The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast

Meet the AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, Liz Shuler

July 29, 2021 Traci Dority-Shanklin Season 3 Episode 11
The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast
Meet the AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, Liz Shuler
Show Notes Transcript

Did you know that the labor movement is the largest organization of working women in the nation? On December 11, 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr told the AFL-CIO, “The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro Freedom movement. Together, we can be architects of democracy.” Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, joins Traci on the podcast to talk about how the labor movement and the AFL-CIO are supporting women, minorities, and the next generation of workers.

Some highlights from Meet the AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, Liz Shuler include:

03:01 – Liz’s Journey to the AFL-CIO
07:55 – “Women of Steel”
12:03 – Union Favorability and Goodwill towards Labor Unions
15:40 – Let’s Pass the PRO-Act!
18:02 – Biden’s Interagency Task Force
21:09 – Next Step and the Young Worker

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Narrator  0:02  

This is The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast with Traci Dority-Shanklin, if you're interested in labor and union benefit funds, well, you've landed in the right place. We are a go-to source for all things union benefit fund-related, and we are going to bring you interviews with key decision-makers and fund professionals that guide these plans. They'll share their insights, experience, unique perspectives, all of the latest developments and tips to unlock the mysteries of multiemployer benefit funds. Time is short, so let's get started.


Traci Shanklin  0:35  

I am so excited to speak with our guests today, the AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Elizabeth Shuler. As I said, Elizabeth is the AFL-CIO is secretary-treasurer, its second ranking officer, and the first woman elected to this position. Thank you, Liz, for joining the conversation. 


Liz Shuler  0:56  

Hi, Traci, thank you so much for including me on your podcast. I'm a big fan.


Traci Shanklin  1:00  

Thank you. First, I want to say congratulations. And thank you for making history as the first woman elected to the office of secretary treasurer at the AFL-CIO, and for being the youngest woman on the Federation's Executive Council. Your achievements have paved the way for women and young adults, I have two daughters. So, that's particularly important to me and even impacted at me personally as a true expander of what women can do in the labor movement.


Liz Shuler  1:31  

First of all, thank you for that I feel I stand on the shoulders of giants, as they say, who came before me. But, a lot of people don't know that the labor movement is the largest organization of working women in the country. There are a lot of women's organizations out there. And a lot of people don't think of labor as one of them. But, we are half the workforce now, and we will be officially half the labor movement. I believe it's 2025. We represent I think six and a half million women, so it's very exciting.


Traci Shanklin  2:02  

That is exciting. And because of all that I have had you as a guest on my wish list since I launched the podcast. I heard you speak at a UFCW event in Florida and was so impressed with you and your passion for the labor movement. I created this podcast to be a go-to source for all things multiemployer benefit plans. And I've long believed that unions have a difficulty communicating their value, much like you just mentioned that a lot of people don't know that they represent a very large chunk of women in the workforce. And I also think that multiemployer benefit funds are a mystery to people outside of the Union world. As I read through all of your initiatives, I felt that we could do a whole series together because we have so many shared passions. But, that's part of what we're going to do today, so let's get into a little of these now. Can you share with our listeners your path to the AFL-CIO?


Liz Shuler  3:01  

I started in Portland, Oregon. I was working at a little utility company called Portland General Electric, and my mom worked there, and my dad worked there, I worked there, and basically got involved in activism and organizing when the clerical workers that PGE figured out, "Hey, the linemen have a union; we don't have a union. We want respect. We want our voices heard. Let's organize," and the IBEW Local 125 was the place they went because as I said, the power linemen were already in the union. So, I got involved in the organizing campaign, I experienced the anti-union animus that we hear about so often with a lot of companies where they don't like their power being threatened, right. So, they come at you with everything. They have the captive audience meetings, the intimidation, the harassment, and ultimately, that organizing campaign was not successful, but it really lit a fire in me. And I saw that fight for fairness is really at the core of what the labor movement is all about. And I wanted to make a career out of it. 


Liz Shuler  4:17  

So, I ended up going to work for IBEW Local 125 as an organizer as a lobbyist and political operative. I wore a lot of different hats, as many people do and local unions. And that was kind of the start, right, and worked at my local union and then crossed paths with the International Union, IBEW in Washington, DC, through my work in politics, and they decided, "Hey, we could use someone like you in Washington." And so, I went to work for the International in 1998 in Washington DC, was intending to be there for a short period of time, but now here I am. 20 years later. And through my work at the International IBEW, is when I became involved with the AFL-CIO at the national level. And when Rich Trumka decided to run for president of the AFL-CIO in 2009, he asked me to join his ticket. So, that's how I ended up at the AFL-CIO as an officer, secretary-treasurer now for over 10 years. It has been quite a journey. And it's all been rooted, as I said, in this fight for fairness, and making it known that the labor movement is the best path for working people to have a more powerful voice in our economy.


