Shuler Lays Out Broad Vision at Washington State Labor Council Convention

Vancouver, Washington

Thank you, Jeff (Johnson), for that introduction.

It is an absolute joy to be back in the Northwest, and here with you this morning—and how do you follow a speech like that by Jeff Johnson? I’d like to thank Jeff for his leadership and supreme competence—and having a brilliant Secretary-Treasurer in Lynne Dodson makes for a powerhouse team. You’re surrounded by phenomenal staff and it’s great to see the Washington State Labor Council thriving…and thanks to Shannon Walker and the SW Washington CLC. It’s so great to see so many friends and some of my mentors from years past…and it's hard to believe it’s been almost 20 years since I was a delegate sitting in the same seats you all are in now!

With everything that's been going on, has anyone else been doing any soul searching lately?

I was at a family BBQ over the weekend, and I can't tell you how many people I talked to, who were like, “Hi! Wow…oh yeah…how are you doing? And they have this look of pity, and they say, “You union people are toast…you must be freaking out.” Anyone relate to that? And I got to thinking, yes, it’s really hard to be in the labor movement at this moment. But if you think about our history…has it EVER been EASY to be in the labor movement? And now is the perfect time to remember why we are in this movement in the first place. Really…why are you sitting here? Why are you resisting and persisting? It’s because we care about what happens to people. People we love…and people we will never meet. We resist and persist because every person deserves a fair shot and a fair shake in America. And because unions are the single greatest force for economic justice in the history of man and womankind.

All of us have taken different paths to our activism. I’ve known about the power of unions since a very young age. I grew up in Milwaukie, Oregon, about 25 miles from this very hotel. In fact, I had the pleasure of spending this past weekend with my father who still lives in the house I grew up in. He actually was born in Appalachia in the hollers of North Carolina and his family worked in farm work (tobacco…and a little moonshine). They moved to Oregon when he was 10 chasing work in the orchards of Hood River—he, his parents, and his four siblings all lived in a one-room, fruit pickers cabin. And he got his first paying job at age 12 sandblasting tombstones to pay for dental care he needed. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating high school and was sent straight to Vietnam.

When he returned, he needed a job. And he got lucky…he was hired at Portland General Electric as a grunt on a line crew and through hard work, he earned a spot in the local union lineman's apprenticeship. He became a journeyman and was able to earn a decent living to support our family and send his kids to college.

My dad was like most union members. He went to work every day, did his job, paid his dues, showed up for important union meetings and the contract vote. He didn’t live to work. He worked to live.

I worked at that same utility during summers while in college, and my mother worked there too. It was back when companies were like family, and jobs passed between the generations. The power linemen were in the union, but the clerical workers weren't. And I noticed that the company treated the union people differently…better…with a measure of respect.

That stayed with me. After I graduated college, I was working several part time jobs—as many young people are doing today. And the IBEW was leading a union organizing drive of the women I worked with at the utility company. The local needed more women to help with the campaign, so I signed up to help with house calls and so did my mom. There was a lot of fear and the company was hostile. That experience made me realize that the power in numbers and workers coming together for a stronger voice is where I wanted to be. After hat campaign, I went to work full-time for IBEW Local 125 and I’ve never looked back.

I mention this because I know from firsthand experience how the labor movement can lift up a family. And I also know that today millions of workers are being left behind—and that American Dream — that if you work hard, you can make a decent living and provide for your family—is slipping away and out of reach for too many people.

But we have an opportunity…and a responsibility…to bring more workers into our movement, and build the political power we need to rewrite our economic rules so they work for all of us. And if labor needs a playbook on how to do exactly that, they should look no further than right here in Washington.

