Inaugural State of the Unions Address
On this Labor Day, 2023, the Shanker Institute reposts AFL-CIO President and Shanker Board Member Liz Shuler's "Inaugural State of the Unions Address" as prepared for delivery on August 29, 2023.
Good morning, everyone!
To our union family and friends here in the House of Labor, and everyone watching along: Thank you for being part of this new Labor Day tradition.
Every year, we’re going to come together and talk about where working people stand in this country.
The story we’re going to share with you today, at this inaugural State of the Unions, is our story as working people. It’s the story of a number — 88% — which I’ll come back to in a few minutes.
But first I want to reflect on what we just heard from our speakers here today.
Every day, I travel this country and I talk to workers — workers in unions, of course, but also working people who aren’t yet part of a union. And this is what I hear from them:
I don’t feel good about my future.
I need to make more money. I need a stable job. I wish I could afford a home. I wish I had some power over my work and my life right now.
There is a reason that song, Rich Men North of Richmond, is the number one song in the country right now. For a long time, working people in this country have felt powerless. They’ve been powerless.
But here is the truth we’re going to talk about today:
Working people are reclaiming our power.
Working people are taking on the companies that have exploited us for a long time now.
The State of the Unions is on the rise.
With every strike. Every picket line. Every win we deliver for workers all over this country.
My first job was gig work. I had to work two and three jobs to make full-time pay. And one of those jobs was as a clerical worker in Oregon, where I grew up.
It was at the same place my mom and dad worked: Portland General Electric, the local power company.
My mom worked as an office worker, too. My dad worked as a power lineman. He was in the union. You almost didn’t even need to see the card. Because you felt it when those linemen walked around. The power that they had. Because they knew their voice was respected.
Our clerical workers...we didn’t have a union. And it was frustrating—the same way young workers today talk about. The feeling like you should just be grateful that you had a job. This feeling that you were being taken for granted and not really seen. Certainly not heard.
And so I became an organizer. I became part of a team that tried to form a union. To help build that collective strength so we could demand more. More pay, but also more respect.
When the company found out about the union drive, they punched back with a fierce anti-union campaign—and it made everyone afraid they were going to lose their jobs. It was disappointing, but not surprising I suppose, that we did not win our election.
But in that loss...there were incredible lessons—lessons these workers here today already know.
The idea of a union may sound complicated, but in reality, unions are just a group of people coming together.
They are about each of us becoming the most powerful version of ourselves that we possibly can.
And there is nothing better than finding that power...alongside the people we work with, and being a part of something bigger than ourselves.
That’s all a union is. It’s that simple.
Workers have been living on the edge in this country.
Workers who were told they were “essential” during the pandemic—were told if they worked overtime, got us through this crisis...it would pay off.
Workers who bounce from gig job to gig job. Who know they are one bad break away—a car repair, an unpaid sick day—from not making rent.
And they look at a future that feels really uncertain, too.
There is a climate crisis that has them working in 110-degree heat. Massive challenges around tech and A.I. Attacks on our democracy and our basic rights.
We have to be blunt about how we got to this moment. About the forces that got us here.
First: We have corporate greed and inequality at levels we have never seen before.
70 years ago, the average CEO made about 20 times what the average worker in this country did. Just a few days ago, we put out our annual Executive Paywatch report. Any guesses what it is today? 272 times. A CEO makes 272 times what the average worker does.
Let me ask every person in this room: Is that because they work 272 times harder than we do?
Does it make sense to anyone in this room...that Jeff Bezos makes in seven seconds what an Amazon warehouse worker makes in a year?
That he has enough money to rocket himself into space...while half this country lives paycheck to paycheck?
That kind of inequality is not logical. It’s not rational. It hurts our country and our world. It has to end.Second: We’ve seen the quality of American jobs be driven down for decades.
Jobs have been sent overseas. Our American manufacturing workforce has decreased nearly 40% over the past 40 years.
Gig work has replaced stable careers. Jobs are pieced together, without an employer.
Now: We’ve talked about corporate greed. We’ve talked about our jobs getting worse. The third force that got us here: We’ve seen a systematic attack on our rights as workers over the past several decades.
