New AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer upbeat about advancing workers’ priorities


 In her first trip to Minnesota as national AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, Liz Shuler was optimistic about advancing the labor movement’s goals for health care and organizing. In remarks Friday to union members participating in the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s political conference, Shuler said passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is “incredibly close.”

The legislation, which would make it easier for workers to join unions, was held up while Congress awaited the outcome of the U.S. Senate race in Minnesota; Democrat Al Franken won. Now the bill is on the back burner while Congress considers health care reform. Shuler said unions need to keep up the pressure, but “There is a very good chance we will see the bill become law in our country.”

She also expressed hope for passage of meaningful health care reform, despite setbacks in the U.S. Senate. The AFL-CIO’s priorities in the health care debate are:

  • Reduce skyrocketing health care costs
  • Hold insurers accountable by including a public option
  • Do not tax health plans, which would penalize those who have insurance
  • Make employers pay their fare share

“You and I have a very good reason to be optimistic” that health reform will pass, Shuler said.

Shar Knutson and Liz Shuler
Call them “newbies”: Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson (left), in her second day on the job, welcome newly elected national AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler to Minnesota.

Dismal job outlook
Given a national unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent, Shuler said she is less hopeful about turning around the economy anytime soon.

“We have a long, long way to go before we’re anywhere near the recovery we need,” she stated. Since her election two weeks ago at the national AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh, she said she has traveled to several states and heard many stories of economic hardship.

The AFL-CIO has been outspoken about the need to reform the financial industry to prevent future calamities, she said. Those reforms must include new regulations that apply to the stock market and other, “shadow” financial markets and creation of a consumer protection agency that will be a watchdog on financial matters.

Shuler noted that unions are not anti-business and are eager to work in partnership with responsible employers.

New approaches
To accomplish their goals, unions must work hard and take new approaches, Shuler said.

“If this movement is going to succeed and thrive and grow stronger, it needs you, your effort, your energy and your vision,” she told the Minnesota crowd. She encouraged working people “to join the conversation inside our movement on how we can fulfill our mission . . .”

At age 39, Shuler is the youngest person to hold a top AFL-CIO post at the national level. With the election of Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker and President Richard Trumka, two of the three top officers are women – another first.

Shuler urged unions to commit to increasing diversity throughout their ranks.

“We need to reach out to unorganized workers who for whatever reason don’t see us as the answer to their problems. I’m talking about young workers,” she said. “Our single biggest challenge is to give the next generation hope . . . welcome them into our movement.”

She urged unions to be more accessible and to create leadership opportunities for younger workers. And she said the labor movement must take advantage of new communication tools.

“I’m on Facebook and I also tweet,” Shuler said with a smile. “Friend me!”