Speech | Labor Law

Shuler: The Oregon Labor Movement Is a Source of Inspiration

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks virtually to the Oregon Labor Law Conference:

Thank you, John [Bishop]. And thanks to you and Noah [Barish] and IBEW Local 48 for hosting…Norm would be so proud to see this conference thriving – you come together every year and give union leaders, staff and activists a better understanding of labor law and our rights in the workplace. I grew up in Portland…and I’m a proud member of IBEW Local 125…I’ve known John Bishop for 30 years.

I’ve had to follow Graham Trainor a few times now…and it is never an easy task – especially when my message is the same as his…but the good news is that we are absolutely in alignment with each other every step of the way…organizing is the number one priority – opening our doors wider than ever before – supporting affiliate unions in every possible way to grow our movement.

We measure a good conference by the quality of the swag and I heard that there are buttons there that say “Danger: Educated Union Member.” I need to get a hold of one of those.

Because that’s the truth. An informed union member is a powerful union member. An educated union member keeps our unions strong – and I want to thank all of you for taking the time to be here today and for putting in the work to strengthen our movement.

I wish I could be with you in person. I always welcome the opportunity to go back to my home state – and my home union. Many of you know I got my start in the labor movement coming up through IBEW Local 125 out of Portland, so not being there and having to join virtually is doubly bittersweet. 

But thank you for including me. And I’d like to thank the Local 48 union staff who have donated their time, labor and space for the conference. Are there any of the new members from Schoolhouse Electric here? 

We all know our labor laws don’t do enough to protect our right to organize and the organizing campaign at Schoolhouse is a perfect example of the hurdles workers have to jump to have a voice on the job. Union-busting consultants and captive audience meetings. Management bringing in a law firm – Littler Mendelson no less – notorious for their anti-union tactics. And so it’s not a surprise when Schoolhouse refused to recognize the union because companies know that they face little to no repercussions for refusing to bargain in good faith. And so the union had to ask for the NLRB to hold an election. And then, of course, in the interim there were even more captive audience meetings and intimidation.

We all know it shouldn’t be this hard to form a union. But there are a few things that I find particularly admirable about this organizing win. 

The first is the fierce determination and dedication of the Schoolhouse Electric workers. It’s scary staring down an employer with deep pockets and an arsenal of high-priced attorneys and consultants – and they didn’t blink. That takes real courage. 

The second thing is the amazing solidarity of the Portland labor movement. Right after the union filed for an NLRB election, Schoolhouse management called an early morning all-staff meeting. And who was there to greet the workers as they filed into this mandatory meeting? The Portland labor movement. Union members lined the streets in the wee hours of the morning to give the workers encouragement. And it let them know that we had their backs, that they weren’t alone in this fight.

This Oregon labor movement never ceases to inspire, and I want to thank Graham [Trainor] – my brother and good friend – and Christy [O’Neill] for being such a dynamic team, for pushing our labor movement forward and for providing a source of inspiration for Oregon’s working families.

And the third thing is this: the Schoolhouse organizing campaign started with a conversation. And that conversation happened at an organizing rally during the Oregon Convention. And I know many of you were there too. A worker from Schoolhouse walked past the rally and wanted to learn more about forming a union at Schoolhouse and that conversation got the ball rolling. It was acted upon – immediately – and our labor movement is stronger for it. 

These conversations are important because there’s an energy out there we need to capture. Workers are fed up, tired, overworked, unpaid, and they're looking for answers. It’s our job to connect with workers and show them the solution is by joining together.

And that the labor movement is for everyone… that unions are a source of strength and a countervailing force to inequality and discrimination.

We’re building a labor movement that’s modern and dynamic. We’re evolving to meet the needs of working people – to address the future of work, to organize workers in new and emerging sectors of the economy, and to make sure working people have a say in how technology is applied in our workplaces. 

And central to that is organizing. We have to grow the number of people in unions so we can leverage our power and make sure working people are driving the future, not just CEOs. 

That’s the idea behind our new Center for Transformational Organizing – or CTO as we call it – which I see as labor’s startup, an innovation lab, where we can offer funding, resources, or training to worker-led campaigns to fight deep-pocketed corporations and union-busters. Where we can take on the fights no one union could take on alone.  A place where the 58 unions across our federation can go all in on organizing entire companies, take on the gig economy, or organize a whole sector of the economy like clean energy.

And we’ve already made enormous inroads into clean energy, working with the offshore wind company Orsted to create union jobs up and down the East Coast, and working with the Biden administration to ensure that the clean energy jobs created by the Infrastructure Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act are good union jobs. 

But this is only possible because of your efforts in the past couple of election cycles. Union members made the difference in 2022 – as we did in 2020. Our efforts expanded the majority in the Senate and pro-worker majorities in states across the country. And growing our ranks will only give us more fuel for 2024 and beyond.

Because we all know elections have consequences. And not just at the top of the ticket. It’s consequential for judicial appointments. For agency decision-makers at the NLRB and at the state level. The new Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries Commissioner, Christina Stephenson, was elected in November with strong union support and I know you’ll be hearing from her later today.

The previous administration stacked the NLRB with union-busting attorneys. Today, the difference couldn’t be more stark. Jennifer Abruzzo was an attorney for CWA before becoming  general counsel for the NLRB and she is a force to be reckoned with. The NLRB has rolled back a lot of Trump-era anti-worker rules and regulations. They’re working to restore and expand the rights of America’s workers. And now, through our persistent support, the NLRB’s budget increased for the first time in 9 years and they will have more resources to handle the surge in worker organizing and the anti-union behavior of corporations.

The more worker power we build, the more political power working people can bring to the fight to pass legislation ... to fix our broken labor laws… to advocate for change and to build a future where the right to be in a union is protected.

And that power is strengthened when we connect with our members. Workers want to hear from us about issues and politics. And when we talk to members, face to face, one on one, in the workplace or at their homes, we build that trust.

Workers trust their shop stewards who help with a schedule change, handle a harassment case, or help navigate a health care challenge. They look to their local union presidents who fight for fair contracts that make or break their ability to care for their families.  

It’s a unique relationship. And by being here today, you’re showing it’s an important one too. 

Thank you, again, for your willingness to improve your skills and knowledge… for making our labor movement stronger. And if an educated member is a dangerous member, then let's all be dangerous together.

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