When AFL-CIO delegates meet for their convention next week, there will be plenty of questions about the future of the US labor movement—but none about who will be leading them.
The federation’s top officers—including President Liz Shuler and Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond—are running unopposed, meaning they’ll likely remain atop the nation’s largest labor federation for at least the rest of President Joe Biden’s term. At the same time, they’ll be confronting an increasingly restless left wing of the labor movement eager for fights with prominent companies such as
The death of former AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka last year reinvigorated a debate about whether the federation should more aggressively organize new swaths of workers and advocate on behalf of the working class as a whole, not just union members.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, had widely been considered a contender to run against Shuler, who was selected by the federation’s executive council to finish out Trumka’s term. But Nelson effectively took herself out of the race last month, telling the New Yorker that she doesn’t want the position and that the way forward is “not under the current structure and operation of the AFL-CIO.”
Shuler, a pragmatist with a knack for day-to-day management, has had the election locked down for weeks. The AFL-CIO uses a system of delegates appointed by leaders of the member unions, giving larger groups like the building trades and the American Federation of Teachers outsized sway. The convention, which happens every four years, was postponed from October 2021 because of Covid-19.
It’s rare but not unprecedented for an AFL-CIO presidential election to be contested. In 1995, Service Employees International Union President John Sweeneychallenged Thomas Donohue, who, like Shuler, had been selected to fill the rest of his predecessor’s term. Sweeney won.
“Other than that, everything has been a coronation that is sort of dealt with in the back room,” said Tefere Gebre, who was executive vice president of the federation from 2013 through 2022. “People can tell you how that’s good for workers and how that’s bad for workers. And that’s just open to debate.”
Shuler is poised to be elected at a tenuous time for the movement, with declining membership and shifting demographics.
Barring an unexpected floor challenge, she’ll be the first woman elected to the top spot, at a time when the labor movement is becoming less White and male. The shift is already reflected in several major unions led by women, including SEIU, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association.
Shuler will have to tap into new populations of workers to reverse unions’ inexorable decline. The rate of membership in the US fell back to a historic low in 2021, with just 10.3% of workers belonging to a union compared to more than 25% in the 1950s.
Women and minority groups could help reverse that trend, data suggests. Black workers had a higher membership rate than White workers in 2021, and the gap between men’s and women’s membership rates narrowed from 10 percentage points in 1983 to less than 1 percentage point last year. As of 2020, about two-thirds of workers covered by a union contract were women and people of color, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
A wave of worker organizing during the pandemic has given the AFL-CIO movement an opportunity to regain lost ground. Shuler has already signaled a willingness to help the Teamsters and SEIU, which split from the federation in 2005, with efforts to organize Amazon and Starbucks Corp., respectively, even though it won’t help her gain members in the near term.
Work in Congress
Shuler has had less success in Congress, where a major piece of pro-union legislation, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, remains stalled in the Senate. Biden, who’s scheduled to address the convention hall on Tuesday, has said he supports the bill.
It could get worse if Democrats lose their majorities in November.
“Instead of counting on a Democratic majority, they should instead be focusing on organizing the community, and that’s much more work,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Labor and Industrial Relations. “They’ve got to get out there and organize, you know, neighbor to neighbor in towns, the way they had to do for the ACA.”
Nelson, meanwhile, is working on a campaign to organize Delta Air Lines, which would be a historic victory for her union. On Thursday—the day after the AFL-CIO convention ends—she’ll hold a rally with Sen.