Speech

Shuler Speaks to the SMART General Convention

Las Vegas, NV

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler's as-prepared remarks to the SMART General Convention:

Who doesn’t want to be walked in by the incredible sisters of the SMART Women’s Committee?

Thank you for that...and for everything you’ve done in just three short years...to support and encourage women in the trades. From trainings to recruitment efforts to the new information toolkit you’ll soon be launching to put other women into leadership positions, this bold action is the reason I’m so hopeful for our movement!

And, my thanks to President Sellers for your leadership, General Secretary-Treasurer McClees, SMART Transportation President Previsich, the entire General Executive Council and all of the SMART staff for your dedication to our movement. 

We are in good hands!

Good morning, sisters and brothers! I’m honored to be in Las Vegas with you. Anybody win big yet? 

As you all know very well, in construction you often have to travel to where the work is, so, the joke was that IBEW stands for “I’ve Been Every Where.” 

It feels that way even today because I travel a lot, which also means that I get to meet and talk to working people all over this country. People who are on the move, speaking out and taking risks like we haven’t seen in a very long time: 

  • 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 health care. Customers stood with them. Together, they brought the company to its knees! That’s the power of labor and community working together!

  • And, hotel workers, members of UNITE HERE, striking at Marriott and winning raises and better health care and the right to negotiate over how technology impacts their jobs. That’s huge!

We are seeing a spirit of activism and not just among union members. How about: 

  • Amazon workers in Minnesota who went on strike last month on Amazon Prime Day, calling for better working conditions and respect. Those warehouses are modern-day sweatshops!

  • Google workers worldwide staged massive protests last fall, demanding an end to workplace harassment and fairness for all employees—whether they’re full-time or contractors. 

  • And, video game developers are joining together to fight for a voice at work. Developers are working 14-16 hour days with no breaks under insane deadlines. They need a union, too!

As I’ve walked alongside these heroic workers and listened to their stories, I hear some of the same things you’re probably hearing back home: 

  • Paychecks are not going as far as they used to. 

  • Health care costs are skyrocketing and eating up gains at the bargaining table. 

  • The growth in technology is causing fears about the future and what work is going to look like and if jobs are going to be lost to automation.  

  • Corporations are chasing short-term profits and no longer see their workforce as an asset, but instead, a cost to be cut. And that threatens our ability to negotiate good wages and retirement security. 

  • There are dangerous attacks on civil rights, voting rights and women’s rights. Combine that with the hateful rhetoric and growing division and the very soul of our democracy is being threatened. 

It feels like we’ve reached a tipping point. The systems and institutions we’re supposed to rely on aren’t working for us anymore. 

Especially our economy. 

CEO pay is at an all-time high: 287 times what the average worker makes. The wealthiest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, makes in nine seconds what the average Amazon employee makes in a year. 

Let me repeat that: Nine seconds. It’s hard to even imagine! And, Amazon effectively pays zero in federal taxes!

While people like Jeff Bezos get rich, the rest of America struggles to get by. Forty percent of Americans don’t have $400 in the bank for an emergency...40%. And more than 60% of Americans haven’t seen a raise in more than a year. 

Here’s the thing— after all that doom and gloom— the secret is: It doesn’t have to be this way. Economic insecurity is not inevitable. The leaders we elect make policy choices that can benefit more people...the 99%. And, we can choose to do better. But where do we start?

Investment.

How about we start with investing in rebuilding our country’s infrastructure?

I don’t need to tell you that we should be spending our tax dollars on policies that benefit the middle class, fix our roads and bridges and put the hard-working members of SMART on the job in every single community across the country!

This should be a no-brainer. It’s one of the few issues where business and labor agree. And, for years, we’ve heard both Democrats and Republicans all say they support infrastructure investment, too. 

Yet, here we are. Again. Still waiting. Aren’t you sick of waiting, sisters and brothers? 

I am!

Because the livelihoods of working people and the future of our nation’s infrastructure shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Bottom line: It’s time for the federal government to step up and lead on infrastructure.

And, rail safety. 

The Federal Rail Administration's ruling on two-person crews is unfair and unsafe. We need two qualified crew members—a conductor and an engineer—on every single train. 

Period. 

That’s why the bill currently in Congress, the Freight Safety Act, is so important. I know John testified before the House earlier this summer and did a great job on behalf of the entire labor movement. Thank you, John!

We need Congress to pass the Freight Safety Act as soon as possible! So, call them up! Tell them why this issue is so important. 

While you have them on the line, tell them it’s time to rebuild our country with union labor, Davis-Bacon and project labor agreements.

Building our infrastructure will also help build our labor movement. More dollars available for construction creates jobs and means more opportunities for training as new people come into our movement.

Did you know the labor movement is the second largest provider of worker training in the U.S. behind the military?

That’s our best-kept secret. But it shouldn’t be! 

Not when the average young person graduating from college has about $30,000 in student loan debt—and can’t find a good-paying job. 

We need to do a better job of educating the public about apprenticeships. The time is ripe for expanding this successful model into more industries, which is why this administration’s attacks on training and labor standards with those IRAPs MUST be defeated. 

Our registered apprenticeship programs and facilities—like the more than 160 SMART centers across the U.S. and Canada—pump millions of dollars into the economy every year, training some of the best tradeswomen and men in the world.

Our leaders should be doing everything possible to invest in apprenticeships and provide more people with a career full of dignity and opportunity.

IRAPS have no place in construction. Defeating this is crucial to our survival. 

Everyone is doing a great job getting comments into the Department of Labor, but we only have a few more days to up the ante!

Investment in training and education is an incredible way to demonstrate our value and relevance to the broader public as well. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve witnessed people who are anti-union change their minds when they learn everything our movement is doing to lift up workers and communities.

Staying ahead of technology and automation and making it work for us is also crucial to our survival. And, SMART is a real leader in this arena. 

Your new technology committee is a big move in the right direction. And, I know your apprenticeship curriculum is now entirely paperless, and you’re working on some other big changes for the apprentices beginning next month. I’m excited to see what’s next.

And, I understand you’ve got virtual reality training programs—like a virtual lift—so workers can really feel what it’s like to be 80 feet up without actually leaving the ground...saving time and money in the process.

How incredible is that?

Bottom line: SMART is using technology to make jobs better, safer and more efficient. You're showing our entire movement how we can dismantle the myth that unions are outdated or out of touch—all while using cutting edge tools to help us organize and grow. 

This is something the AFL-CIO is working on, too. We’re challenging ourselves to learn and think differently about reaching workers with technology and in entirely new sectors, like tech, to show them the power of a union. 

Their jobs might be different, and their workplace might not be traditional, but they still need a voice and protections like every other working person out there. And, that means a union!

So, this is a moment to be bold and grab our fair share. We are the most powerful voice for working families on the planet! 

 If we don’t seize this moment and leverage our collective power to organize and grow, then shame on us. 

 That’s what SMART has been doing for two centuries. You are proof that by creating and sustaining good jobs and training workers for the future, we can win a stronger, more prosperous America. 

We have a lot of work to do, but I like our chances. Our movement is changing, getting stronger, bigger and more popular with the public. And with SMART leading the way, we’re showing America that when we stand together, we win together. 

Thank you for having me today. Let’s get to work!