Right to work legislation in dozens of states. Supreme Court rulings like the Janus decision. The list goes on and on and on.
No, these forces are not new…
But I’ll tell you what is new. What’s different about this Labor Day. It’s the awakening happening in this country.
It’s up in Detroit—where just a few days ago 97% of our UAW members said they were ready to walk off the job and push back against the big three. To fight for a day once again where good auto jobs build our middle class.
It’s the Teamsters and the historic contract they just won with UPS—they stood their ground and they won.
It’s in Starbucks stores all over this country—where two years ago, we had zero unions and where today we have more than three hundred. (Mary-Kay Henry!)
It’s on the picket line with SAG-AFTRA and the WGA in New York City— where people see what’s happening and join in: Taxi drivers honking. Food delivery workers cheering. Construction workers chanting with us.
It’s been a long time since this country has seen workers united like this. A long time.
We have seen more than 200 strikes so far this year already. More than 320,000 workers involved—10 times more than even two years ago. Every industry. Every red state. Every blue state. Everything in between.NOW...I told you I feel this energy.
But look: I’m the leader of a national labor federation. I realize there may be some bias at play. Washington is a town that runs on data and polling.
So we did our due diligence. We went out and talked to people all over this country.
I want to tell you what we found:
It isn’t just organizers who support unions. It isn’t just people on picket lines who support unions.
It is the people of the United States who support unions.
More than two-thirds of people in this country believe in unions. Do you know how hard it is to get two-thirds of Americans to agree on anything?
Let me put it another way: More Americans believe in unions than like chocolate ice cream. vanilla, too, in case you were wondering!
A few minutes ago, I mentioned the number 88. Well, everyone should leave this room today remembering that number. Why? Because:
88% of young Americans support unions.
Let me say that again: 9 of every 10 Americans, under the age of 30, believe in unions.
That’s an eye popping number, but when you think about our history, it’s actually not that surprising.
You can look up and down this federation at how our unions started … and more often than not—whether we are talking about 19th century women in textile mills or 20th century African-American sleeping car porters or 21st century tech workers—you will trace it back to a couple of twenty-somethings who were fed up.
Who were willing to put it all on the line.
That’s what this next generation is doing, too.
Because they look up and down at our unions — at our nurses, our teachers, our janitors, our iron workers, our museum workers, our public sector workers...and they see the same thing:
Unions make people’s lives better.
It’s better in a union.
I’ve never been more confident that this generation is going to build a labor movement as strong—no, even stronger—than any we’ve ever had in the past.
And we’re going to get there together.
The first thing we’re going to do: We are going to bring everyone into this movement.
If you want to know what a union even is...we’ll walk you through it.
If you want to join one at your job...we’ll help you do it.
If you want to build a NEW union of your own—one that looks nothing like what you see represented here today—I could not be more excited to see what you build.
I’ll be standing there ready to help you.
We are in the middle of one of the great transformations of work in our country’s history. More tech jobs. More start-ups. Our unions are transforming along with it.
If you are sitting at a desk in an office, thinking to yourself...My grandpa was in a union. It’s not really for people like me. Ask our tech workers what a union does for them.
Ask the 5,500 minor league baseball players who won their union with the Major League Baseball Players Association last year. Call them! Call me!
There’s something else being transformed in this country, too. If you haven’t noticed: President Biden is leading a movement to rebuild America.
If you are looking at a career in the construction trades...you could not have better timing.
This is the infrastructure generation.
There are historic investments—trillions of dollars — coming down the pike, thanks to President Biden — an investment that is happening because our labor movement pushed for decades. That means MILLIONS of jobs.
The question now is: What kind of jobs will they be?
Every single job created with these big investments — construction and transportation … manufacturing all up and down the supply chains … service jobs like cafeteria workers that will also be part of these projects — every single one should be a GOOD UNION JOB.
And I want to give a big shout-out to my sister, AFT President Randi Weingarten — who has such an incredible vision on connecting these jobs to how we educate our young people. And who I might add: Has led the AFT to more than 50 organizing wins already this year!
Now...the second thing we’re focused on: Thinking forward. Taking on these big challenges that will shape the next few decades.
