Shuler to IBEW: Unions Improve Workplace Culture

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks as prepared to the IBEW Construction and Maintenance Conference:

Thank you Mike [Richard] for that kind introduction. And thank you so much for having me here.

David [Long], you and NECA have been an incredible and valued partner for our union and our members in so many ways.

Lonnie [Stephenson]—my brother and good friend—thank you for your incredible leadership. You and Kenny [Cooper] make a truly dynamic team and the cutting edge work you’ve done to grow the IBEW is truly an example for the entire labor movement.

And to the International Vice Presidents and International Executive Council members—thank you for your commitment, your passion and for your leadership.

I love being back here with the IBEW. Many of you know I got my start in the labor movement coming up through IBEW Local 125 out of Portland, Oregon.

My whole family worked at our local power company Portland General Electric, and it was there I saw the difference a union could make. Because the women working in the clerical jobs weren’t in the union, and the power linemen were.

I saw the difference first hand—that working a union job meant you got treated better—with a measure of respect.

I know all of you know that difference too. And America is finally seeing unions in a different way—as a vehicle for better pay and benefits AND as a way to make change they’re hungry for.

Have you seen the polling? Public support for unions is off the charts, especially among young people.

Because people want better pay and benefits. But it’s also about dignity—and respect—and having a voice to shape what happens in the workplace.

Every month we see new numbers about workers leaving their jobs. “The Great Resignation.” Last month was the record— 4.4 million workers quit in February alone.

They’re fed up. They’re exhausted and frustrated and for many of them, the pandemic was the tipping point. They’re tired of risking their health and safety for a terrible job with low pay. They’re tired of being told they’re “essential” one minute and then treated as disposable the next.

But low pay is only part of the equation. We just did a survey of some 20,000 workers who left their job in the past two years. We wanted to know why. Not surprising, workers who quit their jobs have a lot of negative feelings about work—but what WAS surprising was that workplace culture was a driver more than pay. Unfair treatment, burnout, toxic environments and bad management were the top reasons why they left.

Workplace culture is a huge driver for everyone. Even for union members. But if you’re in a union, you have a way to fix it. I hear a lot about scheduling. Being able to plan your life and have a predictable schedule is huge. But we rarely talk about that when we’re out organizing and should be something we lead with as we reach out to the emerging workforce.

These workplace culture issues are also critical as we try to recruit and retain more women in construction.

The Institute for Women's Policy Research surveyed tradeswomen about their careers in the construction industry. Four out of 10 respondents said they considered leaving the construction industry. And do you know what were the most cited reasons? Discrimination. Lack of respect. An unsupportive and toxic work environment.

Of course we want to say that those toxic environments were all non-union job sites—but we know we have more work to do to make our workplaces more welcoming and inclusive. And this isn’t just limited to the construction industry. We have to do better across the board, and even in our labor movement. We should be leaders in what makes the best workplaces!

I say this because women are half the workforce, and are projected to be half of the union members in the United States.

And we want them to see the labor movement as a movement for them.

That’s what makes the IBEW Strong initiative so incredible—it’s that support structure with diversity, equity and inclusion at the heart of it. And that’s so critically important. Women’s committees, tradeswomen’s organizations, pre-apprenticeship programs for women—that support system, care and training infrastructure are absolutely critical to ensure their success.

That’s another thing we learned from that IWPR survey. Nearly 90% said support from their union was an important factor for success.

Everyone in this room had a mentor or tool buddy who helped them get to where they are. Don’t pull that ladder up behind you—be intentional when you go home. Commit to reaching out and being that mentor, that guide.

Because that’s the kind of solidarity that’s built to last—and we need it now more than ever.

Because there are forces chipping away at democracies all over the world—or outright attacking it. Look at what’s going on in Ukraine and the needless devastation and suffering and hardship happening to the people there.

And we cannot think for a second that it can’t happen here.

