woman in the labor movement!

When I stood on that convention stage two years ago, you all were standing there with me. And when I stand up here tonight, you all are standing up here too.

This is my chosen family. And it means so much to be here with my family, celebrating 50 years strong, in this really special place.

Almost two centuries ago, about 300 women — and a few men, too, we’ll give them that! — came together, right here in nearby Seneca Falls, to do something radical.

We’d had this revolution as a country, hadn’t we?

Yet women had come out of it exactly the same.

Meaning we had no rights. No legal identity, separate from our husbands. No ability to own property. No access to education.

And let’s be blunt about what happened here, back in 1848: This was not yet an inclusive movement. Black, Brown, AAPI, Indigenous women and queer folks — incredible people who would come to lead and define our movement — were not represented here.

It would take other conventions, other moments — like the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, down in New York City, to start to fully bring us together.

But across all of those gatherings there was a common theme:

We as women did not have a voice in this country. A voice in our own lives.

That’s what they were fighting for. That’s what we’re still fighting for. That’s what our unions are supposed to deliver. But it’s never been that simple, has it?

How many people in this room remember where you could count on one hand the number of women you knew who led a union?

How many people remember when our issues, women’s issues, were treated like they were quaint side “issues”?

How many people remember a moment when Black and Brown women, in particular, were left on the sidelines, in this movement we claimed was about all of us?

Times are a-changing, finally — not fast enough, but changing, and they’re changing in large part because of what you all have fought for and created, right here. This space where we as women not only have a voice, but can come together to make our voice sharper and smarter and more confident.

That’s still what CLUW is all about today. It has paved the way for this incredible moment we’re in.  

Women all over our unions are saying: This is our movement! This is our time!

Look, we are half the workforce. We’re projected to be half the labor movement by 2025 — well, guess what? We’re right there!

We are leading these strikes and picket lines — autoworkers, baristas, nurses, actors, and retail workers — every type of job you can imagine!

And we’re more diverse than ever:  A higher percentage of Black and Latina women joined unions in 2023 than any other demographic!

We’re growing because more and more women all over this country are seeing the difference that a union makes in their life. That it’s better in a union.

Women earn more when they’re in a union. We’re more likely to have health care and benefits. Our workplaces are safer. We have more opportunity for promotions.

We’re part of something bigger than ourselves — with sisters and brothers and siblings arm in arm — looking out for one another. That’s the union difference!

But we want more. Because for all the progress we’ve made, all those gains, there are still those out there who want to drag us back to a hundred years ago. Who don’t want us to vote. Who don’t want us to have the right to decide what to do with our own bodies. Who want to make us second-class citizens in our own country.

We have too much on the line to let them win. 

Are you going to let them drag us backwards?

It’s time to come together around a vision — just like our foremothers did here, 178 years ago. An agenda by women for women. An agenda for this moment — and today’s CLUW and today’s labor movement.

The four things every working woman in this country should be able to count on one hand and know are true.

The first thing every working woman in this country should be able to say: I am the economic equal of any man. That means getting rid — once and for all — of the gender pay gap.

It means raising the wages and benefits of women who are in low-wage jobs, like caregivers, who should be valued and paid like the essential workers they are.

It means fixing our broken child care system so more women can actually join this booming economy we’re seeing right now. 

It means protecting our right to choose — if we can’t decide when to have a family, that affects our ability to make a good living.

Training and apprenticeships for women — and especially women of color, who have too often been shut out — in the trades and infrastructure jobs of the future, thanks to the investments of this Biden Administration. One, two, five years from now, there will be thousands of Crystal Herrera’s on clean energy jobs across America!

The second thing every working woman in this country should be able to say: I can lead my fellow co-workers and this movement.

It means we’re recommitting ourselves, as a movement, to invest in and support leadership development and training programs.

Look at those women down in the South who led the way organizing at BlueBird and Volkswagen. Who are helping write a different story in an entire region — breaking down a system that has kept workers and especially women of color down.

Look at the nurses in Wichita who are doing the exact same thing, and claiming their power.

We want more of those stories, don’t we?

Let’s help young women find mentors in this movement — so this next generation doesn’t have to come up like so many of us did, as an “only” in those meeting rooms.

All of us know who gave us that helping hand — or big push — to pull us into a meeting or a bargaining team or a leadership position.  

We start by learning the ropes, doing our homework, and then we start to think bigger.  And try to figure out, 'okay, how do I get there?'

One issue that was front and center for me early on in my days as Secretary-Treasurer is the notion of reproductive rights as worker rights — access to contraception and the right to abortion.

We know the headwinds against that issue inside our movement.  It was a steep hill to climb to get our federation moving forward.  

But like so many of you do every day in your unions, I took one step at a time side-by-side with my colleagues on our AFL-CIO women’s committee. And in my world that was one convention resolution at a time. Starting with policy on contraception, then agreement that women have the right to control our own bodies.

And then Dobbs happened.  And it pushed this issue right to the top, and we were ready for it.  This a defining issue for our generation and an issue that has helped define my own leadership journey.

The third thing is foundational: Every working woman in this country should be able to say 'I feel safe and respected at my job.'

That means an end to gender-based violence and harassment at work.

That means an end to unsafe workplaces and job sites, period.

That means no matter our identity, our orientation, our pronouns, we are treated with dignity and respect. And it means recognizing that discrimination and systemic racism against our sisters of color has to stop.

When I heard a sister in the Steelworkers tell me about when one of her male co-workers questioned whether she could drive a truck because “women don’t have good aim,” I was disappointed, to say the least.

And it means we band together, as a movement, to build community and effect change.

And the fourth and final pillar … that every working woman in this country should be able to say. It’s very simple: my voice matters and will make a difference. On the job. In this movement. In this democracy.

Go back to Georgia on Election Night, four years ago, and what did we see?

We saw the far-right extremists trying to shut down the participation of women — in particular women of color — from fulfilling the most basic right we have.

Guess what? They’re gonna try it again in November. They’ve been trying it for years: With voter ID, limiting mail-in ballots, cutting off early voting windows, closing polling locations, voter purging… the list goes on and on and on.

And we ask ourselves: Why don’t they want us to vote?

Because they know the power that we have, together.  They know that women of color always show up in force at the polls!

Because they know: We’re going to fight for candidates up and down the ballot who will fight for our reproductive rights. And will stand with our workers and our unions. And will deliver for women all over this country.

That’s why we’ll use all the muscle we have to protect that foundational right to vote. To protect the voice of every woman in this country and this democracy.

When every working woman in the country can say those four things, confidently, this country will have changed. And it’ll be because we changed it.

That’s the work that is ahead of us — over the next six months and the next 50 years.

When we do that work we’re honoring the women who came up to Seneca Falls, all those years ago. We’re honoring the heroes at the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, all those years ago.

And we’re honoring every working woman who’s coming up next to lead the future.

Congratulations on 50 years. I can’t wait to see what the next 50 hold. Let’s get to work! Thank you!

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