Shuler at National Press Club: Workers Are Refusing to Settle for Bad Jobs

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks as prepared to the National Press Club Headliners Newsmaker Event in Washington, D.C.:

Good morning. Thank you, Lisa (Matthews), for that very kind introduction. I also want to thank the Headliners Committee for organizing this event and Jamie Horwitz for all of your support.

To the journalists who make the Press Club a national institution, keep our country informed and strengthen our democracy: thank you. I have great respect for each of you.

And I especially want to recognize the union members who have traveled to be here today.

Corey Upchurch of AFSCME Local 1959, who makes sure special needs students get to school safely here in the District.

Rochelle Ramsey Walker of the International Union of Painters and Verlissa Taylor of the Laborers, who remind us of the importance of investing in infrastructure, and that women build this nation.

McCall Zerboni, a union member and professional soccer player, who I will say more about in a moment.

And Keith Bragg and Darlene Carpenter of Bakery Workers Local 358 in Richmond, Virginia, who took on Nabisco and won.

In recent weeks, more than 1,000 workers went on strike at Nabisco’s bakeries and distribution centers.

Nabisco and its parent company Mondelez had threatened to ship good union jobs to Mexico if the workers did not agree to major concessions, despite record corporate profits. These are the workers who made the snacks that got us through lockdown during the pandemic—the Ritz crackers, the Oreos. Let’s admit it—they were double stuffed.

I had the privilege of walking the picket line with Keith, Darlene and the other union members in Richmond. The company tried to pit workers against each other by offering a two-tiered health care system that weakened coverage for new hires.

The answer from the union was a resounding no. To quote Keith and Darlene: “We don’t sell out our young workers. We are fighting for the next generation.”


Many of you have written about the labor market in recent months. There’s a lot for assignment editors to explore: the pandemic, a change in administrations, the return to office debate, the Great Resignation, inflation.

But while these forces may present new questions and challenges, the stakes remain fundamentally the same: Justice. Fairness. The right to organize, bargain and have our voices heard.

One of the most persistent questions reporters have been asking is: Are people refusing to work? An NBC headline in June put it this way: Is it a sluggish labor market—or workers positioning themselves for better opportunities?

The answer to that question can be found in workplaces and communities across America. As we gather here today, thousands of workers are on strike for a better deal and a better life.

Coal miners in Alabama (UMWA).

Nurses in Massachusetts (MNA).

Steelworkers and Machinists in West Virginia.

Distillery workers in Kentucky (UFCW).

Hospital workers in upstate New York (CWA).

Ironworkers in Pennsylvania.

Kellogg’s workers in four states, riding the momentum of their compatriots at Nabisco (BCTGM).

And at this moment, the 60,000 film and television workers (IATSE) who make our favorite shows and movies are bargaining for adequate sleep, meal breaks and living wages. They’re ready to strike if necessary. 35,000 workers at Kaiser in California (UNAC/AFSCME, OFNHP, USW, UNITE HERE) have made the same declaration.

Some are calling this Striketober. I call it Exhibit A for why we need to rebalance the playing field and put workers back in the center of our economy.

The headlines reporting a shortage of workers are missing the point.

The pandemic laid bare the inequities of our system, and as we try to get beyond COVID, working people are refusing to return to crappy jobs with low pay. Essential workers are tired of being thanked one moment and treated as expendable the next.

The real headline isn’t that there’s a shortage of people willing to return to work. The real scarcity story is the shortage of safe, good-paying, sustainable jobs.

And the good news is that workers feel a new sense of power and leverage and aren’t willing to settle anymore. And the solution, once again, can be found in the labor movement.

Unions are how Americans have always turned bad jobs into good jobs.

My focus as president of the AFL-CIO is building a modern labor movement that can meet this moment. A movement that dreams big and takes risks and isn’t afraid to fail.

A movement that is alive and well from Silicon Valley to the American South to all the places workers are trying to claim their share of the American Dream.

And a movement that leverages our power to bring women and people of color from the margins to the center—at work, in our unions and in our economy.

Our newest affiliate, the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association, is showing us what a modern labor movement looks like. They are using their platform to speak out against harassment and abuse on the job.

Kaiya McCullough recently wrote about her experience playing for the Washington Spirit, where she was bullied, intimidated and emotionally abused by management. There were racist and degrading nicknames. And so she cut her rookie season short. She didn’t feel safe. Playing the sport she loved at the highest level was no match for the league’s toxic culture. Across the NWSL, outrage built, and the players said no more and refused to play until the league was held accountable. This is just the beginning of these phenomenal women exercising their power.

McCall Zerboni, a midfielder for the New Jersey/New York Gotham, is one of those women. Thank you for joining us today, McCall. The AFL-CIO is committed to building a professional sports world with more leaders like you and less people like Jon Gruden.

This solidarity guides everything we do, whether it’s taking on Amazon or co-creating technology to empower workers—whether it’s enshrining labor laws for this century by passing the PRO Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act—or whether it’s pushing our elected officials to get President Biden’s jobs bills across the finish line.

We have everything lined up. A pro-worker administration and Congress. 68 percent support for unions—including 77 percent among young people—the highest marks since 1965. And workers all across the country standing up, speaking out and taking risks. They see unions as the answer.

So this is our chance. We have a window. A historic opportunity. And we cannot and will not let it pass us by. Thank you. I look forward to your questions.