Speech | Gender Equality

Shuler: Women Are Transforming the Labor Movement

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks as prepared to WILL Empower:

Thank you Sheri Davis, Lane Windham, Joe McCartin and Marilyn Sneiderman.

It’s an honor to be here.

I want to start by talking about what is owed Black women, Indigenous women and women of color whose stolen time and labor carried this country since before it was a country.

In 2020, women of color were again the most reliable pro-worker voters and are stepping up as pro-worker candidates.

Women are the majority of front-line workers risking their lives to get us through this pandemic.

So much more is owed than just saying thank you.

We need to dismantle systemic racism and inequality.

Essential jobs are paying poverty wages, a shadow economy is exploiting immigrants, and missing social infrastructure is denying women equal pay and generational wealth.

That’s why women are speaking truth to corporate power and protesting in the streets.

Women are catalyzing transformation through the labor movement.

I knew I wanted to be part of our movement when I saw how my mom and the women we worked with—clerical workers at Portland General Electric—how the women were treated differently. They didn’t get the same respect as the power linemen who worked in the field. The difference? The men—and they were all men—they had a union.

That’s how I got my start: by mobilizing and organizing for equity.

And I’ve reached this leadership point through a simple but important strategy: working with and standing on the shoulders of the women in our movement.

I would not be here without that network of support. Women who lift each other up and help each other step into leadership roles.

That’s one of the powerful ideas behind WILL Empower.

And I promise you this: We are building a bold and inclusive labor movement with women of color at the center.

Because we owe women, especially women of color, power and leadership in all its forms—out in front, leading strikes and marching on picket lines—and demanding change behind the scenes in workplaces all across the country.

And leadership development work is THE critical foundation to opening the floodgates to the change we are all hungry for. We at the AFL-CIO are excited to be partnering with WILL Empower, and use an intersectional lens to our leadership development work and explore issues of race, gender, and other identities to help further our thinking around what inclusion looks like.

We want to discuss roles and traditions and how we define leadership and change the definition of what leadership looks like that has kept women and people of color on the sidelines. Pounding a lectern or pounding your chest or pointing a finger at an elected official. We want a more expansive model of leadership.

WILL Empower is building pipelines and support structures, part of the infrastructure to grow an inclusive, bold, and transformative labor movement.

Infrastructure is everything that connects us. It’s what makes going to work possible.

Just like roads and bridges, child care and elder care are critical infrastructure.

My sister April Sims will say more about it.

But 1.8 million women were sidelined from the workforce during the pandemic to shoulder care responsibilities.

This is a women’s issue, and it’s a fundamental economic issue impacting all working people.

Many women remain on the sidelines.

Others are struggling in a gig-economy because, without child care, it’s one of the few accessible options.

Corporations know this and exploit “flexibility” to push this unreliable and low-paid work.

The solution to the child care crisis is not new: During World War 2 the U.S. funded universal child care so mothers could fill factory vacancies. In 1971 Congress passed universal child care legislation that was vetoed by President Nixon. We can fix this—and the labor movement will be the force behind solving it.

And it’s unacceptable that women who do the work in the care economy, overwhelmingly women of color, have been overlooked and underpaid. Care jobs should be good jobs with livable wages and benefits.

The more women lead, the more we organize, the more leverage we have to win progress.

In fact, the labor movement is the largest organization of working women in the country.

We’re 6.5 million strong. And growing. Women are on track to be the majority of union members by 2025.

I want every woman in every type of job to see they have a place in our movement. Women covered by union contracts lost fewer jobs between 2019 and 2020 and the wages of Black women union members went up.

We are growing our power as one of the most powerful forces—for racial justice, gender equity, democracy at the ballot box and in our workplaces—by connecting with each other.

I’ll leave you with this—if you’re watching, and you’re thinking about stepping up into leadership—or you’re not, because you’re saying, I’m not “qualified” enough yet—I want to encourage you to think again. Because while you’re talking yourself out of it, there’s a guy right next to you, who is less qualified, saying, “Yeah, I can do that!” Take that next step even if it might make you uncomfortable—the labor movement needs you.

Thank you, WILL Empower. I can’t wait to see how far we go from here. Thank you!


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