Traci Shanklin  5:38  

Couldn't agree more. We share similar upbringing in that both of our fathers were in the labor movement. For me, I always had a difficult time explaining what my father did. How was this for you?


Liz Shuler  5:53  

Being an officer in the labor movement is unique. You're right because you're involved in so many things. And, you know, one day you could be engaged in a political campaign; the next day, you're fighting for justice out in the streets, walking picket lines, or walking the halls of Congress looking for to pass a bill or a regulation at OSHA. I mean, it's - it's just such a diverse career path. And I think the common thread here is that we know that workers feel very alone in the economy. They often feel disempowered. And the only way that you can balance the scales of corporate power is to join together in your union. And through that activism and creating that leverage is the way that we make life better for all working people. 


Liz Shuler  6:45  

So, I think that you and I share that and certainly, my pathway was a bit different in the IBEW primarily because there are so many industries that the IBEW represents workers in, and they're predominantly male. And so I did, as a woman coming up through the IBEW have a unique experience, I would say, in the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the sisterhood's implied. But, we know though for women, as we said at the top, the best way to gain access to equal pay, the best way to fight discrimination on the job, the best way to make sure that you have equal access to promotions and workforce development is through your union. So, that's why I chose the path I did coming up through the IBEW and now the AFL-CIO.


Traci Shanklin  7:43  

As a female labor leader, do you have a story or experience in your background or your labor career that really empowered you or motivated you to do this vital work?


Liz Shuler  7:55  

Hmm. Well, there's, how do I pick just one, right? There are so many, and I'm so honored that I get to be out in the field quite often walking picket lines and visiting workplaces and meeting with workers everywhere I go. I hear so many stories. I was thinking back recently, on some women that I met in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We've been doing a lot of work in manufacturing and making sure that the opportunities for growth in highly skilled manufacturing, our doors are opening wider than ever to women and people of color. And so, there's this organization called Women of Steel, steel worker, women who have worked in heavy industry, who have come together in their union. I don't know if you're familiar, but they are a tough group of women. 


Liz Shuler  8:52  

And I was meeting with them in Milwaukee, they were having a Women of Steel meeting. And I will never forget how resilient these women were. And they were talking about the challenges of working in a very male-dominated environment, being what we call the "onlys," right. Sometimes often being the only woman on the job. And these are women who want to get access to the higher paid jobs, right. And they often face barriers in sexism and discrimination. And -and there was this one woman who all she wanted to do was to become a heavy haul truck driver. She wanted to get in there, you know, and move those tons of steel. And she was looking for guidance on how to get there. And she was telling the story of asking a male co-worker, how she could become one of these truck drivers. And he said, "You can't do that. Women don't have good aim." And she said, "Women don't have good aim. What do you mean?" "Well, they don't know, you know, they can't move these trucks around like men," and she said to the group of women as she was telling the story, "Have you ever gone into a public restroom? You're saying that men have good aim." 


Liz Shuler  10:14  

But, I just applauded this woman, because she pushed through what ultimately could have been an experience that deterred her and made her look elsewhere and guided her away from some of the highest paid work, highly skilled work, that she knew she could do. But, she pushed through that, and was able to access the training, the up-skilling, and ultimately, get there. But, she then was able to find support in her Women of Steel chapter and ultimately, her union was the one that helped get her to that next level. That's just one story that comes to mind, but particularly, the - the women worker stories are the ones that really stick with me because I having come up through the IBEW, know what it's like to be the only in a room, or the only woman at a table. And so, we need to make sure that we're bringing the perspectives, the breadth and scope of our labor movement into those rooms. And so, that's what keeps me - keeps me going fires me up.


Traci Shanklin  11:22  

Community is such an important piece, I think, and community is literally woven into the fabric of unions. But, it's really wonderful that women are finding community inside their unions together as well. So, that's a very important part of the success of women in the labor movement is the support that they get from others who have, as you've said, paved the way for them to be where they're at. And for people like her who were able to push through a negative comment and find her way beyond that to getting what she wanted. So, it's great story. 


Traci Shanklin  12:03  

Support for unions is at an all-time high. I know you know this. According to a September 2020 Gallup poll, 65% of Americans surveyed favored labor unions. Further, a 2017 Pew Research study showed that 75% of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29, held a favorable view of labor unions. I know that empowering women and young workers is one of your core agendas at the AFL-CIO, how can labor capitalize on all this favorability and goodwill towards labor unions?


