A top official from the AFL-CIO delivered an impassioned speech at the Seafarers International Union of North America (SIUNA) convention, during which she urged those in attendance to continue fighting for workers’ rights.
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler also pledged the federation’s ongoing support for the U.S. Merchant Marine. She spoke at the convention Sept. 27 in Piney Point, Maryland.
Shuler began her speech by praising the host facility: the SIU-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education, which she described as “a crown jewel. You should be very, very proud of it.”
She then noted, “I don’t think most people know the depth and breadth of the work that we do in the labor movement, as far as training goes. I heard this statistic a while ago, that the labor movement is the second largest provider of training in the country, behind the U.S. military.”
Shuler credited union workers for their ongoing relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. She had recently visited the Houston area, parts of which were devastated by Harvey in late August, and saw rank-and-file members as well as officials and staff out in force, helping the community with little fanfare.
“I saw our members were the ones evacuating people to safety, and they were the ones tending to the injured,” she said. “They were restoring power, and providing critical public services right alongside your members in the wake of this disaster.”
After mentioning the recent attempts to weaken the Jones Act in the wake of the hurricanes, she said, “We have an eagle eye on the Jones Act at this moment, and the labor movement stands strong in protecting the Jones Act.”
Speaking about the tough road for working families, Shuler said, “America is at its best when working people are strong and thriving. And as a labor movement, we are facing enormous challenges. Employers and politicians are conspiring to hold down wages. Outdated labor laws are making it harder and harder to form a union. Young people are graduating college with mountains of debt….”
She said it’s never been easy to fight for workers’ rights, but also asked everyone present to remember why they are a part of the labor movement.
“Everyone has a different reason, but here’s what I think,” Shuler said. “I think we do this work because we care about what happens to people – people we love, and people we will never meet. And that is what drives us: the simple idea that every person deserves a fair shot and a fair shake in America. And unions are the single greatest force to make that happen.”
After talking about growing up in a union family, Shuler also discussed her long career with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which included time as an organizer and a rankand- file member.
She then spoke about the inequality caused by the labor laws in America.
“Inequality is not inevitable,” Shuler declared. “It’s based on the policy choices we make, and the people we elect. So, we can choose to do better in this country. We know that our enemies have made legislation like so-called right-to-work their number one priority, and we know why,” she said, continuing to describe the labor movement as the last remaining source of informing, enabling and mobilizing American workers to vote and stay politically active.
Turning to the future, Shuler described the recent internal changes made by the AFL-CIO, in order to better support and provide resources to affiliates. According to Shuler, “We are focusing on three main bodies of work. Mobilizing people, for elections and on issues, and building political independence. The second thing is around legislation, and on advocacy and policy work, so that we can actually rewrite the rules of the economy. And the third area of work that we’re really focusing on is organizing and growth, and being strategic in working with our affiliates who do the organizing.”
This focus on growth and the future of the labor movement continued as she spoke about the technologies looming on the horizon that threaten to take away jobs and infringe on workers’ rights. To this end, the federation is launching a new commission on the future of work at their October convention, as well as making recommendations to affiliates on some best practices for using emerging technologies in support of working families.
In closing, Shuler offered some statistics: “Polls show … that the labor movement’s popularity is growing. We’ve had a number of years where it was in decline, but it’s finally starting to move up again – especially among young people. Seventy percent of people under the age of 35 have favorable opinions of unions. Even among conservatives, we are finally starting to trend back up.”
She concluded, “Our founders built something incredible. It’s now our job to take the labor movement forward.”
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