Jeff mentioned a number of these victories and they're worth highlighting because you're setting the standard for other states to follow. I know about Initiative 1433 because last year, I had the privilege of speaking at an event in Washington, DC with Ariana Davis of UFCW Local 21, who at the time was the petitioner on Initiative 1433. We were doing a joint appearance on stage at a White House event called the United State of Women and we were both shaking in our boots because we were speaking before President Obama and Oprah Winfrey talking to several thousand people about why unions matter (no pressure). But Ariana’s message came through so powerfully…she talked about how shortly after turning 16, she started working at Safeway and everything changed. It was more than a job. She felt that being a part of the union gave her confidence…that she was respected by workers and managers alike. She became a force in her community — and she said it’s because she doesn’t stand alone…she's in a movement with grocery workers and steelworkers and teachers, and together, we have a voice and that's how we can make change.

And that's just what you all did…Worked together to make change and pass Initiative 1433. Now your minimum wage is 11 dollars an hour and rising, and workers have access to 7 days of paid sick leave. And there is no doubt in my mind that these efforts paved the way for passage of the most generous paid family leave law in the country—giving eligible workers 12 weeks paid time off for a birth or serious medical condition. Now people in minimum wage jobs won’t have to choose between food and rent. Now mothers can spend time with their newborn without breaking their budget. Now workers who are sick can stay home and get well while still earning a day’s pay.

These work/family issues are what matter to people’s daily lives, and the labor movement is winning them for everyone, not just our members. And this is a great example of what we call “issues driven politics,” where we focus on the issues, not just candidates or parties. And those economic issues are what drive people to get active and to vote. And if we elect pro-worker people in the positions of power who can change the economic rules, we can create opportunity for everyone. So let’s build on the amazing momentum you've created and bring it home in November by sending Manka Dhingra to the State Senate and give Governor Inslee a real pro-worker majority. (All eyes are on you, so bring it home in the 45th!). And how about electing union members to office like Teresa Mosqueda of OPEIU, Shaunie Wheeler and Matthew Hepner of IBEW and Larry Brown of the Machinists? Another great example of how we build independent political power—electing our own to office at all levels!

Yes, you've made some serious progress in the Washington where YOU live, but things are not as great in the Washington where I live. Donald Trump is still the president. Congress still hates us. The Supreme Court has us in its sight lines, and our football team is an embarrassment (in more ways than one).

But all is not lost…The theme of your convention is “Resist. Persist.” I want to assure you that we are doing both. We are resisting the Republican health care bill that would result in 22 million more people being uninsured, including nearly 300,000 in Washington. We are resisting President Trump’s budget which cuts Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to give more tax cuts to the rich. With the help of leaders like Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Judge James Robart, we are resisting the Trump Administration’s unconstitutional and immoral travel ban. And we are resisting attacks on collective bargaining, workplace safety and public education. So while President Trump may have won the election, he hasn’t yet won a single major policy fight.

Resistance is working. But it’s persistence that will get us where we need to be. The war on workers didn't just start with Donald Trump…this has been going on for decades. The ultra rich and their political allies have been rigging the economic rules to keep more money and power for themselves. CEOs have held wages down and prevented workers from forming unions. States have chipped away at worker rights under the guise of promoting freedom. And the gap between the rich and the rest of us has gotten larger and larger.

So even if a Democrat was sitting in the Oval Office today, labor would still be facing an existential crisis. And it's peaking right now. It's a moment for us to step up our game and fight…but it's also time for deep evaluation and reflection on where we're going and how we build for the future. And if done right, we have the potential to not only survive the Trump Administration, but emerge from it stronger than before.

We’ve been doing exactly that at the national level—some self evaluation. We've been restructuring the AFL-CIO to modernize how we meet the challenges of the changing workforce and rapidly evolving technology. We’ve been working closely with our affiliate unions, state federations, central labor councils and allies to build a federation and a labor movement that is proactive, strategic, nimble and fiscally responsible. Our mission is simple—it’s about unity. Unity across the labor movement is absolutely fundamental, and without it, we can't ensure that all working people have the freedom to join together and negotiate for a better life.

