Shuler to IBEW: Let's Make the Most of This Moment


President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks as prepared at the IBEW's 40th Convention in Chicago:

Good morning, everyone! And thank you, President [Lonnie] Stephenson for that kind introduction. You and Secretary-Treasurer [Kenny] Cooper are doing such an incredible job leading the IBEW, and I’m so grateful for everything you do here and for the AFL-CIO.

Congratulations on your re-election. I’m so proud to be an IBEW member and to watch our union reach new heights under your leadership.

And congratulations to the International Vice Presidents and International Executive CounciI members on their elections. And I’ll give a special shout out to 6th District VP Paul Noble, who just started a few weeks ago and already has the national convention in his own backyard—well done, Paul.

It is an absolute honor to be here at the IBEW convention with all of you! I’m home. As you heard, I grew up in the electric utility industry when generations all worked at the same company, back when it was like a family. My mom worked in service and design. My dad was a power lineman and then later a Special Tester doing power quality work. I worked at the utility in college as a clerical worker in Payroll. I’ve seen the work up close, especially during ice storms and when the power goes out on Thanksgiving Day—our members answering the call in the middle of the night to keep people safe and warm. So, electrons are in my blood.

And what I experienced and learned over those years is what I carry with me in my work across the labor movement today. Because I experienced the union difference. The power linemen like my dad had good pay, benefits, dignity and respect—because they had a union contract. The clerical workers, on the other hand—like the women I worked with in Payroll—didn’t have a union contract, and they were not treated the same. We didn’t feel respected or that we had the same security or ability to speak out without fear.

After I graduated from college and the clerical workers at the company decided to organize, I wanted to be a part of that! They were standing up, taking a huge risk, showing incredible courage. So I went to work for Local 125—and never looked back.

And fast forward to today—look at all the workers standing up. There are so many uprisings happening around us. People are fed up with the corporate greed, they’re fired up and organizing unions in a wave of activism we haven’t seen in decades. Young people are stepping up to organize at Collectivo coffee and Starbucks—workers at Amazon warehouses—university graduate students, workers at REI and in the cannabis industry—it’s a whole new generation of trade unionists showing all of us how to be bold and creative and fearless—because they are the future leaders of our movement.

I was just in New Jersey, meeting with young workers who organized at Starbucks and in the cannabis industry. (And yes, to answer your questions, after meetings they do offer you edibles to take home.) And after our meeting we had a press event with the governor and the state AFL-CIO leadership. And we all spoke and two of the workers spoke, and then we opened it up for questions from the press.

And we heard someone say, “Yeah, I have a question”—but it wasn’t a reporter, it was actually one of the young women onstage who had worked to organize the cannabis industry.

We were a little surprised because that wasn’t really what we meant—it was a little unconventional, a bit out of the norm, but of course we gave her the mic. And she started asking about why the cannabis industry was using non-compete agreements, and talking about how they drive down wages and don’t allow people to reach their full potential.

She saw her moment and she wasn’t afraid to make the most of it. She was ready to hold those in power accountable, to take a risk, and ask for more.

And that’s exactly what we all should be doing. We are in such an incredible moment as a labor movement, there are so many opportunities in front of us and we need to make the most of them. We need to take risks. Ask for more. Try new things. Get out of our comfort zones.

It’s not easy, and it’s not always going to work. And that’s okay too. It makes me think of our President Emeritus Ed Hill—and Lonnie and Kenny remember this—he used to say, “I’m not going to get upset when you make mistakes. If you make mistakes that’s a good thing—because it means you’re doing something, you’re making moves, you’re not just sitting still.

And that should be our charge as activists and leaders in our movement. Let’s try new things and be bold and not be held back by the way we used to do things or the fear that something new won’t work. Because when you try new things you can bring in new people and fresh ideas.

One of the Starbucks workers I talked with in New Jersey said they were using the company's own platform and channels to get their message out. Have you heard about this? When you use the app to place a mobile order, they’ve asked people to change their account names to “Union Yes”—so that when they called out the orders were ready, people in the store would hear “Union Yes” over and over again. I love that—such a simple idea that can help us gain momentum and new followers.

We have to meet this moment with new innovations and ideas that show that unions are modern, relevant and the place to go as our workplaces evolve and change in the future.

In Seattle, the AFL-CIO and affiliate unions developed a new Digital Hiring Hall that took the building trades’ Hiring Hall model and adapted it for other industries. That Virtual Hiring Hall is being used to fill hundreds of jobs at the Climate Pledge Arena, and to fill them with a focus on racial and gender equity. That’s going to connect people to careers they might not have found otherwise, careers that will change lives—help families move into the middle class—and revitalize communities—and people connect that the union is the place to go for that.

