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Remarks by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler at the Northeast Regional Summer School for Women, State College, PA

Elizabeth Shuler • July 30, 2010

We all—all the women in the union movement—have a lot to thank Dr. Gray for, because no one has done more to spotlight the role of women in unions. She really is the "dean" of the entire push for women to take their place in unions. Thanks also to the hard working folks at Penn States' Labor Studies & Employment Relations Department. Good to be in  

Thank you.  And congratulations, graduates!  You deserve to be very proud.  

It is not easy to step out of our lives—which are complicated enough as it is—to do something like this. It's not easy to invest the time and energy to build your leadership skills and learn more about helping other women develop theirs.  But here you are, graduates.  

I remember my graduations—that tremendous feeling of accomplishment -- mixed with a little terror -- at what might come next.  

And of course the after-parties, but I won't go there.  

Last year at the AFL-CIO Convention, where I was elected, 43 percent of national union delegations were women or people of color.  In a leadership body that has sometimes been called "Pale, Stale, and Male," that was pretty amazing.  

Sisters, change is under way. There's a sincere and deep commitment that this union movement's leadership, and the leadership of our individual unions, must reflect our membership—and not just the members we have today, but also the members we must grow to have tomorrow.  

This didn't happen by accident.  

At the national level, the AFL-CIO adopted diversity principles to transform the roles of women and people of color in our unions, state federations, and area and central labor councils. Many of your unions have taken similar steps.  

But it's places like this—right here in State College, Pennsylvania, right here with you—where change happens, too—where new leaders are developed and mentored and new doors are opened.  

Our paths are similar – I was fortunate to have some great mentors helping me advance through the union ranks. We all need that—not one of us can make that journey on her own. For me, I didn't have sisters as mentors because my union was very male-dominated; so, I had supportive men helping me along the way.  Lucky.  

But where do you find mentors who can help you open those doors?  

Well, many of them are right here in this room. And much of the leadership we need is going to come from right here, too!  

You are the mentors, you are the leaders, you are the agents of change.  

And when you leave this experience, you will carry a great responsibility—to utilize the skills you've gained and pay it forward. So here's the "ask" I have of you: Reach out to the women you work with. It might seem small to you, but a few helpful words on the job, an invitation to a union event, an encouragement to union activism, can make a huge difference in another woman's life—and in the life of your union, your community and our country.  

I love the theme of your school: Generational Alliances Plus Sisterhood Equals Union Power.  

At the AFL-CIO, one of my highest priorities has been an initiative to expand union outreach to young workers. Today's young workers are facing outrageous unemployment rates. And I'm not talking about the problems every generation of young workers has faced. This generation is confronted with challenges that could result in a fundamental, long-term down-shift in living standards. They have few prospects for good jobs—I mean jobs that pay the bills, that make it possible for them to access or pay off higher education, jobs that enable them to move out of Mom and Dad's house and start their own adult lives. Jobs in the fields where their dreams lie, jobs they have studied for and worked so hard to get into.  

More and more young workers today don't even find what we might consider jobs. They get "gigs," short-term, no-benefit freelance work. Or permalance work pajama class —long-term, no benefit work.  

If anyone could use a union, it's young workers, and especially young women.  

So, please, help unorganized young women get there!  Ya know, many don't have a clue what a union even is. What it means and how it can lift a life.  

It's our job to let them know.  We have to tell them.  

I am passionate about this outreach – and what we are doing at the national union level is important — but nothing is as effective as hearing the union story from someone who is living it: Carrying the union message, one to one, to a neighbor's daughter, a niece, the young woman in line at the pharmacy worrying how she will pay for a prescription without health coverage from work.  

We've got a great story to tell—and you are the perfect messengers to tell it.  

Same with the young women in your union.  As hard as it is for women to be heard, to find space for leadership within some of our unions, it's at least as hard for young people. Yet they have so much to offer.  

Last month, we held the AFL-CIO's first-ever summit for young workers. We called it "Next Up" and we heard from union members and activists struggling to make their voices heard, to be taken seriously, to provide their expertise on how to engage young people both inside and outside the union movement.  

You can help open those doors.  You can show them the union way!   

We are in an economic and political crisis in America right now that demands all hands on deck.  

