Jun 12, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Axios interview: Inside the plans of the country's top union leader

Liz Shuler gesticulates with her hands in a blue suit.

Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, speaks in Washington, D.C., on March 24. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The new leader of the AFL-CIO is zeroing in on the tech sector as one of organized labor's top targets and plans to shift more of the powerful union's resources to organizing and growing its members, she and her deputy told Axios in a joint interview.

Driving the news: Liz Shuler will be confirmed today as the group's president at its constitutional convention in Philadelphia, the first woman to lead the federation of 57 U.S. and international labor unions representing 12 million workers.

  • She's been running the AFL-CIO since former president Richard Trumka's sudden death last summer.
  • "It's our moment to write the next chapter of the labor movement," she said in a joint interview with Fred Redmond, the group's first Black secretary-treasurer.

Why it matters: They want to build upon unprecedented union victories at companies like Amazon and Starbucks. To do so, they plan to reallocate resources toward organizing and pare back AFL-CIO leadership, a shift from Trumka's approach.

  • "We are looking to seize on this moment to show that the labor movement is wide open — that we are open to transformational change," Shuler said.

Between the lines: Redmond mentioned "tech workers" as one area they want to focus on, but the leaders were cagey about naming specific companies they want to target.

  • "We can't say who because we don't want — obviously — the companies to be notified," said Shuler.

The big picture: Shuler and Redmond need to harness the energy and enthusiasm of the biggest wave of union organizing campaigns and strikes in decades.

  • They know this moment — with Democrats controlling Congress at least through November, Joe Biden as the most pro-labor president in recent times and workers feeling emboldened to organize at the most powerful and anti-union companies in the world — won't last forever:

During Trumka's tenure, an internal debate raged in labor circles about the best use of the AFL-CIO's time and money: Should the storied group concentrate on adding members by investing more in organizing workers and unionizing new sectors of the economy? Or should it be more Washington-focused and work on building consensus around policy and lobbying for labor's agenda in D.C.?

  • Trumka was a skilled political player in Washington, but as the New York Times reported, funding for organizing dropped and the rate of union membership fell by about 1.5 percentage points during his tenure to under 11%.
  • Shuler rejected the idea the AFL-CIO must choose between politics or organizing — but indicated it must put a significantly heavier emphasis on organizing at a moment when workers like Amazon's Christian Small are notching up stunning victories electrifying labor activists everywhere.
  • Some reformers in the labor movement are skeptical that Shuler — who had been Trumka's working partner for 12 years — can be a change agent. They'll be watching closely to see whether she and Redmond keep their promises around organizing.

What they're saying: Shuler and Redmond say they want to emphasize and build upon the diversity of the labor movement.

  • "The emerging workforce is people of color, is young people, is women, particularly women of color," Shuler said. "This is not your granddaddy's labor movement."

Yes, but: Shuler recently had to confront a relic of its past. The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO leader Frank Snyder retired amid an investigation into workplace misconduct just days before he was supposed to become the state group's president.

  • Shuler told Axios, "I did put my thumb on the scale" to push Snyder out.
  • Asked whether she was going to make the results of the investigation public, Shuler said: "The report was never written. ... We decided to take action prior to official findings because I knew it would divide the labor movement, and we are going into an important election year. Pennsylvania is a critical state."
  • A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO did not respond to a request for comment.
  • Snyder's replacement, Angela Ferritto, is the first woman to lead the state labor organization.
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