Shuler: Labor's Biggest Threats are Also Opportunities

San Antonio, TX

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks at the Texas AFL-CIO's 60th Constitutional Convention: 

I am thrilled to be here in San Antonio to be with you all. I had to come here to escape the heat of Washington, D.C.—in every sense of the word! It’s been a week of over 100 degrees and humidity. It’s like Texas traded climates with us. So, I’ll thank the San Antonio CLC, especially Tom Cummins and Teri Ramos, for hosting us.

I have been watching the labor movement’s work here in Texas, and I just have to give your president,  Rick Levy, huge kudos for the agenda you’re leading and your willingness to try new things. Rick, thank you for leadership and vision and for tackling the tough fights with a plan that keeps the labor movement fighting together.

And, my thanks to my sister Secretary-Treasurer Montserrat Garibay for bringing creativity and fresh ideas and for your dedication to our movement.  And the Texas AFL-CIO staff, congratulations on an incredible convention you have planned. This is going to be a powerful few days! 

I know past President Becky Moeller is here. Thank you for continuing to be a force for good and for our movement! And, Linda Chavez Thompson, who is a source of inspiration. I know we have an all-star lineup today, and I’m the warm-up act for Ken Rigmaiden, so I better get started.

And, I want to also give a shout out to the sisters and brothers of UNITE HERE Local 23, who work in this hotel. Thank you for your help in preparing for this convention!

I come out of the IBEW, and our members in construction often have to travel to chase the work, wherever that is. The joke was that IBEW stands for “I’ve Been Every Where.”

It’s a tradition I feel a part of, to this day, because I get to meet and talk to working people all over this country, who are speaking out and taking risks like we haven’t seen in years: 

  • Teachers from Arizona to West Virginia walking out for the respect they deserve. 

  • UFCW members at Stop & Shop grocery stores across New England striking for better wages and quickly bringing the corporation back to the bargaining table to secure better wages. 

  • UNITE HERE members at Marriott winning the right to negotiate over how technology impacts their jobs.

  • And now, airline catering workers with UNITEHERE across the country—including in Dallas/Fort Worth —are demanding that “One job should be enough!” I just met with workers at the airport in D.C. on Tuesday for a massive rally to break the log jam at the bargaining table and demand $15 an hour and affordable healthcare. Is that too much to ask? When these airlines are raking in record profits?

But, it’s not just union members calling for fairness and dignity on the job.

  • You probably heard about the Amazon warehouse workers in Minnesota who went on strike on Amazon Prime Day, calling for better working conditions and respect. 

  • Google workers worldwide staged massive protests last fall—including workers at Google offices in Austin—demanding an end to workplace harassment. 

  • And, video game developers are joining together to fight for a voice at work.  

I’ve walked picket lines and listened to our fellow workers who are fighting back. And what I hear from them are the same things you’re hearing back home: Paychecks are not going as far as they used to. Health care costs are eating up gains at the bargaining table. Downward pressure threatening retirement security. The hateful rhetoric and division is threatening our democracy. The growth in technology and how that will impact the future of work and the future of workers.  

These are issues that affect every single working person. No one is immune. And, these common threads are being tested and challenged from every angle and around every corner.

The only way working people will have a fighting chance is if we grow our labor movement.  Because unions are the way to balance the scales. 

I’m feeling a real sense of urgency about this. If we don’t take advantage of this moment of activism and channel it into organizing and growth of our unions, then shame on us. 

There’s a lot of talk that the labor movement is dying. That we are outdated, outmoded and of the past. That we aren’t changing with the times to meet the biggest threats to working people. Whether that’s runaway inequality, climate change or technology, I see the biggest threats we are facing as opportunities.

The first one: Inequality. Is the labor movement a way to fight inequality? We know that the rules of the economy are rigged and are rewarding the people at the top. The 1%. CEO pay is at an all-time high—287 times what the average employee makes. The wealthiest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, makes in nine seconds what his average worker makes in a year.

What do President Trump and Republicans in Congress do? Instead of investing in infrastructure and creating jobs for working people, they pass a big tax break that gives trillions in giveaways to the wealthy. They keep passing incentives for companies to ship jobs overseas, and they refuse to pass comprehensive immigration reform to keep hardworking people who have made incredible contributions to our country living in the shadows. We’re seeing parents separated from their children, in horrific conditions.  

What happened to the American Dream—where if you work hard you can make a decent living and do better for your family?

This is where the labor movement is central. We are showing working people that by standing up and fighting back against inequality, corporate greed and for tax reform and immigration reform, more people will want to join us because we are fighting for them. And we grow the labor movement.

Another threat to working people that the labor movement is central to is climate change. Coming out of the IBEW, I know first hand how challenging this debate is. We all agree climate change is real, and we want clean energy. But we also need to protect the good jobs that have powered this country for generations. 

I came to Texas after Harvey. The devastation was almost too much to take: More than 100 lives lost. Tens of thousands of families displaced. $125 billion in damage. 

But, standing at the Texas AFL-CIO command post in Austin, I also saw the entire labor movement coming together: From first responders evacuating people to safety to health care professionals tending to the injured, and from power line workers restoring electricity to teachers teaching in shelters instead of classrooms.