Let me remind all the technology executives out there: We paid for the research that led to these A.I. breakthroughs.
It was American tax dollars — workers’ tax dollars — that helped make these innovations possible.
So we better be damn sure that the benefits and wealth created are shared by all of us. That it makes our lives easier. Our jobs better.
That isn’t how it feels right now, is it?
We feel afraid that technology is going to make us earn less. Our jobs worse. Dehumanize us.
We feel that way for a reason! Workers in places like Amazon warehouses can’t take a bathroom break because they have to keep up with the algorithm.
There is another way forward.
Where we have a seat at the table. Where A.I. helps us do our jobs better. Where new technology...actually works for working people. Listen to us! Include US!
And while we’re talking about challenges...we cannot ignore the challenge our democracy is facing right now.
Yes: We will turn out next year for President Biden in the most historic labor mobilization of our time!
But we’re also going to be a 24/7, 365 political force.
We saw what’s possible a few weeks ago in Ohio, didn’t we? Where these extremists had put something called Issue 1 on the ballot for a statewide vote.
They wanted people to think it was innocent; just a small procedural thing about amending the state constitution.
But this labor movement — our movement — saw it for the attack on our democracy that it was. The attack on reproductive rights that it was. We drove a historic turnout. We won. We pushed the extremists back.
We will not be silent while extremist politicians attack our rights — our right to vote and have our votes counted...our right to read the books we want to read...our right to think and speak freely on or off the job.
We will show up and organize and vote. I don’t care if it’s an election for dogcatcher or President of the United States — we will be there. And if you’re a dogcatcher running a pro-worker campaign, let us know so we can turn out for you!
Now: Democracy affects everybody. But another thing that affects everyone, and is on everyone’s mind, is our climate. The future of this planet we live on.
This has never been an easy area for our movement. We stand with all workers. And we will continue to demand a fair pathway so no worker is left behind.
But when it comes to these new sectors — offshore wind, green hydrogen, electric buses — we are going to set the standard right now. At the beginning.
It is not “one or the other,” protect the environment or have a good job. It’s both. We cannot win without good jobs. We cannot win without Americans on our side.
We are organizing those jobs already. Up and down our coasts, where offshore wind is taking off. In the Deep South, where EV bus factories are being built.
Making sure the standard is set: These are good union jobs.
So...we’ve talked about bringing people in. We’ve talked about these challenges of the future.
Here is the third area that is so critical: Making sure this movement belongs to all of us.
For generations now, the richest people and companies in this country have divided us—along the lines of race, of gender, of sexual orientation, of immigration status.
Even worse, they convinced us to divide ourselves.
While we fought the culture wars with each other...they made off with billions of dollars that our hard work created.
We live in a world where every woman loses $400,000 to the wage gap over the course of a lifetime.
Where a Black woman makes 64 cents on the dollar that a white man makes for doing the exact same job. Where a Latina woman makes 57 cents on the dollar.
We came out of COVID determined to address the inequities and disparities felt in communities of color all over this nation: In housing. Health care. Education. Criminal Justice. Employment. We are not there yet.
But this movement can get us there.
This has to be the working-class movement for right now.
When I look at our picket lines...I see people of every background linked arm in arm.
I see workers who know: An immigrant does not stand between you and a good job. A billionaire does.
Remember those wage disparities I mentioned?
The union difference is what solves them.
It’s what cuts into that gender pay gap.
It’s what provides a safe workplace—so nurses have PPE instead of garbage bags in a pandemic.
It’s what gives workers good health care and benefits—so workers have paid sick leave, and don’t go bankrupt because they need to see the doctor.
It does not matter who you are...unions will work for you.
A younger worker...an older worker...It's better in a union.
Black, White, Hispanic, AAPI, Indigenous...It's better in a union.
Immigrant or 5th generation American...It's better in a union.
LGBTQ+...It's better in a union.
Unions are how we drive real, lasting change.
I’m not 88% sure, I’m 100% sure. I’ve seen it. We have proven that over and over again.
Right now...we are on the rise. If you are a worker out there who wants a better life...come be a part of this movement.
We’re going to keep growing our power. We’re going to keep winning. And we’re going to keep building better lives for ourselves and our families.