Speech | Better Pay and Benefits

Shuler: Collective Action is Alive and Well in the South

New Orleans, Louisiana

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler delivered the following opening remarks at the Southern District Strategy Session:

Thank you, Dr. (Louis) Reine, for that kind introduction. And thanks to UA Local 60 for hosting us today. Good morning, everybody. It’s great to see all the union power in this room!

I want to reinforce what Belinda said about our Code of Conduct. We simply will not tolerate any form of harassment, discrimination or bullying. If you experience or see something, please report it to one of the designees.

For months, we’ve witnessed the bravery of working people across industries, occupations, identities and genders come forward to tell their stories and make visible the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. This is a watershed moment and I can’t think of a better group to chart the way forward than the labor movement.

Our goal for today’s meeting is to unite around a common purpose and strategy to win back power for workers. Over the next several hours, we’ll look at ways to neutralize Janus and right to work by organizing internally. We’ll dive into our Path to Power program with Charlie Wowkanech of the New Jersey AFL-CIO whose labor candidate school has inspired a nationwide push to elect union members to office. We’ll discuss the ways we are using data and technology to break new ground in politics AND organizing. And we’ll lay out our Labor 2018 program, with a focus on talking to our members about issues.

At the AFL-CIO convention in St. Louis in October, I talked about the labor movement reaching a tipping point, where just focusing on protecting what we have is far more dangerous than taking risks.

So today we are going to focus on ways our unions can accelerate change, be bold and meet the challenges of our time.

I want to touch on four key areas where we can make that impact.

The first is politics. We simply can no longer afford to support candidates based solely on their party registration. You understand this better than anyone here in the South. For too long, Republicans have attacked us...Democrats have ignored us...and true worker champions have been few and far between. But we are starting to change that.

As a labor movement, we are putting issues first. Good jobs. The freedom to form a union. Health care for all. Retirement security. Paid time off. Workplace safety. immigration reform. Equal pay. These are popular across the political spectrum.

If you embrace labor’s agenda, we will use our organizing capacity to help get you elected. We saw the power of our electoral program in the most recent special election in Pennsylvania. But Conor Lamb wasn’t the first to ride a union wave to victory. We did it for Ralph Northam in Virginia. We did it for Doug Jones in Alabama. We did it for Linda Belcher in Kentucky and Braxton Winston in Charlotte. And we’re ready to do it throughout the South this fall.

Improving the lives of union members and all working people must be our guiding light in politics. And as Charlie will explain later, there is simply no substitute for electing one of our own.

The second way we can make an impact is by shaping the future of work. Sometimes the future is presented as a "new" discussion. But the fact is workers and unions have been adapting to the changing nature of work throughout our history. We embrace innovation and cutting edge advancements that improve products, services and lives. But we do not accept a model of change that leaves workers behind.

At the AFL-CIO Convention in October, delegates unanimously voted to form an AFL-CIO Commission on the Future of Work and Unions. Our commission is focused on the urgency of this moment and committed to the powerful principle that the economy of the future should be fueled by good jobs, real bargaining power and strong unions.   

But we aren’t just talking to ourselves. We’re taking our message on the road and talking with CEOs, tech companies and financial institutions about why workers must be at the center of this conversation. In a few weeks, I will be back here in New Orleans at Collision…a tech conference...to share our vision and experience with thousands of employers.

The third way we can make an impact is by building a more diverse labor movement. We know the stats. By 2055, non-whites will be a majority in America. We know that a collective bargaining agreement is the best tool for achieving justice for ALL working people—but with 90 percent of America not in unions, we have to make our case directly to those who would benefit most from collective bargaining.

For example, women are half the workforce, and will be half the union movement in less than 8 years. Today is Equal Pay Day, which means women have to work all the way until April 10 to earn what men did in the previous year. Let’s show working women that a union is the best way to achieve equal pay, paid time off, family leave and protection from sexual harassment. And while we’re at it, let’s move more women into the leadership of our unions.

Young people need better jobs and less debt—we can be on the front lines of the college affordability debate and push for more resources for apprenticeship and training to show we’re a path forward for them.

People of color want upward mobility and a justice system that doesn't discriminate...immigrants need a path to citizenship and protection from deportation...LGBTQ want to stop being fired and bullied because of who they are...let’s show them all that unions are the answer!

And that brings me to the final way we can have an impact: making unions relevant to people’s daily lives. Today, we’ll talk about Janus and the other attacks on our rights. Of course, we are fighting back.  We’re mobilizing our members, arguing our case before the Supreme Court and recommitting to organizing.

But we must also use these attacks to demonstrate our value…through industry-leading contracts...through cutting edge training and education that helps workers ladder up to better job…through the actions we take to improve communities, like responding to natural disasters, helping immigrants win citizenship and stopping sexual harassment.

If we demonstrate value, we become essential. And right to work becomes irrelevant, because workers will want to join us.

The labor movement has been demonstrating our value here in the South under the most difficult political and economic conditions. All twelve states in this region are right to work. Yet time and again, unions are overcoming the odds and showing the true power of solidarity.

Here in New Orleans, workers at the city’s largest hotel formed a union with UNITE HERE.

Across the border in Arkansas, we had an increase of 15,000 union members in 2017. Did you hear that Walmart?

In Tennessee, the labor movement stopped a corporate-backed effort to privatize maintenance and management at most state-run facilities.

Teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky are walking out to demand higher salaries and more school funding.

And workers at Disney World rejected the company’s low-ball contract offer and continue to stand together for better pay and working conditions.

Whether it’s organizing in the Carolinas, taking political action in Virginia and Georgia or bargaining the best contracts in Alabama and Mississippi, collective action is alive and well here in the South.

Last week, I had the privilege of traveling to Memphis for AFSCME’s “I AM 2018” campaign marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.

Being there was a reminder of how far we’ve come and the work still left to be done.  

To finish the job started by the Memphis sanitation workers and lifted up by Dr. King and others, we must be willing to take risks and embrace change.

That’s what this moment demands. That’s what we are committed to doing. That’s what this meeting is all about. Thank you.

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