Our right to vote has been attacked. Our right to organize without fear and intimidation has been attacked too.

And the people and forces that want to silence our voices in the workplace and at the ballot box, are the same ones who want to destabilize our democracy.

Democracy gives us freedom. And we have to work hard to protect it. Some would say we’re at a tipping point. We can’t take anything for granted.

We have the most pro-union administration in our lifetime in office right now with a pro-worker Congress and they’ve delivered bigtime for working people.

The American Rescue Plan—the bipartisan infrastructure bill—these were huge victories! And millions of good union jobs will be created fixing roads and bridges, improving our ports and airports and water infrastructure, installing broadband and replacing lead pipes and service lines. Rehabilitating and retrofitting affordable, resilient housing.

Five billion dollars in funding for a national electric vehicle charging network!

And investments in training programs that will expand access to underrepresented communities, and create onramps to careers for people that will last a lifetime. The training pipeline needs to be reflective of the communities where the jobs are being created and we need to make good on President Biden’s promise to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from Federal investments in clean energy to disadvantaged communities.

And what about the installation and maintenance of energy-efficient building tech. The clean energy economy and the greening of our building stock is an exciting growth area that benefits us all.

There’s so much good stuff in these bills.

And on top of that, President Biden signed an executive order requiring project labor agreements on federal construction projects above $35 million. Which means greater safety for our highly-skilled and highly-trained workforce—value for our taxpayers—and quality construction that will last for generations.

These are the investments working people have been wanting and waiting for and if we can’t tie these wins back to the pro-worker elected officials who made it possible, then we’re doing it wrong.

We absolutely have to because here we are again, already—the 2022 elections are upon us and America seems to be more polarized than ever.

We know how our politics relates to organizing and bargaining wins, and transformative legislation. We know how election outcomes can radically change our future. Now it is on us to explain to our members how our political activism directly relates to more and better work opportunities for the IBEW and our communities.

We need to connect the dots. And we have been building out the framework for our political plan nationally, and we know we have to approach it differently this time. Thanks to Lonnie, who Vice chairs the AFL-CIO executive council political committee. We’ve been working closely together on a new approach—more unified than ever.

One thing we know is we’re going to need to do some deep listening and get back to basics. Reestablish credibility through face to face conversations, especially in the worksites.

Those conversations will surface the issues that really matter to our members and then we can connect those issues to the candidates when it’s time to get out the vote.

And we’re not done. We are still pushing Congress to Build a Better America and deliver more for working families.

Together we can advance legislation that will create even more jobs and investment in the clean energy sector.

We can bring millions of workers out of the shadows and provide a broad path to citizenship.

We can address our health care and education needs, and bolster the care economy because the child care system in our country is badly broken and HAS to be fixed.

This isn’t just a women’s issue. This is a family issue. This is a working person's issue. This is a core economic issue. The pandemic made that clear. Care work makes all other jobs possible. That’s the bottom line.

And care jobs should be good jobs with livable wages, benefits and protections, which means we need to strengthen labor law enforcement by getting a key piece of the PRO Act passed so employers who violate our right to organize are met with REAL consequences for breaking the law.

But we’re not going to let outdated labor laws stand in our way to grow our power. The labor movement adapts and adjusts to the new reality. IBEW kept organizing workers throughout the pandemic—found new ways to reach workers using technology—and combined that with deep listening. It’s a winning formula we can build upon across the labor movement—we have to.

Because if we aren’t waking up everyday thinking about organizing, especially in this moment where working people are speaking out, standing up and demanding change like never before—then shame on us.

Because this is our moment—to organize. To grow. To change people’s lives.

To reimagine an economy that works for working people. Everyone included, no one left behind.

We’re building a modern, dynamic and inclusive labor movement and IBEW is leading the way.

Let’s keep rolling. We have the momentum.

Let’s be bold and not be afraid to try new things.

And grow IBEW power in the workplace and in our communities.

I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

Thank you.