Shuler: Oregon Is Building Lasting Power Through Organizing

Portland, Ore.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks as prepared at the Oregon AFL-CIO Organizing Summit in Portland:

Hello everyone! I can’t tell you how great it is to be here. To be home. To be with my family here.

Thank you all so much for welcoming me.

I especially want to thank Tom [Chamberlain] — not only a great friend but an absolute visionary. One of the best labor leaders I’ve ever seen.

When we think about this moment we’re in — the new tactics, the creative ways folks are organizing — Tom is the godfather of so much of that work. 

Making sure our local bodies better meet the needs of working people. Turning the State Fed from just a political operation to really a lab for organizing. And then actually putting goals and benchmarks around the work.

I want to recognize Graham [Trainor] as well, and his entire team. Graham has taken that baton and absolutely sprinted forward with it.

Our entire movement should be looking right here to Oregon for a lesson in how to get creative, how to push the envelope, how to win. 

And I’ll talk more about that in just a second.

But first … I do want to touch on something else that has been on my mind.

Just a few days from now I’m headed down to Los Angeles, to rally with the WGA writers. Who as many of you know are in the middle of a fight for their careers and livelihoods. And in a lot of ways their jobs as writers feel a million miles away from some of the other industries we represent, don’t they?

Construction workers. Teachers. Electrical workers. A lot of trades right here in Oregon.

But when you really dig into it and talk to these writers you see that their fight is our fight.

There are writers saying: “I don’t think it’s fair that we generate billions of dollars in profit and I’m barely making enough to live on.”

Writers are saying: “Why do they keep trying to gigify my work and take away my health care?”

Writers are saying: “I don’t want my job to be automated out of existence.”

There are these common challenges we all face, right? Whether it’s AI or greedy CEOs or these fights we’re in for basic dignity and respect. 

The answer can’t just be “organizing” alone. The answer needs to be organizing in new ways. Ways that break through. Ways that make us remember the strength we have in numbers. That is what I’m thinking about every day.

We can’t be afraid of new places or new tactics.

I bet most of you saw the huge win we had at Blue Bird in Georgia a few weeks ago.

For anyone who didn’t see this: Blue Bird is one of the largest electric bus manufacturers in the country. They got millions from the federal government in subsidies to grow faster — to accelerate this clean energy future.

And then they turned around — like a lot of these clean energy companies — and went to the Deep South, to try to take advantage of bad conditions, and stick workers with low-road jobs.

When employees started to talk about forming a union, Blue Bird executives started union busting. They threatened plant closures. They pushed misinformation. They scared workers.

And given labor’s history in the South, that might have been enough just to think this was impossible. But the Steelworkers didn’t buy it. They went out and started to organize.

I read about this one Steelworker organizer named Alex Perkins, who had a great idea.

He interviewed all these former Blue Bird workers who had left the company because of the conditions. He videotaped them and posted these interviews to YouTube.

And then he made sure their old Blue Bird colleagues saw the videos — telling them about their new union jobs at other places. How good the pay was. The benefits. The time off.

What a great use of technology to get in front of people. To share a message with Blue Bird workers from people they actually trust.

It didn’t take much money; just a lot of creativity and common sense. And that was a huge reason the campaign got over the top.

We can’t be afraid to think creatively, either.

I want to shout out my home union, IBEW, and the State legislative staffers who ran one of the most innovative campaigns in history two years ago. Who got their huge win — the first legislative staff in the nation to do so.

But are still at the table, two years later, waiting for the legislature to meet them with a fair deal.

I do want to say: Our entire movement is fully behind these incredible workers. They deserve a fair and equitable deal. They deserved it two years ago, when negotiations first started. It’s long past time. On behalf of the entire AFL-CIO, I urge the State Legislature to get this done.

The second thing we need to do is really share our best practices — which is what you all here in Oregon have been absolutely leading on. You have made this state federation the center of gravity.

When the UFCW gets a huge win against Fred Meyer, how do we make sure those strategies and best practices are being applied elsewhere? Not only in retail but in every sector.

What you all are doing with your Organizing Hub is a perfect example of that.

And it’s what we at the national level are doing as well with our Center For Transformational Organizing, the CTO. Creating our version of a start-up. A place where we can bring people together from all different sectors and try new things and not be afraid to fail.

Which brings me to my third point: Let’s get ahead of these new industries of the future — these sectors where federal money is pouring in by the billions. 

Federal money doesn't automatically equal unions. We need to play offense, not defense. This massive transition to something like electric vehicles — autos, buses, trucks, new batteries — is bigger than any one of us.

The only way we’re going to win is together: Multi-union campaigns, with community partners. This isn’t going to work by taking on one supplier or one EV maker.

We need an industrial organizing plan to meet the moment. To give every worker this life-changing chance to join a union. And even then we can’t just be happy with union membership. We need to secure high standards.

We need to build power. Worker power. Community power.

Lasting power in states, through our Central Labor Councils, State Federations, and community partners.

When we do that we’re going to be able to fight together not only for union rights but for so much more. Public education. Voting rights. Climate justice. All the issues we care about.

As I wrap I want to come back to the WGA strike for one minute.

Because this op-ed about the strike caught my eye. And the point it kept making, over and over, was basically: “Boy, it sure is risky what these writers are doing. They sure are risking a lot by going on strike.”

Let me tell you what I think is risky for working people right now.

The status quo is risky.

Letting corporations and billionaires continue to set the rules, get their way — that’s risky.

Trying the same old tactics we’ve used for decades, that’s risky, too.

It is TIME to try new things and get creative in how we organize.

It is TIME to remember that we are a movement that always, always, always wins when we build from the ground up. 

And that’s what we’ll continue to do because millions of working people are ready to come together and they are counting on us. 

Thank you.