Liz Shuler  12:42  

Oh, my gosh, you are absolutely right. And those numbers were at a 50-year high. So, we're in a moment right now, like we've not seen in a very, very long time. We have the President of the United States saying he's gonna be the most pro-union president in history. He says the word, "union," pretty much every day. I see a press conference or a speech or something where we're hearing that from the bully pulpit of the United States. The public sees the value of unions, especially coming out of the pandemic, because it was the union who was the voice for working people, not just its members, but certainly for health and safety protocols, and investments in PPE, and making sure workers were taken care of, and advocating for hazard pay. So, I think the public was able to connect what unions do particularly through this pandemic. The public polling, as you said, is right there at an all-time high. I remember even seeing Megan Markel, you know, the big interview she did with Oprah on live television said she missed being a SAG-AFTRA member, a union member, because her union fought for her. So, it's everywhere. And I remember seeing this article, I think it was Vice that said, "Unions are cool now." 


Liz Shuler  14:08  

So, everyone's talking about unions, as you said, we're in this moment. And so, we should be using our platforms to lift up and connect people to see that unions are the solution. A lot of people think we're a closed club, for example, that you have to have a secret handshake or something to get into the union. And they're often workers are out there feeling on their own as they see the broken systems and the broken rules of our economy, and the effects that it's had on rising inequality. And they don't often connect their place in the economy to a union as the solution. That's up to us to change, and we need to be engaging at the community level, with our allies, with partners in the fights that are happening locally, and show that the labor movements out there fighting for not just its members, but for all working people, and that we are a part of a broader movement for change. And we have a tendency sometimes to be in our union bubble, as I like to say. And I think the more that we can get out of that bubble, the more we can connect and support each other, the more powerful we are. And the more that people see the labor movement as a place for them. 


Liz Shuler  15:40  

So, connecting at the community level, certainly, we could capitalize more on the power of social media, posting the union difference, so that people can see that in real time, and then immediately engage and find ways to connect and have those conversations about the labor movement so that they can bring the power of a union into their workplace. The one thing we need, however, is to pass the PRO-Act, which is a piece of legislation that is now before Congress, that would fix the broken labor laws in our country. And many people know that there are a lot of holes and deficiencies in our labor law that make it very difficult to organize a union. There's a high threshold or a lot of challenges and barriers that we're up against. That if we were to pass the PRO-Act would make it so much easier for people to form a union, and live up to the intent of the National Labor Relations Act, which in 1935, it was the law of the land that people should be able to easily form unions in their workplaces. 


Liz Shuler  16:53  

But, over time, lawmakers have chipped away at that law. And employers have leveraged their power through time to make it weaker. And so, that's why we are working full throttle to pass the PRO-Act. And it's already passed to the House of Representatives. But, it's on the docket right now, as we speak in the US Senate. We're working really hard to get to that 50-vote threshold. And right now we're three votes shy in the Senate we're targeting those last few votes to make sure that we can get labor law reform passed and sent to President Biden's desk, which he's asked us to do. 


Traci Shanklin  17:34  

I couldn't agree more. It does it need a simple majority of votes in the Senate or --


Liz Shuler  17:38  

Of course, with the procedural hurdles of the filibuster. That's a whole separate issue, right. Which is about tactically how we get it passed. But to get a simple majority with the Vice President, of course, being the 51st vote. We need the three votes of Senator Mark Warner in Virginia and then the two senators in Arizona, Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema. 


Traci Shanklin  18:02  

You mentioned, President Biden appears to be a massive ally of labor. I don't think he appears to be he certainly is stepping up. He handpicked labor leaders for cabinets and advisory roles in his administration. And I read he's putting together a task force. Do you know what the purpose of this task force is?


Liz Shuler  18:21  

You must be referring to the task force on worker empowerment and growing unions, which is an Interagency Task Force that's co-chaired by Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, and vice president Kamala Harris. And what's so groundbreaking about this Interagency Task Force is they're actually going to find ways to leverage the power of the US government to grow union density in the country. And it's truly remarkable to think about how much power can be leveraged to grow the labor movement when each cabinet secretary is coming to this table, thinking of ways that they can use their agency to grow unions. You have the Commerce Secretary coming to the table talking about trade regulations, or the USTR. You have obviously the Department of Labor, you have the procurement regulations and the buying power of the US government to invest in, you know, US made vehicles to create more jobs for auto workers. So, there are a number of ways that each sector is going to benefit from this Interagency Task Force. And they've broken it down by sector. So, each agency can kind of bring the full-force and weight of the government to influence how we can actually give unions a bigger voice and footprint in our economy.


Traci Shanklin  19:53  

How is labor adapting to the changing faces of workers. You just mentioned growing the labor movement Are there any programs that are lending, I guess, support to the white collar organizing? Or is there any initiatives out there on that kind of organizing?


Liz Shuler  20:11  

Absolutely. And you're right, the face of labor is changing. We're seeing the demographics in the country changing and the labor movement is reflective of that. And we are engaging this next generation of workers because we see the future, and we want to make sure that as the baby boomers are retiring, the silver tsunami, as they call it, right. I think it's 10,000 workers a day are turning 65. We need to make sure that we have active engaged empowered young people coming up in this labor movement, to ultimately guide and take over the labor movement right in the future. And so, this next generation is, I would say, probably the most civically-minded generation, the most tuned into social and economic justice, and are very much driven by that. 