We’re organizing in tech, in offshore wind, and other new and emerging industries to make sure we are creating good union jobs from day one. And the IBEW is the leader! Showing that when you include a worker voice and perspective upstream—and we are a part of the research and development of new technologies, that they can work for working people. We cannot allow a small group of billionaires to be the only ones who benefit—we want everyone to share in the wealth that these technologies create.

The only way we can take on these corporate giants like Amazon is to organize. And do it together, across unions, across geographies—it’s going to take all of us. We saw this in Bessemer, Alabama. When working people came together at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer for that rerun last March, we had 15 unions and central labor councils and state federations who put more than 100 organizers on the ground. That kind of organizing solidarity hasn’t been done before and it should be a model for us in more industries and more places across the country.

Look at what the workers in Bessemer inspired—we are seeing working people mobilizing in places that were once considered impossible. Amazon workers in New York, Starbucks locations across the country, and that’s inspired workers at Apple Stores in Atlanta and other places. Museum workers and cultural institutions, video game developers at Activision Blizzard, heck, even workers for our favorite political candidates’ campaigns and members of Congress on Capitol Hill!

Working people are taking on the biggest fights there are and we are winning. This is an incredible moment for organizing. And the more people see it, the more they want to do it, too. We have to be there to help them.

Organizing is where it all starts. And it should always be our number one priority. This is how we help people find life-changing new careers—bring more people into our movement—and build a movement that lasts well into the future.

This is the time to do it. Thanks to your hard work electing the Biden administration—the most pro-union administration in history—and a pro-worker majority in Congress, the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is creating good union jobs across the country. President [Lonnie] Stephenson—I know you were there on the White House lawn at the bill signing with the president, that’s how committed this administration is to unions.

And it will be IBEW members leading the way in modernizing and maintaining our national grid—expanding the reach of broadband to more communities—and working on the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and public transit. Now it’s up to us to use this opportunity to shape the future of our country—to keep training new people in communities that have been historically marginalized—and to keep building our movement.

So let’s double down. Let’s not just leave fliers at the high schools, let’s get in there and talk to kids and parents about the way apprenticeships can change lives. Let’s talk to that neighbor we pass by and let them know about the union difference when you become a member of the IBEW. Let’s keep pushing ourselves as a movement to think of new ways to work together and lift each other’s organizing efforts up. Let’s keep getting out of our comfort zones. They say, to grow, we’re supposed to make ourselves feel uncomfortable up to seven times a day.

So start small—wear hot pink or try an Impossible vegan hamburger—you never know, you could like it—and then speak up at a press conference—or at a convention in front of 3000 people.

While I have the mic, I’m going to channel that young woman in New Jersey and use this opportunity to ask for more. It’s a simple ask: With all the misinformation and disinformation out there, we are the only institution in the country that can access real workers in actual workplaces across the country, face to face. The simple ask is to have one-on-one conversations with your members. Talk about our shared values and our vision for the future, especially as we head into the 2022 election. Talk to them about the issues that they care about—reestablish that trust—listen. And only then, do we connect those issues to the candidates who will fight to address them.

I know this is a difficult time for that ask. People are so polarized—we’re almost afraid to talk to each other about anything remotely political, I get that. But that’s exactly why these conversations are so important, it’s why our political program for the midterms and beyond is focused on these one-on-one conversations that help us break through the echo chambers of Facebook and cable news.

Find those points of connection—we’re all feeling the pinch of inflation, we’re all worried about the economy, we all want to hold those who abuse power accountable. We can find points of common ground to start from—I know we can.

This kind of relational organizing works because it builds on trusted relationships. If you talk to someone who already knows and trusts you—and more importantly, you listen to them—you can start to make real progress.

IBEW knows how to do this, I’ve seen you take to Action Builder like nobody’s business. That’s the mobile-enabled tool we use for organizing. And what we’re talking about here is taking an organizing approach to politics. So keep building on it. And if you are in a battleground state, I hope you’re connected with your State Federations and CLCs to game out the larger worksites in your area and start your outreach plan.

This is our moment, folks. There is so much at stake. The war in Ukraine, the talk of recession, the rise of extremist ideology. The future of our democracy, of our planet. That’s what this election is about—it’s a fight for our future.

10 years from now, we’re gonna look back on this moment. Us right here together. And whether we answered the call to organize and grow our labor movement. If not now, when? If not us, who? Think back to our IBEW founders in the earliest days—at the dawn of electricity. Think about how much faith they were putting in the unknown, in a new idea. They knew it wasn’t a guaranteed success, and that there might be failures along the way. But they took the risk—and look at what they created.

Let’s follow the path they lit. Let’s keep getting out of our comfort zones and build a brighter future together. I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

Thank you.