Liz Shuler

Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO

Jay Mallin / Courtesy of AFL-CIO

As the first woman to serve as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, Liz Shuler is focused on making the labor movement work for women and families. Shuler spoke with the Capital Times while she was in Madison for the Wisconsin AFL-CIO's biennial convention last week.

Cap Times: What issues are you using to mobilize your members and voters this year?

Liz Shuler: Trade is a big issue that we’ve been hammering away at, primarily because of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the timing. People want to prevent that from coming up for a vote in the lame-duck session. We’re continuing to keep the pressure on there.

And I, as a woman elected officer in the labor movement, have been trying to elevate the importance of issues and policies that affect working women. Whether it’s equal pay or paid family leave, paid sick days, flexible and reliable schedules — those are the issues that affect women but also affect families, because we know women are 40 percent breadwinners now in our families, and half the workforce and growing in the union movement — so we want to make sure that it’s clear that we’re a movement for women.

Wisconsin has been a battleground for labor issues over the last six years. How has that shaped what you do from a national perspective?

We call it the “Wisconsin uprising,” which a lot of people have been watching from D.C. and other places over the last six years. The sleeping giant awoke, as they say, where we had these massive protests, we had people coming together and really galvanizing their voices. It’s something the labor movement is known best for, bringing people together collectively and making change. So the uprising did inspire activism all across the country. We saw anywhere from ballot initiatives on minimum wage and paid sick days to the Ohio SB 5 and those types of initiatives go down to defeat. Certainly just the idea that we can do some old-fashioned grassroots organizing and get people woken up to really have an impact.

Has there been any fatigue on the other side of that?

I won’t lie — fatigue is probably the right word, because Wisconsin’s been at the epicenter of so much for so long. People are pretty undaunted, though. They’re kind of used to it, now. They know the importance of making sure we stay active and not sit back and get complacent.

I will say, though, seeing Scott Walker’s presidential campaign and that he ran on those issues nationally, to see that go down in flames was, we think, a signal that maybe attacking unions, making that the centerpiece of your efforts isn’t necessarily a good strategy. That, hopefully, will continue. In 2018, we hope to give him a permanent retirement. But I think it just shows that the union movement is definitely a force to be reckoned with. That’s why we’re often under attack. We’re kind of the last democratic institution left standing that can mobilize real people and voters, and that’s a threat to some people. So we’ll continue.

Have you had to redefine or reframe what it means to be part of a union or part of that movement?

Absolutely, and I think a lot of people in the past have seen the union movement as an exclusive club you needed a secret handshake to get into or something. Our whole goal over these last few years has been to debunk that myth and actually open up the labor movement to be more of a social justice movement. So we’re out working in collaboration with community partners and groups and organizations and allies that care about the same things we do, in fighting for the working class and making life better for families. That’s one of the best things that’s come about during this time of crisis, is we know the union movement isn’t going to just do it alone. We’ve got to be out there working with groups that are on the frontlines of social justice.

In Wisconsin, Act 10 drew a sharp “pro” and “anti” union line. Are you still trying to connect with people who don’t necessarily come from a labor background or don’t belong to a union today?

I think the word “union” probably was pretty polarizing during Act 10, and those are definitely bright lines that have been drawn. But as the workplace is changing and as more and more people aren’t in unions, because we have been shrinking, the goal here would be to show why are unions relevant — to young people who are in careers and jobs that are changing and are very dynamic because of technology and the way the workforce is changing.

It's our charge to adapt the union movement to how people are working today. And we have some work to do there. Let’s be honest, we were invented during a time when it was pretty clear who worked where, and now those lines are blurring. We’re definitely trying to figure out how to reinvent what representation looks like, and it’s not just being an insurance policy, it’s actually giving people a voice and helping them ladder up in their careers and get training. Kind of meet people where they are, as they say.

Politically speaking, does labor have the same power it once did? Has it diminished as membership dwindles?

We actually still deliver a larger percentage of the vote than we represent. It’s an interesting phenomenon, because even though union density has been in decline, we still vote in higher numbers. It’s all about turnout and getting to people one-on-one, making sure they’re motivated and educated. That is sort of the union’s specialty. Also connecting the issues. We care about facts and what are candidates’ positions on issues like trade, investing in infrastructure, making sure young people can get out from under the mountains of debt they have coming out of college. So we do comparison pieces and we make sure people have the information and then do massive get-out-the-vote.

Scott Walker is still on your radar in 2018, if he runs again? Is he still a “top target” for labor?

Absolutely. And people are pretty motivated, not only in Wisconsin, but nationally to get involved in that race. We’ll see what happens.

And you’re canvassing for Russ Feingold and Hillary Clinton while you’re in Madison.

The top of the ticket really matters, but also those down-ballot races, the state legislative races are really important. It’s the White House to the statehouse approach. There’s a lot of information and education still to be done. People tend to not want to focus on politics and elections until after Labor Day, even though we’ve been focusing on it now for over a year.

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People are suffering, economically, still, and a lot of people think, “Oh, we’re out of the recession,” but we have a long journey in front of us to get back where people are on financial strong footing, and figuring out how to make that inequality that we’ve been struggling under, elect the right people to change the rules of the economy to get people back on the pathway to financial security.

What else are you focusing on while you’re here?

I think talking about women is important. But I feel like that hasn’t been as big a focus here, although they are saying women are going to be the key to the election, and I saw Russ Feingold and even Ron Johnson have women in their sightlines as far as a key demographic.

Is that issue coming up more prominently in other races that you’re watching throughout the country?

Yeah, and having a woman running — she’s made it a core economic issue, not just a cute little side project. Because it does affect wages when you cannot get paid when you have to take a sick day for yourself, for your family or when you have a baby. Whether it’s flexible schedules or equal pay, all of those are core economic issues and I think having a woman running at the top of the ticket has really shined a light on it, and other candidates have now started to come into the fray.

There has been an energy and momentum shift on some of those issues that we call women’s issues, but really they’re family issues. As the economy shifts and more women are in the sectors that are growing, we are taking that very seriously and trying to get more women involved in unions and in leadership in unions, and again, putting these issues out in front and making them a priority.

A study just came out earlier this week that showed that, after Act 10, male teachers now make more than female teachers in Wisconsin. Do you see a connection there?

I haven’t seen the report, but yes. Teaching is an interesting example, because without unions, in the past, teaching has always been a very low-paid profession because it’s been predominantly female. Only through unions and activism and collective bargaining were we able to elevate the standards and wages for what normally is a female profession — but now more men are getting into the profession. It does show that that discrimination is still very prevalent. You weaken the unions, what happens? Wages go down, but not as much for men as they do for women. So without a union there fighting and being strong and being a voice, you see slippage.

The pay gap is real. It’s even worse for women of color. Equal Pay Day falls at different points of the year for different demographics. That is crazy, in 2016, that we’re still talking about this. It’s a priority for the labor movement.

Do you feel like that’s resonating with voters?

Definitely for union women. But the trick is to make this not a women’s issue. That is a challenge for us, to figure out why men should care and try to get them more on the frontlines of it, too. If 40 percent of women are breadwinners, how is that not affecting men and families? I think it’s pretty clear that it should be an issue for everyone — just, how do we get more people to get out there and talk about it? I guess when they start feeling the brunt of it in their pocketbooks is when they care, but maybe they’re not connecting the dots, and that’s our job.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.