Speech | Labor Law

Shuler to IBEW: Unions are Transformational

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks to the 2021 IBEW Membership Development Conference:

Hello, IBEW! It’s so good to be back home, and see friends from all across the country.

So thank you to everyone who is making this virtual conference possible, especially Ricky Oakland, who I know works his tail off to make this happen.

Thank you Lonnie Stephenson and Kenny Cooper—IBEW is one of the strongest unions in North America thanks to their outstanding leadership. And to the Vice Presidents, IEC leadership and to the leaders and members, you are the heartbeat of our labor movement.

And on a personal note, I want to thank both of you for your encouragement and support through this unexpected transition at the AFL-CIO. And to so many of you for your kind messages it’s kept us going, and been a personal comfort, knowing the IBEW is there.

As a movement, we’ve weathered challenges and loss, the personal and economic toll of COVID.

But we are rising to meet this moment, and organize for the future.

Now is the time to be bold, take risks, and unlock union growth. We are going to build the most dynamic and inclusive labor movement yet—because if not now, then when? So many working people out there are hungry for change and it’s up to us to show them that unions are the path forward.

Unions are transformational. Everyone here has a story about the union difference.

For my family, it started when my dad returned home from fighting in Vietnam—he went to work for the local power company and a union lineman apprenticeship program put him on the path to a good job at Portland General Electric.

And that job put our family on the path to the middle class.

My father grew up in poverty, often didn’t have enough to eat—and in one generation, the union difference meant his kids didn’t have to worry about a stable roof over our head—or us having food to eat.

Every working person in this country should have that life-changing power of a good, union job.

But to get there, we have to be ready to meet the needs of a changing workforce. Be ready to experiment, take risks, and innovate.

We have to anticipate, and keep at least one step ahead of changes in the economy.

The organizing we do now is going to shape the power structures in this country.

There’s a lot riding on what we do. Because the American middle class that we worked so hard to build has been hollowed out.

In the same generation that my family found the American dream, we lost it—because Enron bought the power company and its fraud and corporate greed destroyed retirement security for my dad—and the entire community when it filed for bankruptcy.

As a country, we’ve suffered skyrocketing corporate greed because of attacks on unions and our organizing rights.

Bad policy enabled offshoring and outsourcing.

Young workers are living a generational backslide.

And now, we’re being put at risk and treated as expendable throughout this pandemic. Are we going to take it any more?

No. We’re done. And the labor movement is driving a nationwide reckoning. We’re taking courageous action.

Nearly 100,000 union members are either on strike or willing to go on strike across industries and all over the country. I’m walking the picket line with UAW members at John Deere in Moline IL. They reached a TA on Saturday, but they don’t vote until tomorrow, so today is literally one day longer, one day stronger. What’s so inspiring though, is the solidarity. And I’m seeing IBEW members walking the picket lines all across the country. Tom Townsend Local 704 has been out walking with me this morning!

And the nation is watching. People are with us. Across party lines—nearly 75 percent of voters agree—working people can and should join together to win a fairer share of the gains we create.

Our challenge—what I think about constantly—is how we turn this momentum into organizing breakthroughs.

That’s why your work is critical.

And look at the progress you’ve made:

You welcomed nuclear security officers at the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Storm Chasers with an outside construction contractor.

And you’ve managed to hit another all time high in construction membership!

To grow, we also need investments. We have a generational opportunity.

With the bipartisan infrastructure bill and reconciliation, we’re on the brink of passing historic investments in working people and our communities.

There’s a lot of talk about how this sausage is getting made in Washington—what’s in—what’s out.

But no one is going to remember that in the end.

What they're going to remember are the jobs it creates.

And as a movement, we’re going to make sure those are good, union jobs.

IBEW is especially leading the way for an equitable clean energy transition.

Because the only way we can meet the urgency of the climate crisis is with a high-road strategy that creates good, union jobs.

And IBEW members are showing that the clean energy future runs right through the labor movement—from coast to coast—IBEW members in Rhode Island built the first offshore wind farm—in California, they’re operating the largest floating solar farm.

At the same time, we need to reclaim our organizing rights.

We need to pass the PRO Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act.

Imagine if corporations had to pay when they violate labor law.

Well, when reconciliation passes, it looks like it will include this key piece of the PRO Act—financial penalties to hold employers accountable.

That means if they break the law, there will be REAL consequences.

That could be a game-changer for organizing.

And when you organize—because a union card is the best way to close wage gaps and guarantee equal pay—you’re also organizing for racial justice and gender equity.

I got my own start in the labor movement by mobilizing and organizing for equity.

At that same electrical utility where my dad worked—the clerical workers, nearly all women, including my mom—weren’t treated with the same respect because they weren't in the union.

So we organized.

I remember the first house call I made. I tried to capture it all on paper.

But the way the system worked, the richness of that conversation wasn’t captured.

Until a few years ago, those days of clipboards and frantic sticky notes and paper everywhere really hadn’t evolved much.

We were using software from before Y2K. But a tool called Action Builder has been a breakthrough. You’ll hear more about it later in the conference.

But I want to highlight how we didn’t just invent a technology and say here, use this.

The AFL-CIO brought organizers to the table, like Adrian Sauceda, international representative in the Membership Development Department.

And we asked, what do you need? What should we build and how? And we built a tool that’s democratizing organizing—making it more accessible for everyone.

Action builder is a case study in labor innovation. And union innovation impacts everyone.

That’s part of our history. Innovations from the labor movement—like the weekend—challenged inhumane economic conditions in the past.

History is repeating itself today: We’re again challenging economic conditions—and Action Builder is an innovation we’re using to organize the change working people are hungry for.

It’s helping us reach millennials—the largest generation in the workforce—and the most interested generation in joining unions—more than 60%.

Amazing potential is right there.

So don’t hold back. Take risks. Reach.

Over 12.5 million working people in 57 unions—we are the most powerful vehicle for progress in this country.

Our time is now.

I talked about the transformational change the IBEW had on my family’s life—the IBEW runs deep in my veins—and every single day of my life, the values I learned from this great union guide me at every turn.

The work you all do as organizer makes lives better for workers and their families

I am so proud to lead the AFL-CIO as your IBEW sister.

And together, I can’t wait to see where we go from here. Thank you!

Explore the Issue