Speech | Future of Work

Shuler to Government, Business, Judicial Leaders: Give Workers a Seat at the Table

Big Sky, Montana

President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks as prepared at the Big Sky Labor & Employment Conference:

Thank you, Erin, and hello, everyone. It’s great to be here in Big Sky, and I want to thank our hosts for inviting me to join all of you and for giving me the opportunity to open up this conference on labor and employment with a message from the more than 12 million working people who are members of the AFL-CIO. 

I have the incredible privilege of representing the nurses in emergency rooms who helped our loved ones battle COVID… the meatpackers who make sure there is food on the shelves when we go to the grocery store…the tradespeople who are - at this very minute - rebuilding our nation’s crumbling infrastructure… and even your favorite NFL and women’s soccer players. 

Our labor movement spans industries and sectors, regions and states. Union members are found from coast to coast. And wherever you find them, you’ll find the people powering our nation’s economy. 

But you won’t often find working people at events like this. 

Powerful people talk about us a lot—but it’s not often they talk WITH us. It’s time for that to change. And I believe every single one of you already knows that. 

You know that because you’re seeing the same trends I’m seeing. When you look across the country, turn on the news, open Twitter...it’s the same story every day: working people are fed up. We’re fed up with working harder, being more productive, and watching other people take the fruits of our labor… With being called essential one day and expendable the next...But most of all we are fed up with being told to be quiet, get with the program, and it will all be alright.  But it’s not alright.  Not by a long shot. 

Record numbers of people quit their jobs last year, and I just saw new data showing 40%—40%—of workers want to quit their jobs in the next three to six months. Clearly the current system isn’t working for anyone. 

So at the AFL-CIO, we looked into these trends. We did a survey of 10,000 people and asked: Why do you  want to leave your job? And we asked: What do YOU think would make YOUR JOB better?

And while many people said they quit their jobs over issues like income and pay—the reasons we’d all expect, more workers said that it was the way they were treated that pushed them to leave their jobs. Time and time again, we heard unfair treatment, poor management, and toxic environments were the worst parts of the job. 

So then we asked people: Do you think collective action could have solved your issues with pay and benefits, and management, and treatment at your workplace? And half of the respondents said yes. Half. 

And we’re seeing that belief brought to life. Working people are organizing everywhere—in breweries and coffee shops...REI and Apple Stores...stadiums and hospitals...universities and museums...in the cannabis industry...on Capitol Hill...and even on the ski patrol at the Big Sky Resort. 

And as far as I’m concerned those workers who are organizing, who are finding the courage to fight for a better life on the job—they are the heart of our labor movement.  

When I’m out talking to people who are organizing, I hear so much talk about building a fairer system, with respect for the working people who make companies’ successes possible. And it reminds me of when I got my start as an organizer back at the local utility company in Oregon. 

My whole family worked for the electric utility company. My dad was a power lineman. My mom worked in service and design. And during college, I worked at the utility as a clerical worker. 

And I saw how the power linemen were treated – they had good pay, benefits and dignity. And I saw how the clerical workers were treated—basically the opposite. And I knew what the difference was right away: the power linemen were in a union, the clerical workers weren’t—so we didn’t have a voice on the job.

After I graduated from college, the clerical workers decided to organize…to end the days of one set of rules for some and one set for others. They were standing up, taking a huge risk, and showing incredible courage to fight for what was fair. I wanted to be a part of that! So I worked on that campaign, then I went to work as an organizer for IBEW Local 125—and I never looked back. I’ve been organizing and fighting for fairer workplaces ever since, I just get to do it on a bigger scale now. 

And when I’m out with organizers or on picket lines with striking workers, I see that same call for fairness, for a single set of rules that everyone has to play by. 

Last year, I had the privilege of walking the Nabisco picket line...where more than 1,000 workers went on strike. Mondelez thought they could threaten to ship good, union jobs to Mexico if workers didn't agree to major concessions...despite bringing in record corporate profits. The company was trying to pit workers against each other by offering a two-tiered health care system that would've weakened coverage for new hires.

But the workers there wouldn’t stand for that. When I was on the picket line in Richmond, Virginia I met two members of BCTGM Local 358, Keith Bragg and Darlene Carpenter. And they recognized that a threat to any worker is a threat to us all. They told me: “We don’t sell out our young workers. We are fighting for the next generation.”  

