As a graduate of the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism, Elizabeth (Liz) Shuler, like many young people today, pieced together part-time jobs, lived at home and struggled to find her way into the world of work. That was in 1992. Since then, Liz has used every job as an opportunity to stand up for the underdog. Today, as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, the second-highest position in the labor movement, Shuler serves as the chief financial officer of the federation and oversees six administrative departments. Shuler not only is the first woman elected as the federation’s secretary-treasurer, she also holds the distinction of being the youngest officer ever to sit on the federation’s Executive Council. Shuler was re-elected in 2013 at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles.
The Difference a Union Makes
Shuler experienced the difference a union makes in her own home—her father, Lance, was a longtime member of IBEW Local 125 at Portland General Electric and her late mother, Joyce, was a nonunion clerical worker. A summer job in the payroll department at PGE during college had shown Shuler how the nonunion clerical workers were disadvantaged compared with their unionized counterparts. In 1993, Shuler took a staff job at Local 125, where she was thrust into a full-fledged campaign to help the clerical workers organize. The organizers on staff at the local were all men, so Liz was assigned to house-calling, since most of the clerical employees were women. “Those were challenging times,” she recalls. “The company was holding captive-audience meetings and people were scared, so it was really tough to even get invited into their homes to talk.”
Although the union did not prevail in the campaign, that organizing experience showed Liz how important it was to build mobilizing capacity within the local union. She traveled across the local’s multistate jurisdiction conducting Construction Organizing Membership Education and Training (COMET) and Membership Education and Mobilization for Organizing (MEMO) courses for the 5,000-member local’s 36 different bargaining units. She developed a political education course; formed local networks to bolster the union’s political action committee (PAC); built a chain of activists throughout the local’s five-state territory; and engaged the PAC board in a formal candidate endorsement process for the first time. She then worked to translate the local union’s political dexterity into legislative action at the state capitol in Salem.
A Passion to Get Things Done
Between her earliest years at IBEW and today, Shuler honed her mobilizing, political and leadership skills. Shuler had served as IBEW Local 125’s legislative and political director for nearly five years when she found herself in a battle with energy giant Enron, as it tried to muscle electricity deregulation through the Oregon state legislature. Many of the young people she speaks with today may not remember this scandal-ridden and now bankrupt corporate giant, which became one of the earliest national icons for corporate fraud and abuse. Shuler worked with a broad-based coalition of labor, community and environmental activists to challenge and, ultimately, overcome Enron’s powerhouse lobbying campaign, a victory that she says, “sparked my passion for advocating for people through political and legislative activism—especially in the energy fights.”
It was a particularly poignant victory: Shuler’s parents lost their pensions because of Enron's reckless behavior.
Shuler’s outstanding work made the IBEW take notice. In 1998, then-Secretary-Treasurer Edwin Hill temporarily assigned her to California, where she mobilized IBEW members to help defeat Proposition 226, the so-called “Paycheck Protection” proposition that threatened the lifeblood of union political fundraising.
Shuler next served for six years in Washington, D.C., as an international representative in the union’s Political/Legislative Affairs Department, lobbying Congress on such issues as energy and electricity, telecommunications, Davis-Bacon, health care, transportation, apprenticeship and training, pension reform, unemployment and telecommunications. She then became executive assistant to IBEW International President Ed Hill, overseeing the work and budgeting of 11 departments, from Utility and Manufacturing to Telecommunications and Government, and promoting the IBEW green jobs initiatives.
She is especially proud of the IBEW’s Code of Excellence, a program adopted by Hill in 2005 to renew union members’ pride in workmanship and guarantee to employers that workers were committed to a hard day’s work for a full day’s pay.
“If we’re going to rebuild the labor movement, we need to start with a commitment to quality work, to show that union labor makes a difference not only for the workers and their families, but also for our employers,” she says. “Unions add value, and the IBEW is demonstrating how this added value translates to new jobs and new members.”
Shuler is active with many women’s causes. She is a member of the boards of the Women’s Campaign Fund, a bipartisan fundraising organization that aims to boost the number of women holding public office; Women’s Policy Inc., the caucus organization for women members of Congress; and the National Women’s Law Center. She also volunteered for many years with the International Women’s Democracy Center, an organization that sponsors mentoring programs encouraging women to run for office and seek change in countries overseas.
Shuler also represents the AFL-CIO on various boards and committees, such as the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust; the Alliance for Retired Americans; the Solidarity Center; and the Women’s Committee of the International Trade Union Confederation.
Engaging Young People, Changing Public Perception of Unions
Shuler’s commitment to and energy for reaching out to young people, engaging them in their unions and communities and opening leadership opportunities for them has resulted in the AFL-CIO’s important Next Up Young Workers Initiative.
Today’s young workers are part of the largest generation to enter the workforce since the baby boomers, and the most diverse and technologically savvy generation in America’s history. Although they suffer the nation’s highest unemployment—about twice the national average—and the fewest job opportunities in today’s economy, this generation of young people is engaged and ready to reverse economic and social injustice. In new young worker councils forming across the country and inspiring AFL-CIO Next Up Young Workers Summits, young union members are coming together in a powerful progressive force with students, civil and human rights advocates, LGBTQ activists and many others.
Shuler’s efforts to broaden the union movement to engage young people and community allies in new ways and work to improve the economy for all working people defies many negative—and incorrect—stereotypes the public has about unions. Shuler is committed to busting those myths and helping unions show their true face to the public—their diversity, their innovative approaches to labor-management relations and America’s energy crisis, their role in the workplace of the future and the quality improvement in products and services a union voice on the job can bring.
As unions and union members are under attack across the world, Shuler says it’s time to reconnect with the public on the basis of shared values and the importance and pride we all feel in our work.
“After all,” she says, “work is what connects us all.”
Shuler lives with her husband, David Herbst, in Washington, D.C.