Science & Nature

Union rebound? AFL-CIO’s Shuler sees promise, long road ahead.

Union rebound? AFL-CIO’s Shuler sees promise, long road ahead. thumbnail

A newly released poll heading into Labor Day weekend shows a near-record 71% of Americans approve of unions, up from 64% before the pandemic. Yet that Gallup Poll stands in contrast to some raw math: Just 1 in 10 workers on U.S. payrolls are union members, half the level seen four decades ago.

Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, wants to bridge that gap – by adding a million new people to union ranks over the next 10 years. 

Why We Wrote This

Labor unions are increasingly popular, have a friend in the White House, and see some signs of worker leverage in the job market. The AFL-CIO president says they still have a battle ahead to boost their ranks.

As she spoke at a Monitor Breakfast for reporters on Thursday, it was clear that for her, it is personal. 

“My dad grew up in a one-room fruit picking shack in Hood River, Oregon. He and his four siblings often went hungry.” Then he found a union job as a power lineman at Portland General Electric. Beyond the pay, “it also meant dignity and respect. It meant having a voice being heard.”

She says millions of workers are reaching for those same things today.

“We would say that unions are a pillar of a healthy democracy, and we see it around the world that unions have always been sort of bedrock to the foundation of a healthy economy and a healthy society,” Ms. Shuler told reporters.

Washington

A newly released poll heading into Labor Day weekend shows a near-record 71% of Americans approve of labor unions, up from 64% just before the pandemic. Yet that Gallup poll stands in contrast to some raw math: Just 1 in 10 workers on U.S. payrolls are union members, half the level seen four decades ago.

Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, wants to bridge that gap – starting by adding a million new people to union ranks over the next 10 years. 

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As she spoke at a Monitor Breakfast for reporters on Thursday, it was clear that for her, it is personal. It’s about her own story, and the life stories of people she has met, some of whom leave memories that make her voice quake with emotion.

Why We Wrote This

Labor unions are increasingly popular, have a friend in the White House, and see some signs of worker leverage in the job market. The AFL-CIO president says they still have a battle ahead to boost their ranks.

“My dad grew up in a one-room fruit picking shack in Hood River, Oregon. He and his four siblings often went hungry.” That all changed for her family in one generation, she said, because her dad found a union job as a power lineman at Portland General Electric.

Beyond the pay, “it also meant dignity and respect. It meant having a voice being heard.”

Fast-forward through the decades, and she says millions of workers are reaching for those same things today. She draws a line from hope for dignity to hope for U.S. democracy. 

“We would say that unions are a pillar of a healthy democracy, and we see it around the world that unions have always been sort of bedrock to the foundation of a healthy economy and a healthy society,” Ms. Shuler told reporters.

One thing that’s clear: Some unionization drives are succeeding and emboldening many in the young generation of workers. 

Ms. Shuler acknowledges ways that the labor movement can improve from within, by being “more modern and dynamic and inclusive.” She wants to see unions expand their relevance, whether by collaborating to grow their ranks or having answers to challenges like the on-the-job frustration known as “quiet quitting.”  

Below are more excerpts from her responses to reporters on Thursday, edited for length. 

On the goal of 1 million new union members:

Last June, we announced the Center for Transformational Organizing. We call it the CTO, and our baseline goal is to organize a million new workers because we know that growing the number of people in unions is going to create that power balance that we need to fix our broken economy. … And it’s where we’ll get out of our silos and build a movement that is taking on very specific goals together, and particularly in nonunion areas of the economy, like gig work, like Amazon, like the clean energy economy.

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On whether labor leaders can rally their diverse membership around union-endorsed candidates:

Well, that is a question that I think speaks to the moment we’re in in our country, where, you know, we have a lot of divergent views. … We have members that certainly will disagree with candidates that perhaps have been endorsed at the local level. But those are democratic processes, right? So that it’s the members on the ground that actually make those decisions. … We are taking a different approach this year in that we aren’t flying in from the national level and basically trying to land on a community and push a particular brand of political program.

On how to get Republican politicians to listen to union concerns:

I should be clear that we do support Republicans. We support the Republicans that actually are good on our issues and are pro-union. And in fact, there’s been, I think, a conversation within the Republican Party about being more pro-worker. You know, folks like [Sen.] Marco Rubio have sounded the alarms and said this is a mistake if we think we’re going to leave the so-called blue collar worker behind, right? 

On shifts at some corporations:

I use Microsoft as an example where [President] Brad Smith actually said, you know what? My workforce is talking about unionization. Maybe that’s something that I should listen to instead of fight. And so he signed the neutrality agreement with the Communications Workers of America for Activision Blizzard. … We would argue that being in a union actually can improve your bottom line and that we can sit at a table and actually have conversations with each other and work through problems, work through issues.

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On momentum, including due to support from President Joe Biden:

This is the moment because we have so much momentum. The public is pro-union. The administration is the most pro-union administration in history. And we have working people standing up, taking risks, tremendous courage against the odds because of our broken labor laws, willing to say, you know what, enough is enough. 

On federal investment creating jobs:

Huge opportunities coming out of the [Inflation Reduction Act] and the infrastructure legislation and the CHIPS Act to really reclaim domestic manufacturing as an industry that is driving good jobs. And with the labor standards that we have in the legislation to make sure that we’re not low-roading these investments, our tax dollars should be used to create good jobs. And the battery is the new combustion engine.

On the top issues workers are focused on:

The issues that we hear the most about are obviously wages, but more importantly, health care, retirement security, and toxic work environments, you know, the workplace culture issues that people are grappling with. And so I think that is, as I said, universal, no matter where you work and no matter what kind of job you have.

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