That’s what the labor movement does. We stand together to fight for each other and for what’s right and what’s fair. 

And when we come together and organize worker power in our unions, we create a path forward for our families, our communities and our country. We create hope and confidence in the future. 

But when the only power is the power of organized money...and when the economy feels unfair, and political life seems mysterious and closed to working people, that makes the very foundation of our communities and our democracy unstable. That’s a threat to everyone. 

I’m sure you’ve been glued to the TV during the January 6th hearings like I have. It’s appalling to see the lengths a few people in power, starting with our former president, went to in order to undermine our democracy. But what’s equally worrying is the anger and frustration of the people in the crowd they summoned and manipulated–feelings we see across the country and the political spectrum.

If we want our democracy to be stable and real, America needs to be a country where people have a way to have a voice…to have power and dignity. In the workplace, in their communities, in our nation as a whole. That’s what unions are: a way for working people to create for ourselves these fundamental things in life—stability… prosperity… a place to belong. That’s why large majorities of the American public support unions, and even larger majorities support specific groups of workers taking action—like John Deere strikers and Amazon organizers. And it’s why I see unions as a true pillar of democracy. Rule by the people - that’s what unions are at heart. 

And rule by the people is how we’re going to fix the challenges we face. So let’s talk about how we get there—to a real democracy that begins in the workplace. Because working people cannot continue to be shut out of the process if we want to have a healthy economy, a healthy society or a healthy democracy.

In the labor movement we believe in dialogue. Negotiation is our lifeblood—t’s what we do. We’re not scared of a conversation – even when it’s difficult, even when it seems like there’s no way forward. Because we know that not talking is the only way you’re guaranteed to not make any progress.

I am here today because I believe that if our country and our world are going to move forward—we need constructive dialogue between working people, business and government. 

But we can’t pretend we have dialogue here at Big Sky when actual working people in actual workplaces don’t have a seat at the table. Or when a majority of America’s workers say they want to be part of unions and their employers and their employers’ friends in government and on the courts make that impossible. 

We see those actions every day…

From companies that refuse to bargain in good faith...fire people who organize...hold captive audience meetings...replace workers who are striking for better pay...or intentionally misclassify workers to deny them the legal protections that come from being an employee... 

From those who use the courts to aid and abet the union busting process and tell employers how to get away with breaking the law… 

And from public servants who have used budget cuts and endless litigation to limit the power of the NLRB...and who refuse to advance the PRO Act and create rules that level the playing field for working people. 

All of those actors who work so hard to silence working people would do well to learn the importance of having a two-way dialogue - quickly. I know we have a mixed crowd here, so that’s just some friendly advice. 

And if you don’t believe me, again, just look at the news, workers are fed up. There’s almost no better example of the need for companies to have an ongoing dialogue with and a respect for working people than Warrior Met Coal in Alabama. Six years ago Warrior Met filed for bankruptcy, but in order to save the company and the community, the workers agreed to make major sacrifices - to their wages, time off, overtime pay and healthcare coverage. 

Thanks to those workers, the company has been able to turn things around, but they still haven’t fully reinstated worker pay and benefits. So those workers have had to go on strike for more than a year. For more than a year the miners at Warrior Met have been facing financial uncertainty in order to send the message to the company that if we’re going to share in the sacrifice, we sure as hell better share in the success. 

But Warrior Met hasn’t budged. The strike has already cost the company millions of dollars in expenses and idle mines and billions in potential sales. 

It’s gotten to the point where even BlackRock Investment Management - the world’s largest asset manager and the company’s leading shareholder—has told Warrior Met that prolonging the strike is bad for business. 

The team at BlackRock must know the union saying ‘one day longer, one day stronger.’ Anyone who’s heard it knows trying to wait us out isn’t the best option. 

That’s why it’s better to come to the table in good faith. 

I have always believed that the best solutions are found by working together – that’s probably what drew me to unions in the first place. No one knows the meaning of those two words - working and together - better than we do. 

That’s why I see a future where unions and workers are integrated into every facet of our economy - so we can help develop better solutions that work for everyone. 

When I look at the way technology is changing workplaces, for instance, I see a simple truth: if you want to make smart investments in technology that will truly improve your workplaces—you have to start by talking to the people who will work with it. 

