Speech | Gender Equality

Shuler: ILA Women Have the Power

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks as prepared virtually to the International Longshoremen's Association Women's Conference:

ILA Strong Global Power!

Thank you, Dennis [Daggett] for the warm welcome, and for your incredible leadership for Longshoremen and for our movement, and for your friendship and solidarity – the ILA is always there.

And Alan [Robb] thank you for your steadfast leadership of the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast District Council. And Vince, thank you for your dedication and passion for Jacksonville’s working families.

And to Lovette [McGill]…my sister and friend…for your years of service to the movement. You are union to the core.

Thank you for the invitation and I’m so excited to be here with you for the first ever Women’s conference— and just as women’s history month is getting started.

It’s so great to be joining so many amazing women! What a fantastic lineup! There’s a lot of shared wisdom and insight and history and strategic thinking that went into this.

Because we could all use some more wisdom and insight in our lives, right?

These last two years…we have battled haven’t we? It felt like we were being hit from all sides…from politics to the economy to the pandemic…and per usual, working women took the brunt of it.

Women kept our country running throughout the pandemic. Especially you, the longshore workers here today…the lashers and crane operators and hustlers…the shuttle drivers and porters and clerks and checkers…

Women were doing it all and you kept our goods moving under the toughest of conditions. You showed up and got the job done when America needed it most. 

COVID really hit our ports hard in the early days of the pandemic. When we didn’t know a lot about the virus…when we didn’t have the protective equipment we needed much less a vaccine. Let me just say THANK YOU. Thank you for your sacrifice, your tenacity and your courage. There’s been all this talk about “essential workers” because people finally woke up and realized all the work and that their lives depend on a whole ecosystem of workers behind the scenes who make their world possible. 

But let me tell you—Longshoremen— you were, are and will always be essential!

But so much more is owed than just saying thank you. 
Women have been underpaid, undervalued, and expected to take on most of the unpaid work at home even since before the pandemic.

And this balancing act that many working women have been pulling off for decades—between home and work, kids and career—has become even more complicated. For the past two years, many working women have lived in a world of constantly shifting schedules and uncertainty.

Dependent care has gotten harder to find—or disappeared entirely. Schools went online.

Our situations have gotten harder, not easier. But we kept fighting. We kept showing up to work, showing up for our families and showing up for our communities.

And because we showed up for each other, America has the chance to rise from the ashes of the pandemic stronger than before. And the labor movement…with women like you at the center…is leading the way. 

We have a generational opportunity to turn the momentum of this moment into concrete victories…to galvanize workers and win better contracts…and push Congress to pass transformational legislation.

For the first time in a long time, America’s workers are using their leverage to demand fair wages and dignity at work from Miami to Maine.

And workers are seeing unions as the place for making that change more than ever before. Public support is off the charts…especially among young people.

There’s an energy out there and we need to harness it to grow the labor movement, and reimagine an economy that works for working people. Everyone included, no one left behind. 

And when we reach out to our members this year as the elections get closer…and we have those all-important face-to-face conversations in the workplace now that it is becoming safer to do so…we need to unpack all the things we have won in the last year…and how those investments are going to impact people's lives.

And we already have plenty of examples for those conversations…

The American Rescue Plan was a huge victory.

And I don’t need to tell this group how critically important passing the infrastructure bill was….$17 billion…billion with a B…to repair and improve our ports and waterways…which translates to so many good, union jobs for men AND women. Vice President Harris said it best: “Hard hats are unisex.”

And we’re not done. We are still pushing Congress on the Build Back Better bill, which will deliver even more for working families. Because infrastructure is more than just roads and bridges and ports and airports. It is also health care and home care and education.

The labor movement is working hard to make sure quality, affordable child care remains a top priority. We've heard it over and over again that many people, mainly women, have been sidelined during the pandemic because they’re primary caregivers. 

The child care system in our country is badly broken and needs to be fixed.

But 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 super clear. 

How many women here today had to pass up that call at the hiring hall to care for their families? And how long did you have to wait until the next ship came in?

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.

None of these are new issues though, right? For generations, working women have gritted their teeth and persevered. Despite unaffordable child care, undervalued labor, unequal pay. We simply kept going—because that’s what we had to do.

