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Liz Shuler On Her Vision As New AFL-CIO President

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The country's largest national labor union has a new leader. Liz Shuler will be the next president of the AFL-CIO following the death earlier this month of longtime President Richard Trumka. Shuler will be the first woman to lead the organization. And she also takes the presidency at yet another critical moment in the nation's labor history as union membership continues its long decline across the country and after a high-profile organizing effort at an Amazon warehouse ended in failure.

Liz Shuler is with us now to tell us more. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

LIZ SHULER: Thank you so much, Michel. I'm excited to be with you.

MARTIN: So I want to start by offering my condolences on the death of your longtime colleague and I believe your friend. And I gather that came as a shock.

SHULER: It really did. You know, we were partners for 12 years, working side by side, leading this labor movement. And it was unexpected. But he was doing what he loved with his grandkids, out camping. And we will keep fighting forward to keep his legacy moving because that's what he would have wanted.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about why you wanted this job at this time. I mean, obviously, your leadership is historic. And you're leading - I also want to mention your leadership team is also historically diverse. But that's not enough of a reason. Making history is not a reason in and of itself. So why this job for you at this time?

SHULER: Well, that's right. And we are at a moment, you know, as our economy has been changing, working Americans have been left behind. We've seen inequality skyrocketing. Then add in, of course, the pandemic, structural racism, accelerating climate change, technology that's changing how we work. So we think the labor movement is the solution.

My vision for the AFL-CIO starts with a very simple idea, which is nothing is more transformative or powerful than a good sustainable job. So that's why I, as the newly elected president as of yesterday, are going to put all my attention and focus on creating good, sustainable union jobs, putting that at the center of the national conversation.

MARTIN: And how does that work? The reason I ask is that just over 1 in 10 American workers are union members. That's roughly half of what it was in the early 1980s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So do you see your role as expanding their reach or is it protecting their gains, the gains of the people who are already under the union umbrella?

SHULER: It's both. I don't think they're mutually exclusive. We have to continue to be in the halls of power and push for legislation. But we also have to be in the streets. And, you know, we have - the public approval of unions is at an all-time high. The moment is ripe for massive organizing and mobilizing of working people. And people are seeing that you can't just go it alone in the workplace. The deck is stacked against you. There's too much power in the hands of corporations. And the only way we can fight back and balance the scales is by coming together collectively.

MARTIN: You know, you mention public opinion. And on the one hand, as you just said, a Gallup poll last year found that some 64% of people said that they approved of unions, which is at a - is a very high level. On the other hand, let's talk about one of the most recent and visible labor fights. Back in April, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama voted not to unionize. Like, how do you understand that disconnect?

SHULER: Well, I think a little known secret is that the labor laws in this country are badly broken. So we are fighting for labor law reform, a bill called the PRO Act, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, to restore the power of people, you know, to not be fearful - right? - of getting fired if they stand up for themselves. We want to ban things like captive audience meetings, which are meetings where, like, Amazon did. They called their employees into a room and said, oh, you want to form a union? Well, let me take a picture of your ID badge. Let me bring you to the front of the room and tell you why that's not a good idea and then dismiss you and then later on discipline you.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, your predecessor, Richard Trumka - his main focus before he passed away was getting the PRO Act or Protecting the Right to Organize Act passed in Congress. And that has not happened. What's your take on why?

SHULER: Well, I would say it's sitting in the Senate graveyard with so many pieces of sorely needed legislation. So our hope is that we can make progress and clear the way and not let the filibuster or these rules, you know, get in the way of what the American people want.

MARTIN: Is that your hope?

SHULER: And so whether it's voting rights...

MARTIN: Forgive me. Is that your hope, or is that the focus of your activism?

SHULER: Yes, we are actively lobbying and mobilizing at the grassroots level to tell, you know, members of Congress that you cannot bridle the American people by hiding behind these rules in the Senate and that we can't just sit by idly while the American people are held back from the dreams, hopes and aspirations that they voted for in the last election.

MARTIN: So, you know, before we let you go, you know, it's interesting that the job category with the highest percentage of union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data that I saw, is protective services, i.e. law enforcement. And that's exactly the category that conservatives in many states have protected and that progressives say have too much protection. I'm just wondering how you think about that yourself. How do you thread that needle?

Like, I'm remembering after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., that your predecessor, Richard Trumka, gave a speech to the membership, where he said, you know, our brother killed our sister's son. And nothing we say or do can change that fact because both - the officer who killed Michael Brown was a union member, and his mother is a union member. And I'm just wondering how you think about that.

SHULER: Absolutely. I remember that speech very well because I don't know that most people see the labor movement as a vehicle for ending systemic racism. And that's what we fight for every day. And we absolutely have been in this debate around police reform, but we also realize the profession itself is broken. And who better to actually bring ideas to the table than the workers themselves? And it's obviously a very tricky conversation because the folks who are working day-to-day on the streets and in the profession of policing see what needs to change. And we believe the labor movement can be an engine for that change.

MARTIN: That was Liz Shuler, newly elected president of the AFL-CIO. Madam President, thank you so much for talking with us. And I do hope we'll talk again.

SHULER: Absolutely, Michel. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRFKR'S "GOLDEN LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.