Our solidarity was on full display in the days following Hurricane Harvey. The entire Texas labor movement—every last union, every last central labor body and thousands of union members, retirees and allies—stepped up to help our affected sisters and brothers recover and rebuild. 

We know the labor movement has a unique role to play in this debate and to make sure that working people are put first. It’s not an “either/or”: Good jobs or a clean environment. We can do both! 

I was with President Trumka on Capitol Hill last week for an event with the Senate Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. We talked about the mineworkers in Southwestern Pennsylvania to oil refinery workers off the coast of Galveston and how workers in the fossil fuel industry have sustained this country for generations. 

We can lower emissions without lowering our standard of living. We don’t need more empty promises from politicians; we need investment in carbon capture technology, onshore and offshore wind energy and upgrades to our energy grid. We need to keep our nuclear plants open and running safely because it’s 50% of the carbon-free supply in this country. And finally, we need a GI bill for energy workers. We need a clean energy future that’s defined by good union jobs. 

So, what do we do?

Where do we go from here?

How can we—the voice of ALL working people, no matter where you were born or where you were raised—provide a way forward? 

We begin where our solidarity lives—in the workplace and in the community.

We can be a check on corporate power, but only if we’re united. We can win good wages, great benefits and safe workplaces, but only if we do it together. We can build an economy that works for all working people, but only if we speak with one voice. And, we can provide a pathway for immigrants and refugees to be safe, to be welcomed and to stay together, but only if working people rise up, arm in arm and look after each other!

I believe the labor movement has the power to do all of that. Because that’s what you’re doing right here in Texas!

You are providing a path to citizenship for working people across the entire state. And Montserrrat tells me the Texas Citizenship Campaign is celebrating one year of incredible success by expanding to three new regions. It’s so exciting to see unions across industries and spectrums coming together to help working people become American citizens. This is a program that should serve as a model for the entire country. And, I’m told that there’s one person who has really made this program such a success: Jesus Perales! Thank you for all your hard work, Jesus!

Texas, you are also organizing—and that’s why Houston was selected as one of just three cities in the entire country for the AFL-CIO President’s Organizing Initiative. This is a BIG deal! And it means unions across the state, and across industries, will be coming together to strengthen our collective power.

And, you are fighting to create opportunity and bring more workers into our union family, especially young people. 

I want to give a shout out to the soon-to-be graduates of the Ruth Ellinger Labor Leader School. Congratulations on your graduation tomorrow, and thank you for standing up and becoming leaders in our movement and in our communities! 

And also, hats off to President Levy’s signature initiative—the incredible YALL program. It has been so exciting to see this effort taking off across Texas over the past five years—and also to see so many veterans joining our movement through these programs. That’s something to be very proud of!

Sisters and brothers, in so many ways, you are demonstrating labor’s value. Deep in the heart of Texas—a state that has never been union-friendly. A state that’s now trying to deny your hard-earned wins to raise wages and expand paid family and sick leave. But your work, your grit, your never-ending solidarity—that’s how we silence those who want to write our obituary. You’re positioning the labor movement for the future. 

The “future of work”. Ever heard of this? I’m trying to talk about it everywhere I go because this is the third and final challenge that the labor movement faces that I believe will be an opportunity for growth.

Technology. Robots. Artificial intelligence. There’s a lot of talk about the number of jobs that will be eliminated by technology. Some reports that automation could kill 73 million jobs by the year 2030.

That’s a scare tactic, and we don’t believe that it’s going to be doom and gloom because the labor movement has been dealing with technology and change since our inception.

The key is making sure that working people have a voice in bargaining over how technology impacts our jobs—before it’s ever deployed. Because we all know the saying: “If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.”

This debate is something the AFL-CIO is embracing head-on. 

We aren’t burying our heads in the sand and fighting technological advancement because there will be a lot of positive effects on our work. At the same time, we’re also clear about what we don’t support: Technology that’s being used as a way to deny workers our rights, harm our jobs or cast working people aside—without providing a path forward to a better job for the future!

Amazon is now expanding into every aspect of our economy—not just an online shopping portal. They are a shipping and transportation company. They’re in pharmaceuticals and media and film, grocery and meal prep—not to mention all the data they’re collecting on us and our members.

But we can use this, again, as a way to organize and grow our movement. To challenge ourselves to learn and think differently about reaching workers in the tech sector and show them the power of a union. It might look different, who knows, but workers...are workers...are workers.

We have to be bold and grab our fair share. We are the most powerful voice on the planet for working families—we can bring a worker voice to the debate and use our collective bargaining agreements to leverage our collective power. 

Sisters and brothers, we have two choices: 

To see these global trends— inequality, climate change and technology—as threats that could destroy everything we hold dear and just hope for the best. 

Or, to see them as challenges that we can use. To fight back, bring people together and grow our labor movement into an even more powerful force. Because we’re the labor movement! We’re problem solvers. It’s what we’ve done since our beginnings more than a century ago. And, we’ll begin here in Texas where you’re making people’s lives better each and every day!

We have a lot of work to do, but I like our chances...because when we stand together, when we fight together and when we rise up together, we win together!

So, let’s get to work!

Thank you!