Liz Shuler, acting president of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in the U.S., has stated that workers "are not going back to how it was before" COVID-19. She notes that the climate crisis and technology have had huge impacts on the workplace, and she points to polls showing growing public support for unions amid a favorable political climate for organized labor given a supportive Biden administration in Washington, D.C.
This article presents highlights of a discussion between Shuler and Julia Love, labor and tech reporter for Reuters. This took place in a session on Oct. 14, 2021, called "Help Wanted: Workers Demand More to Rejoin the Economy," part of a virtual conference organized by the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW), "The Future of Work: The Changing Global Workforce and How It's Reshaping Business."
SABEW is based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona. Its president is Caleb Silver, editor in chief of Investopedia.
Key Comments From Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO Acting President
- "We don't have a shortage of workers, but in good, well-paying jobs."
- "Too many businesses remain stubbornly focused on cutting labor costs … Even at the cost of their bottom line and stability."
- "Unions are a way for people to come together and shift the power balance."
- Regarding Amazon, "What can be done when workplaces are essentially managed by app, and there is no one to talk to?"
- "The most effective way to introduce technology is to involve workers."
- Organized labor's goal is to "Work out a fair deal that benefits everyone: business, workers, and the community."
About Liz Shuler
Elizabeth H. Shuler is the first woman to head the AFL-CIO, which now has 57 member unions (the latest being an association of professional women soccer players) and 12.5 million individual members. She was named acting president by the AFL-CIO Executive Council on Aug. 20, 2021, after the death of her predecessor, Richard Trumka. A new election for president will be held in 2022. She had been the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer, its second-ranking official, since 2009, and prior to that she held several posts with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).
The session began with some opening remarks by Liz Shuler. While noting that "the great resignation" of workers from the workforce is getting a lot of attention, she added that another significant recent development has been the wave of strikes involving many thousands of workers in a variety of industries.
"We need to rebalance the scales and put workers at the center of the economy ... Working people are starting to feel a new sense of power ... Too many businesses remain stubbornly focused on cutting labor costs … Even at the cost of their bottom line and stability."
A particular concern for Shuler is the plight of workers who took cuts and sacrifices to keep their companies afloat during the pandemic but who are being poorly treated now. "We don't have a shortage of workers, but in good, well-paying jobs," she said.
Observing that opinion polls are registering the highest approval rates for labor unions since 1965, especially among the young, Shuler also indicated that the goal of organized labor is to "Work out a fair deal that benefits everyone: business, workers, and the community."
Questions and Answers
After those opening comments from Liz Shuler, the session next took the form of questions being posed by Julia Love of Reuters, either her own or those of other conference attendees. Some of the highlights are presented below.
Q: In this tight labor market, workers have more leverage. How can unions help?
A: "Unions are a way for people to come together and shift the power balance … We have done this successfully since our inception … We will continue to evolve … The labor union movement is the most effective way to do it … Going it alone will not work."
Q: Some of the strikes have been driven by forced overtime and poor work conditions. What can the labor movement do to get back to a 40-hour week?
A: "We are still fighting for the weekend but have our eye on the future … Workers do not necessarily have a voice in workplace changes … The most effective way to introduce technology is to involve workers … We are arguing for a seat at the table, a voice."
Shuler then cited an example of a strike at Marriott when workers demanded a say over the introduction of technology. "It's in everyone's best interests to ensure that workers aren't abandoned."
Q: Several unions are gearing up to organize Amazon warehouses and delivery services. What can be done?
A: "What can be done when workplaces are essentially managed by app, and there is no one to talk to … you feel pretty powerless."
She called the organizing effort at Amazon "absolutely heroic" and stated that Amazon "violated the law" in firing workers for trying to organize.
"Algorithmic management" is a growing issue, and the labor movement must be more "creative" in response. "Amazon is an example of new and growing industries that are using technologies in ways not anticipated before."
Q: How about the [Protecting the Right to Organize] PRO-Act?
A: "The PRO-Act would give us labor laws for this century … It has passed the House in a bipartisan vote and has support of 60% of the public ... We support abolition of the filibuster in the Senate … We will keep organizing and bringing campaigns forward."
Q: What tactics are employers using to break unions?
A: "There is a whole industry of union-busting consultants … Amazon used three simultaneously."
Shuler noted that surveillance, including warnings issued by instant messaging, have been used by Amazon whenever employees are congregating for any period of time. She also indicated that Amazon even has changed the timing of stop lights outside its sites to prevent workers from talking to organizers, while also using the old tactic of firing the leaders of organizing efforts.
Q: What changes to work contracts are emerging as a result of the pandemic?
A: Shuler cited demands for protective equipment as one example, stating that nurses still face shortages thereof and are overworked. "Hospitals are not staffing up due to profit pressures … this is unsustainable."
She also said that hazard pay at the start of the pandemic has gone away, as well as protections around mandatory overtime.
Meanwhile, she sees, especially among younger workers, efforts to change employer practices that may have negative impacts on climate change. Also, there have been fights over sexual harassment.
Q: What are other key concerns for organized labor?
A: "How can the union movement evolve to deal with changes in the workplace."
"We have never allowed the law to regulate how workers organize … Since then, we have seen the National Labor Relations Act chipped away by employers."
"We are using technology to our advantage … Putting organizers and technologists in the same room ... Looking to organize the most effective campaigns ... Changing the culture of our institution to be in an organizing mode ... Most young people do not know what a union is ... We must show them what a union can do for them and how they can join."
"Right now the best way to demonstrate the power of a union are these strikes that we see now … When companies did well, they used to share it with workers … That is broken now … We have a lot of opportunity to show young people that this is our moment."