how i get it done

How the Country’s Top Union Leader Gets It Done

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: AFL-CIO

Organized labor is in Liz Shuler’s DNA. The AFL-CIO president grew up in a union household, with a father who was a power lineman at Portland General Electric and a mother who was an estimator in the company’s service-and-design department. The first time Shuler bargained, she was an 11-year-old babysitter trying to match what a friend earned. After college, she worked several gigs to make ends meet before following her parents to Portland General Electric, where she got a job in the payroll department. There, she tried and failed to form a union among clerical workers. Though the outcome was not what she hoped, Shuler learned that there was a place for her in the labor movement.

She went on to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as an organizer in 1993, racking up organizing and political victories as she worked her way through the ranks. By 2009, she became the first woman elected to secretary-treasurer at the AFL-CIO, helping then-president Richard Trumka lead a federation comprising 56 unions and more than 12 million members. She worked side by side with Trumka until he unexpectedly died in 2021. His death was a blow to Shuler personally, and it happened at a moment when the labor movement was flexing its power with a wave of strikes. Shuler succeeded Trumka, making history as the first woman elected president of the federation, and under her leadership, workers have continued to rise up across the nation. “The organizing that we’re seeing is being led a lot by young people. You think about Starbucks, you think about a lot of these video-game developers and cannabis workers — they are going up against some of the biggest corporations, making their voices heard and facing down a lot of threats and intimidation,” she says. “That is embodying what we stand for.” Shuler lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, David, and their dog, Trader. Here’s how she gets it done.

On what a typical morning looks like:

I wake up around 5:30 a.m. My email, text messages, and all the things I worry about tend to build up overnight. The first thing I do is spend at least 30 minutes looking at what’s urgent, seeing if I can do some quick responses. Then I get in the shower. On the days I am home in the morning, I try to spend time with my husband. Sometimes we cook breakfast together. I’m also the dog walker. I’ll do a conference call while I’m walking him, and then I’ll jump in the car and continue with phone calls. We have many constituencies, so I’m either talking to a union president, one of our state or local AFL-CIO leaders, or an elected official.

On managing stress:

I tend to process and think through things differently when I’m sweating. I go to Orangetheory Fitness, I do yoga, and I do a lot of home weight lifting and stretching. When I’m stressed, it is a good thing for me to jump on the treadmill, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. If I have a hard week, I like to end it with a bubble bath. That’s my little luxury. My husband and I also open a good bottle of wine on a Friday if I’m home to debrief our week together.

On unwinding after work:

I head home with a whole bevy of prep documents and memos that I have to absorb for the next day. I don’t do that right when I get home. I usually wait a little bit so that I can have time to connect and have dinner with my husband. We’ll watch the news and we like to watch Jeopardy!. One night I was actually a clue. It was unexpected, and of course the contestant got it wrong, but we were like, What?! I go to bed late, usually around 11.

On her workweek:

This job is atypical because I look at the next day and I say, Okay, what am I doing? Am I on the road? Am I getting on an airplane heading straight to a picket line to walk with striking workers? Or am I meeting with some of our union presidents where I have to think about strategy? Is it something on Capitol Hill? It does vary quite a lot and it is a travel-heavy job. Today, for example, we had our political executive council meeting, which is our governing body of all the union presidents, to talk about 2024. Tomorrow I’m doing a board meeting. Then I leave for Los Angeles, where I’ll be attending an event.

On her first organizing experience:

I was 11 years old. I was babysitting — which in and of itself is terrifying, to think that I was taking care of infants at 11! — but a friend of mine and I lived in the same neighborhood and had a number of families we babysat for. I found out that she made a different wage than I did. She and I got together and talked and said, Hey, we should go to these families and say we should be getting paid the same. 

On navigating her predecessor’s unexpected death:

It was a complete shock. I had worked side by side with Rich for 12 years. We were in this moment of unprecedented opportunity with workers rising up. I still look back and wonder how I got through that time. I did it with an incredible team of people, support from our unions and leadership. We did a pretty good job of making it as least disruptive as possible, while at the same time knowing we lost an incredible friend and leader. I still have not fully processed that grief myself, because you have to keep pushing and be strong. If you crumble, everybody else crumbles. It was a study in doing what most therapists will tell you not to do, which is to cabin off your grief.

On struggling with self-doubt:

I came up through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and I was the only woman in the room pretty much my whole career. I got exposed more to women in labor leadership when I came to the AFL-CIO. It took me a while to unthaw. There’s a bravado to labor leaders, a certain way that you’re perceived to be if you pound the table and are tough. I didn’t see myself in that role because it has been male dominated for so long. In my earlier days, I was like, I need more experience or I need to take more training or get another degree. Women talk themselves out of it. Now I tell women, Don’t be afraid to fail. Whatever it is, do it. Because even if you don’t feel confident, you’ll learn something. And it’s okay to fail once in a while. Otherwise, you’re not learning, you’re not making an impact.

On not getting it done:

I was put in charge of this repositioning effort a number of years ago: How do we change the perception of the labor movement? How do we get out of this box of people thinking that we’re outdated? We hired a fancy firm and started doing the research. It was my job to get everybody onboard. But people got impatient; it was expensive; and we were in the middle of a crisis in Wisconsin after Governor Scott Walker’s attacks decimated collective bargaining rights in the state. People said: “We don’t have the time, the bandwidth, the resources to do this longer-term soft outreach. We need to fight back!” It was hard to admit that my approach didn’t work, but I did learn from it.

On talking about money:

Pay transparency is the norm in a union environment because we have a contract. We have wages, hours, and working conditions spelled out in our collective-bargaining agreements. If you want equal pay, join a union. In most non-union environments, people are scared to talk about their pay and think they’re going to get fired if they compare notes. In our unionized workplaces, it’s transparent and clear what the range is with your knowledge and experience level. There are things that are intangible, like who gets assigned overtime, and those decisions often are made by the boss and can make a difference. But one of the best things about being in a union is that you can ask that question and not have to worry about losing your job.

On the people who help her get it done:

I am grateful to have wonderful support, both personally and professionally. Starting with my husband, David, who has taken on more of the load at home, not to mention the patience and understanding he has of the challenges that come with this position — late-night phone calls, changes to planned trips. Neighbors who are there to just play cards and not talk about the rigors of the work, but to support and laugh. And our union presidents, who I rely on for advice, counsel, and partnership. Most of all, my work depends on the dedicated staff at the AFL-CIO and our courageous members and leaders at the grass roots.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How the Country’s Top Union Leader Gets It Done