Liz Shuler  21:09  

And our Next Step young worker program, which we've had moving since 2010, has really laid the groundwork for a young worker movement within labor, We have young worker groups at the state and local level through our networks of state and local AFL-CIOs, which many of we refer to them as state, Feds and clcs. And so, in every major city, in every state, we have a presence. The AFL-CIO has a presence and is able to mobilize real working people on the ground. And so, we have young worker groups running alongside that infrastructure to really hone in on the policies, and the issues that young people care about: what drives them; what motivates them to organize? And so, who better to do that, then young workers themselves within the labor movement. 


Liz Shuler  22:04  

We also have our affiliated unions, we have 56 affiliates. And I would say over half of those affiliates have developed their own young worker programs, so that we are actually within the unions themselves, training and educating and bringing young workers into leadership within each unions. So, I love to point to my union, of course, the IBEW has their what they call, RENEW. It's an acronym that I'm probably going to get wrong, so I'll leave it at that. And we have within the Building Trades, of course, lots of young worker programs in the industrial unions, public sector unions, all across the board, we're seeing an interest in really engaging and training up that next generation of leadership. So, that's the way the AFL-CIO sees planning for the future. 


Liz Shuler  23:02  

But also in our organizing, we're making sure that in our Organizing Institute that we have cohorts of young people coming up as trainers. For example, we're making sure that we're looking at our organizing through a young worker lens, so that when we see these emerging industries coming along that young people are flocking to, that we are looking at our organizing approaches and our tactics and the tools that we're using through again, a young worker lens. You had mentioned white-collar work, which you know, I always hate that whole white-collar, pink-color, blue-collar, you know, green-collar now, I don't know, no-collar. We got the collars covered. But we definitely have seen opportunities abound in the professional sector. 


Liz Shuler  23:57  

And we have a lot of work going on among affiliates to appeal to the, for example, digital journalists that have been organizing in droves. With all of the online news media, they've come together for the future of their industry, right? They want pay equity; they want a better workplace. They're actually using their bargaining in new and different ways to leverage the corporate social behavior of their companies. What kind of carbon footprint does the company have, you know, the things that traditionally might not be in contract negotiations, for example, they're looking at it through a different lens because they have a younger workforce because they might care about different things then say a more seasoned workforce might. So, that's what I'm seeing. I'm seeing a whole cadre of young people coming in, new leadership, and new industries where the labor movement traditionally hasn't had a footprint, starting to organize and see unions in a very dynamic and fresh way.



Traci Shanklin  25:07  

That's an exciting time. And you touched on this that the current generation is driven by impact and giving back. And there is a recent trend among millennials and Gen Z generation to build communities, participate in conversations that positively change the world. In other words, they are true activists. So, even though millennials and Gen Z's view labor favorably and like to support businesses that they feel do good, do you think this is translating to them making the active choice to be in a union?


Liz Shuler  25:43  

Well, I think we have a deficit in awareness among young people broadly, I think those who are active in social justice causes are much more aware of unions. And as you said, this generation is generally more apt to be engaged in their communities, but not often connected to the labor movement. So, that is our job right? We need to have our young union members be active in coalitions where other young people are. We've been doing a lot of outreach on campuses, for example, to connect young activist groups on campus with young workers in the labor movement, and so they see each other; they can connect on the issues they care about, and that those young people on campus can see the labor movement as a pathway for them. 


Liz Shuler  26:40  

We also see social justice movements, like the Movement for Black Lives, for example. You look at the activists who were in the streets, and on the frontlines of those marches and the push for social justice, and it's all young people. And many of our young union members were also involved in - in the marches and the rallies and on the frontlines of those campaigns. I think it's just a natural coming together and a generational shift with how the labor movement is evolving and changing, and we're becoming much more embedded and deeply connected in our communities. Thanks to the activism of a lot of our young leaders.


Traci Shanklin  27:25  

You are listening to The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds, and I have been speaking with the AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, Liz Shuler. This concludes the first half of our conversation. I hope you'll join us for the second episode, where Liz Shuler and I discuss the future of the labor movement and defined benefit plans for millennials and Gen Z's, and my personal favorite union myth-busting. 


Traci Shanklin  27:50  

If you've enjoyed today's podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a five-star review on your favorite podcast platform. You can always find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and many other platforms. You can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter at our website at That's Thanks again for joining the conversation where listeners connect with leading experts throughout the multiemployer world. Be part of the change. 



Traci Shanklin  28:31  

And that's it for this week's episode of The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast. We love to hear from you. And if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, head over to, and let us know. Thank you for joining us, and we look forward to next time.


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