We've rebuilt our structure — and eliminated the byzantine mix of old departments and now have focused our staff on three main bodies of work—mobilization, legislative/policy, and growth. We have three resource departments, Communications, legal and a new data and tech tools team that will make it all hum. We have a new team of really smart tech savvy developers and analysts to focus on creating new tools to enhance organizing. One that we’re really excited about that's in development now, is a tool to enable organizers in the field to gather data in the workplace and on the doors to run more effective campaigns—a "mini VAN" for organizing. The reason you should care about this is because tech companies know more about our members than we do. They are capturing all of the online behavior and using that information…if we don't take a huge leap forward on investments in data infrastructure we won't be able to connect with our members in a modern and effective way.

And this isn't news to any of you…Washington is the land of Amazon. Last week, on Amazon Prime Day, the company had a 30-hour blowout sale to attract new dues-paying members and reward current ones. They used it as a high profile opportunity to demonstrate their value to customers. Tens of millions of people shopped and sales grew by more than 60 percent from the year before. Are there some parallels here? Should we be thinking about ways to demonstrate value to our members in new and different ways? Can you imagine if we could grow 60 percent over last year?!

Unlike Amazon though, the labor movement offers much more than beauty products and golf clubs. Our number one seller is a great contract and a voice on the job. And we are the only watchdog out there that is sounding the alarms about how companies like Amazon and Uber are using 21st century technology as an excuse for 19th century labor practices. We won’t let them get away with it. The labor movement is all about innovation and disruption…but it must be used as a tool for broadly shared prosperity, not more corporate greed. And that’s why the model we've seen labor pushing in Seattle that gives gig economy or on-demand workers the right to unionize is something we should be expanding on—we need to be looking 10 years down the road.

And while we’re talking about building for the future, we should also make unions the home of the people we used to call “minorities,” but who are now the emerging majority. We know the stats, that by 2055, whites will account for less than half of the U.S. population. We also know that a union contract is the best tool for achieving justice for ALL working people—but with 90 percent of America not in unions, and more young people unaware of what it means to be in a union, we have a big job to do to show the emerging majority that unions fight for them.

For example, women are half the workforce, and will be half the union movement in 10 years. We need equal pay—let’s show that a union is the best way to achieve that. And while we’re at it, let’s move more women into the leadership of our unions to show that we are a movement for women. Young people need better jobs and less debt—we can be on the front lines of the college affordability debate and pushing for more resources for apprenticeship and training to show we’re relevant and a path forward for them. People of color want access to good jobs and a justice system that doesn't discriminate—let’s be their best advocate. Immigrants need a path to citizenship and protection from deportation..LGBTQ people need to stop being fired and bullied because of who they are. Let’s help the emerging majority connect the dots and show them that unions are the answer!

Ultimately, changing our culture and preparing for the future is not going to be easy. I was with many of you at a summit in Los Angeles earlier this month about how best to fight back against growing anti-worker attacks. We know our enemies have made legislation like right to work their number one priority and we know why—the labor movement is the last institution left standing that can mobilize real people, votes and power.

We know how to play defense—and we will—but we also know how to go on offense...we know how to work a plan...and win...the Washington labor movement has proven this time and time again. And now we have to work together like never before to keep our movement focused and strong.

I truly believe this is a moment to bring our best ideas to the table—and not be afraid to take risks and do things differently. It's a moment to think creatively and LISTEN to each other and perhaps to others outside our movement with fresh perspectives.

But most importantly, we HAVE to connect with our members in a way that makes "right to work" irrelevant. Think of the Amazon example. If members see us as a real asset to their lives, even national right to work won’t be able to stop us. They’ll want to pay. They’ll see dues as an investment rather than a cost. So now is the time to innovate...and try new things (maybe invent our equivalent to “Amazon Prime”.,) to build that enduring relationship with our members that transcends the next attack or the next election.

And as I mentioned earlier, if we reassert our political independence, and put our agenda before party politics, we build power. And our members see that we are a movement of issues and values, not just politicians, which builds credibility and trust.

So as you leave this convention, take a second to remember why you joined the labor movement in the first place. Think about the reasons why you are willing to sacrifice your time, your mental energy and often your own money to advance the cause of economic justice. Think about the people in your life and community who could and should benefit from a union. Our founders built something incredible. It is now our job to protect it, and take this movement forward and build it for the future. Thank you.