We know the operations of our industries better than anyone. We know that implementing new technology works better when workers have a genuine voice in the process, not just on the easy questions, but the tough ones that will never be surfaced through an “open door” policy. 

We need to be at every table creating the next generation of technology. Bringing working people to the table and upstream in R&D pays dividends for everyone. That’s why we launched the AFL-CIO Technology Institute, so we could bring the brightest minds in research, organizing, and innovation together. 

And as industries continue to shift and change, unions can continue to prepare workers with the skills they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow. Companies and unions can work together to build the next generation of the American workforce. 

Union training is already the gold standard, and it can give workers access to the upskilling companies will need to meet the demands of the future. 

I see a similar model for new industries—from clean energy to tech to cannabis. Collaborating with working people to build these industries from the ground up will create a solid foundation for new industries by creating a sustainable workforce that can help them get established and continue to grow. 

One of the efforts I am most proud to have been a part of is an effort with the building trades unions to help advance the investments we must make to fight climate change. 

We just signed a project labor agreement with the Danish offshore wind company Orsted to make sure that all of the construction jobs on wind farms all up and down the East Coast will be good union jobs. 

Together, we’re proving that this model works. And it must work if we are going to fight climate change effectively. If we can’t make new energy jobs as good as or better than legacy energy jobs, we simply won't make the change fast enough to avoid catastrophe.

And I know that more companies are starting to get the idea that there is incredible value in valuing working people. 

I know that because I see their commercials. 

Like the Amazon commercials that tout the benefits they offer to employees and show smiling workers in warehouses. Except we all know those workers are leaving in droves – they leave so quickly that Amazon actually builds a 150% turnover rate into their business model. 

Or the car commercial I saw the other day that I could’ve sworn it was a union ad. This entire commercial focused on the hardworking people who assemble cars right here in America - it had the dramatic Morgan Freeman-style voice over, the close ups of smiling workers on the factory floor, worker’s signatures, you name it. 

The message was clear: our value comes from the people who make our product. 

If Madison Avenue can see the value in the American worker, I know everyone here can, too. But this recognition has to go beyond using workers as a selling point in your ads or your talking points. 

Every company now knows the value of socially responsible business practices - those start in house… your social responsibility starts with your own employees. 

And this next generation of job applicants are looking for you to take that responsibility seriously. They will be pushing you—and you have two ways to respond. And I want to spell out what choosing each of those ways will look like. 

You can go the path of Starbucks, where baristas have been joining together from Seattle to Miami to ask for basic things like fair pay, predictable schedules and affordable health care. 

In response, the company has spent countless dollars deploying classic union busting techniques. During an April town hall, CEO Howard Shultz went so far as to call their efforts to form unions a “threat” and an “assault.” You can imagine that hasn’t exactly slowed the workers down. In fact—since that town hall, more than 189 locations have voted to form unions and at least 40 more have filed to form them. 

Or you could go the path of Microsoft and its CEO Brad Smith, who looked at the direction their workers were heading in and chose a different response. 

They worked with the Communications Workers of America to enter into a labor neutrality agreement that applied at Microsoft and Activision Blizzard—because they recognized that enabling workers to freely and fairly make a choice about union representation will benefit Microsoft and its employees, and create opportunities for innovation in the gaming sector.

60 million of America’s workers would join a union today if they could. 

This future is coming. You can fight it or you can embrace it. 

Every one of us can look ahead and see where the workforce is going - they’ve made it clear. 

I encourage you all to meet them there. Resistance doesn’t work—it will only widen the inequality gap, push people further behind, and create more instability and a less productive, less reliable workforce. 

We each have a role to play—in our companies, our unions, our courts, our government. Each of us can address the roadblocks that make it harder for people to organize, each of us can choose to stop putting them up. 

Unions are how we build the workplaces and societies we need to lead good lives – that’s something everyone should understand and support. 

Unions are the pathway that workers build to a better future for our democracy, for business, and for America. 

That ad I just mentioned earlier, that showed all those people hard at work assembling cars, ended with the line: You might not know their names, but these people get up every day working together to move us all forward. 

My challenge to you is: get to know our names…help us get a seat at the table…have the dialogue. 

And I promise that when you do, we will all move forward. 

Thank you. 

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