I mean, here we are in the most severe economic recession since the Great Depression. And although women are half the workforce and we're more and more the breadwinners, on average we make less than 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. It's unconscionable. It's un-American. It's devastating.  

In most households with kids, women are also the primary caretakers of children—and more and more often of elderly parents. But nearly half of private-sector workers—and 79 percent of low-income workers, most of whom are women—cannot take even one day off of work when they are sick without losing pay.  

The economic hardships working families are dealing with in this recession are complicated by this plain fact: Our workplaces and public policy have not kept up with the new realities of our lives.  

Remember the old sitcoms like "Leave it to Beaver?" Ward and June Cleaver and their perfect middle class life with the kids? Well, hate to say – Cleaver model is gone.  

But our workplaces—especially nonunion workplaces—and our public policy are still set up as though Ward is the only one going to work, and June is at home with the kids. If on today, Wally and the Beav would be latch key kids.  

We need public policies and workplace practices that support today's working families. We need the Paycheck Fairness Act—and I know you were as happy as I was to hear President Obama recently issue a strong challenge to Congress to get it passed—and we need the Healthy Families Act to require paid sick leave and family leave. And of course we need the Employee Free Choice Act so women and young people can join our unions to improve their lives.  

We need employers to change with the times and adopt family-friendly policies that allow working women and men to meet their responsibilities at home as well as on the job. It's time for them to recognize that the costs of doing the wrong thing really do outweigh the costs of doing the right thing. The cost of not providing paid sick leave is an unhealthy, unhappy workplace. The cost of inflexible schedules is high and expensive turnover.

And when I talk about flexibility I don't mean the flexibility for employers to lower wages or put us on 24-hour on-call shifts. I mean flexibility that we control, that workers control: flexible shifts, compressed workweeks, the ability to work part-time with benefits and telecommuting to make the daily conflicts of working families more manageable.  

As I said, it's going to take all of us to get this economy back on it's feet, to make it a fairer place for all working women of all ages! It will take all of us to wrestle this economy back from Wall Street and the job exporters and the people who want all of America to become one big low-wage workforce.  

It will take all of us to keep our country out of the hands of those who fought to cut off unemployment benefits, calling hard-working men and women "lazy" after they've been tossed out of their jobs into a jobless economy.  

We are about three months from the 2010 elections on Nov. 2. Our unions have been fighting nonstop on Capitol Hill and in the states to save and create good jobs, to hold Wall Street accountable for the jobs it has destroyed, to rescue our cash-strapped states, and save public services and the jobs of teachers and police and firefighters, to rebuild our manufacturing sector and stop job exporting.  

But so much of what we've been fighting for has been blocked by a solid wall of Republican opposition. Partisan rhetoric can turn people off – and a few of the Democrats our unions helped elect have sometimes voted along with the obstructionists. But, it's a fact, congressional Republicans have been united in a solid bloc to oppose anything and everything working people need.  

Our country has fundamental, history-altering choices to make—choices between those who stand with working families and those who stand with Wall Street. Between having Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi or Speaker John Boehner. Between investing in job creation or in tax cuts for the rich. Between retirement security and a retirement age raised to 70 or beyond. Between getting back to making things right here in America and exporting them, or exporting more jobs.  

So here's my second ask: You'll be leaving here with new leadership skills—and I'm asking you to apply some of those to your union's political action program. Run those phone banks. Lead the neighborhood walks. Get the facts and educate, educate, educate.  Because if your elected representatives are doing the right things, we need them back in office.  And if they're not—we need them out. It's time for them to face some real accountability—from you.  

A lot of people, even in our unions, are discouraged right now. They've seen gridlock on Capitol Hill. They've seen rancorous political fights rage on while people are still losing jobs or living in fear of the pink slip, while people are losing their homes, while hope fades away for our young people.  

Use your newly polished skills to lift them up, to convince them we need their voice and their vote, to help them remember that yes, they can and do make a difference.

Lead them.  That's what the power of sisterhood is for. That's what union power is for.  

Sisters, you can, and you will change our unions, change our workplaces, change our country.  You are that strong. You are that committed. You are that good.  

Thank you—for what you have done in coming here, and for everything you will do after you leave.  

And again, congratulations on your graduation.

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