So it doesn’t come as a surprise that working women are finding hope in our unions. A voice on the job. The power of the collective where equal pay and benefits like paid family leave are the norm, and a work culture where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

And we have a strong support network that helps us through tough times, challenges us to go after what we deserve, and pushes us to take on leadership roles…which is so important for women working in such a male-dominated industry.

Everyone here has a story about what brought them into the labor movement. 

For me, I knew I wanted to be part of our movement when I saw how my mom and the women we worked with—clerical workers at Portland General Electric—were treated differently. 

They didn’t get the same respect as the power linemen who worked in the field. The difference? The men in the field—and they were all men—they had a union. So we launched an organizing drive. 

That’s how I got my start: by mobilizing and organizing for equity. 

And I’ve reached this leadership point through a simple but important strategy: working with and standing on the shoulders of the women in our movement. 

I would not be here without that network of support. Women in our movement who lift each other up and help each other step into leadership roles.

That’s one of the powerful ideas behind this conference. You’re supporting one another and building the skill sets we need to be leaders in our unions and our communities.

And the more women lead, the more we organize, the more leverage we have to win progress…today and for the next generation too.

We are now 6.5 million strong and growing. The labor movement is the largest organization of working women in the country, and we are on track to be the majority of union members in a few years.
I want every woman in every type of job to see they have a place in our movement. 

That we are a force for women’s economic, cultural and political progress.

And I want women to see women leading at every level…

The labor movement needs you. If you’re thinking about stepping up into leadership — or if you’re not, because you’re saying, I’m not “qualified” enough yet — I want to encourage you to think again.

When I was still new to this movement back in Oregon, I was offered a position to work for the  international office of the IBEW in Washington D.C. And I remember I actually tried to talk my future boss out of offering me the job. Out of ALL the talented people he could choose to promote—I couldn’t believe he thought that I had the skills he was looking for. 

Does that sound familiar to anyone? I’ve since learned that this is a pretty common reaction when women are given the opportunity to lead.

But while you’re talking yourself out of it, there’s a guy somewhere, who is less qualified, saying, “absolutely, I can do that!” …even if they don’t have the experience or the skills…but they have the confidence.

Take that next step even if it might make you uncomfortable. Taking that job and moving to Washington was the scariest thing I’d ever done. But it was that thing that got me out of my comfort zone and forced me to grow…personally and professionally. 

Still, becoming a woman leader in the labor movement can be tough. I know from experience.

When I joined the staff of my local union nearly 30 years ago, I was not only the youngest person in the room, but often the only woman … surrounded by big, burly power linemen. 

I KNOW you all have had similar experiences. It can be off putting at times, right? But I was fortunate to have had some great mentors who helped me advance through the union ranks. We all need that—not one of us can make that journey on our own. 

More and more women are taking formal and informal leadership roles at every level of our unions and our movement. We are serving as executive board members and vice presidents, we’re organizing workers, we’re mentoring and training the rising generation.

This doesn’t happen by accident. It has to be intentional or it won’t happen. Our unions have to put into place structural elements that allow for the possibility for women to rise up and to lead. 

Even small things like how a job gets posted— and how it’s described. You can do that in an intimidating way, or a more inclusive way. And recognizing women leaders look at things differently than men—and making space for us to lead in a way that plays to our strengths.

We can redefine what leadership looks like and in doing that, we redefine the labor movement. 

We are building a bold and inclusive labor movement with women and people of color at the center. A dynamic and inclusive movement—a movement that everyone can see themselves in.

We need to bring in every single worker—across age, race, background, and industry—while staying nimble. We need to organize ourselves so we can respond at a moment’s notice, when our collective action can make the biggest difference and the most lasting gains.

That’s my vision for labor: A modern movement ready to meet the demands of the modern economy.

That is the labor movement that is going to help us build back better from this pandemic and go even further. Together, we can change solo fights to collective ones, unjust contracts to fair ones, bad jobs to good ones.

Women of the ILA: We have the power to make extraordinary change. We can demand and win better deals for ourselves and for generations to come.

I’m so proud of everything we’ve accomplished together so far. Let’s keep the momentum rolling. I’m excited to see where we go from here.

Thank you.

Explore the Issue