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Organizing and adding members are top goals for the newly elected AFL-CIO president

Elizabeth Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, introduces President Biden before he addresses the labor federation's convention on Tuesday in Philadelphia. On Sunday Shuler was elected to a four-year term as AFL-CIO president.
Susan Walsh
/
AP
Elizabeth Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, introduces President Biden before he addresses the labor federation's convention on Tuesday in Philadelphia. On Sunday Shuler was elected to a four-year term as AFL-CIO president.

The nation's largest labor federation made history on Sunday when Elizabeth Shuler became the first woman ever elected president of the AFL-CIO.

A second barrier was also broken at the organization's convention in Philadelphia when Fred Redmond became the federation's highest-ranking Black official. He was elected secretary-treasurer, the AFL-CIO's No. 2 leadership post.

President Biden, who often touts his ties to the labor movement, spoke to the convention on Tuesday, praising the work of Shuler and crediting unions with having built the American middle class and for giving working people dignity.

Shuler was elected to a four-year term, but has actually been serving as AFL-CIO president since last year, following the unexpected death of her predecessor, Richard Trumka.

In her speech at the convention, Shuler pledged to expand on recent organizing drives — from high tech to retail to the service industry.

"Nineteen thousand baristas at Starbucks across the country are reclaiming what it means to be a partner. And corporate and retail workers are coming together to organize at Apple," she said.

Shuler said workers are gaining power amid labor shortages and are demanding respect after being categorized as "essential employees" during the pandemic.

She said it's rippled through the economy. "Museum and stadium workers, teachers and students, hotel workers and bus drivers. Capitol Hill staffers and cannabis workers. We are seeing breakthrough organizing."

Shuler is pledging a massive grassroots organizing drive over the next decade, with a goal of adding 1 million new union members. It is a tall task, given the now-decades-long trend of declining union membership rates in the U.S.

At the same time, the new AFL-CIO leadership is promising to reconnect with workers to promote support of pro-union policies and candidates in Washington, D.C., and in state legislatures and local offices around the country. Shuler said union members will be very active in this year's midterm elections, but that to yield results, the effort has to take place year round and not just in election years.

Shuler and Redmond sat down with NPR just hours after their election. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation:

Don Gonyea: I'd like each of you to talk about the milestone of this moment. The first woman elected to lead the largest labor organization, and the first African American elected secretary-treasurer. What does that mean both in terms of history, but also in a very practical sense?

Shuler: Well, we're in a moment in the labor movement where we're excited to build on the momentum that we're seeing around us, with workers rising up and organizing all kinds of industries, all types of work.

So Fred and I are just pinching ourselves because we're on the floor of this convention with the delegates and leaders from the entire labor movement making a commitment to double down on organizing and growth. And so that's what I see is the opportunity, and now the job in this leadership position is to focus.

[To Redmond] I think it was in your speech you made the point that this is where the workforce is. One that's increasingly made up of women and by persons of color.

Redmond: The workforce is changing. We're going to see women as 50% of labor unions throughout this country. Millennials comprise 50% of all workers, and it's projected from eight to 10 years that people of color will be over 50% of all workers in this country. So when you look at the dynamics, the leadership that was elected today, a woman and African American, reflects the reality that the workplaces is changing.

Shuler: And I think about the pandemic, and the frontline, essential workers who are disproportionately women and people of color who have gotten us through this pandemic, who suffered under tremendous burdens with regard to caring for their families, children and elderly, the disabled without that safety net. That's what the labor movement is here for. We are on the front lines of advocating for those paid sick days and making sure women are getting equal pay. So it's a perfect example of how the labor movement became more relevant than ever.

How is this organization going to be different under your leadership? You are the third AFL-CIO president I've sat down with. I remember talking to President John Sweeney at a convention like this [in 1999], and had many conversations with President Richard Trumka [who died last August]. Both talked about organizing and both worked hard at that. But here we sit with union membership at a low point. So what needs to be different?

Shuler: I think what's happened in the past is the federation ran out in front, and the unions themselves were not following the plan, or that they weren't all in sync with one another. That's what's going to change as we're actually building consensus. We are building an integrated plan that everyone's all in on.

[To Redmond] Did you see what President Shuler is describing as you were coming up through the ranks of your union [United Steelworkers]? Maybe too much of a top-down approach?

Redmond: My leadership style and Liz's style is that we don't have all the answers, but we can identify the problems. So our leadership style is one where we will bring people together, try to pull for consensus. I think that's been missing.

Shuler: We are also in a different moment in the country than our predecessors and we have stronger approval from the public. Sixty-eight percent of the public approve of unions, including 77% of young people [per Gallup]. We have this pro-union administration where the president of the United States is saying the word union, and we have workers that are fed up, they're fired up, they're rising up. So what's different in this moment is the environment we're operating in.

In your acceptance speech at the convention you announced the creation of something called the "CTO"...

Shuler: Yes, the Center for Transformational Organizing.

Is that something real or just another call to action?

Shuler: That's our first 100-day plan. We are committing to organizing a million new members over 10 years so that we can hold each other accountable — year after year after year — with goals that we've identified for each union. And that we're laser-focused on coming together to achieve those goals. And like I said, it'll be cross-union collaboration, resourcing and investment. And real metrics that are associated with it, because I'm with you, I want results. I don't want to have broad plans that just get announced and nobody follows up on them. So we have a real commitment with our largest unions.

A goal of a million new members. To put that in perspective, you have about 12 1/2 million now, so about 8 or 9% growth?

Shuler: Correct.

You've seen recent organizing success, but also defeats. It's this Amazon local, but not that Amazon local. And it's just very piecemeal.

Shuler: We think the federation can be a real center of gravity for organizing across the movement.

The 2022 midterm elections will be critical for the union agenda — stronger worker protections, labor laws friendlier to organizing efforts. President Biden is a vocal supporter of labor, but polls indicate it could be a difficult year for Democrats. What's the plan to turn out union voters this year?

Shuler: We're taking an organizing approach to our politics. We are getting back into the grassroots in a way that we haven't in a very long time, which is to center our efforts around worker to worker, person to person, face to face conversations in the workplace where you have people you trust. Not talking about candidates as much as we talk about issues.

We are in such a polarized environment right now in our politics across this country. We think the labor movement can be the place where we bridge that divide.

This all seems really old-fashioned. Especially when people are living in their own social media news bubbles. In fact, they like those bubbles. They get to have their views reinforced.

Shuler: Everyone will tell you that the algorithms have people trapped in a kind of false bubble of misinformation, disinformation. And so the only way we break through that is through having conversations with each other, and people don't do that anymore. And the labor movement can be the place where we actually get the information out and be the trusted source, and have someone you trust that you work with day to day talk to you about issues and actually have a real conversation that might not necessarily be in sync with your Facebook page.

Redmond: We lost a lot of members [with their votes] in 2016 and 2020 because members received misinformation through the news media. We feel that in these conversations, we can be a center of gravity to give people accurate information about how things in this economy are affecting them, about who's responsible — if anybody's responsible — for the price of gas, or inflation. And if we have discussions with our people you can cause them to start thinking about what's the best approach for them come November.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.