Liz Shuler: We Will See A Continued Incline In Unionization

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Following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC interview with AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler at CNBC Work Summit, which took place today, Wednesday, October 26th. Video from the interview will be available at

Interview With AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler 

YLAN MUI: Tyler, thank you so much. And President Shuler, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today for this important and timely conversation because Tyler’s right – labor right now is resurgent. And I know that the AFL-CIO has made mobilization one of its key priorities.

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So I'd like to start our conversation today by playing a little bit of what we aired yesterday during the CNBC Work Summit. It was a chat between my colleague Kayla Tausche and the labor secretary Marty Walsh, in which he said that public opinion of unions is shifting. Take a listen.

Interview with Marty Walsh from October 25: All of this interest in unionization right now in the country that we are seeing, you know, polling, I think it's like 65, 70% of Americans that look favorably upon unions is the past – the highest in 50 years. I don't think you'll see the benefit of that organizing until probably 2023, 2024.

MUI: So President Shuler, a lot of momentum right now. But maybe will take some time to come to fruition. What do you think your runway is?

SHULER: Well, thank you for having me on the show, Ylan. I just want to say Secretary Walsh is a card-carrying union member. And so we appreciate the work that he's doing over at the Department of Labor and waking up every morning thinking about working people.

But what he says is true in some ways, because when you organize a union, workers come together, talk to each other. Employers have the ability to voluntarily recognize them off the spot, but that doesn't always happen as we know. And then there's a contract negotiation process that goes on.

So there is a bit of a runway there, but the benefits build over time, and especially as you negotiate a contract, that next contract, and so on and so on. So, we've been making those kinds of investments in the labor movement for decades, and I would argue that the resurgence that you're seeing in worker voice and people wanting to form unions, is because they see unions out there fighting for them.

And so no matter what kind of runway we have for the benefits, it's an ongoing process. And I think now is the time because working people are finding their voice.

MUI: Do you think union membership will ever reach the levels that it was back in the 1970s, for example, or how are you going to measure the success of your organization and mobilization efforts?

SHULER: Well, we have throughout history, we've been organizing – workers have been coming together obviously for over 100 years, into unions. And throughout history, we've seen ebbs and flows of unionization primarily because of the laws and how people can or cannot form unions depending on, you know, the law, the economy, how it's doing.

The desire of working people and what their needs are in the workplace. All of those are factors in how we see those numbers climb or not. And right now, we are – as Secretary Walsh – at an incredible moment where it's actually 71% of the public supports unions. It's the highest in almost 60 years. And it's a moment unlike any other.

So, I believe we will grow, we will see a continued incline in unionization primarily because of the way the workforce is changing and the workplace is changing. We know the future of work is now and especially coming out of the pandemic, how work has been changing. People want a voice.

They want a seat at the table to be able to shape the workplace and especially when it comes to the workplace. of the future.

MUI: You mentioned the law and the economy as key factors in sort of driving the outlook on unionization and the membership for unions. So I want to drill down on both of those issues. In terms of the law, of course, the midterms are just less than two weeks away now and there's a lot of debate over which party is going to control Congress.

I'm not going to ask you for your political prognostication here, but it does seem likely that we're going to have some level of divided government. So what are the priorities that the AFL-CIO can pursue that you think could get support from both Republicans and Democrats?

SHULER: Well, issues like good wages, retirement security, health care benefits, predictable schedules, those are not issues that are Democrat or Republican. They're working people's issues.

So regardless of what happens in terms of control of Congress, you know, working people are going to make their voices heard and that's what they're out doing. We're mobilizing and examining the issues, seeing which candidates support working people heading into these midterm elections.

But certainly, we want to work with whatever politician is going to support working people and really approaching that through an issues based lens. And right now, you know, working people are struggling. We're seeing it day in and day out. People are trying to put food on the table. They're trying to fill up their gas tanks.

They're trying to make sure that they can have enough time with their families and not be working unsustainable hours, and have more predictable schedules. And so, those issues are what's really driving workers. And no matter what district you represent in the country in Congress, those working people are going to be in your ear.

And so, I think that working people are watching, they're motivated, they're fed up, they're fired up coming out of the pandemic, especially being treated as essential workers one day and then treated as expendable the next. And so, now is the time and these midterm elections will definitely be a referendum on how people are feeling they're being heard.

MUI: The other issue you mentioned was the economy and while Washington is focused, of course, on the midterms Wall Street has been talking a lot about the potential for another recession.

After the pandemic, what we heard from business leaders over and over again was how hard it was for them to find workers and the length they were having to go to to attract those employees and to make their businesses a place where people wanted to come and work. Are you concerned that if we are in an economic downturn and the unemployment rate starts to rise again, that workers lose some of that upper hand?

SHULER: Well, it's certainly been a moment in terms of the economy where everyone's looking for talent. And I've heard it from several of your guests on this program, that everyone is looking for talented workers. And the way you find talent, the way you keep talent, is by treating people well, giving them a voice and shaping their workplace.

And, you know, looking at sustainable models, we don't necessarily want to see these business models where you have this churn and burn kind of mentality. We want to look to sustainability. And attracting a talented workforce definitely depends on, you know, the kinds of wages you're providing, the type of health care benefits and job security.

But more than that, we're finding it's the intangibles, the workplace culture issues. People are tired of toxic environments. They're tired of being treated poorly and not having a say in how their workplace is being shaped or changed.

So, I think that that will be evergreen no matter how the economy is faring, but certainly when labor markets are tight, working people feel empowered. And that's what we're seeing is that people are finally saying, You know what, enough is enough. I don't have to just take it anymore.

I can do better for myself. And so that's the other reason people are coming together in unions because they know that their voice is more powerful when they come together collectively than if they're individually in the office or in a workplace. So, I think that the future absolutely looks bright for more working people continuing to leverage their power and their voice and doing that through a union.

MUI: You mentioned some of the intangibles that it becomes so important to workers, especially as we come out of the pandemic, like workplace culture. How do you negotiate for that? In other words, you're saying it's not just about the wages that people get paid anymore.

There's a whole host of other things that are important to the way that they work. Not just what they get paid. How do you include that in a contract negotiation? What are ways that workers are trying to demand some of those intangible factors play into their workplace?

SHULER: Well, the beauty of a union is it is a democracy and so the members get to decide what's most important to them in the workplace. And then to have a contract, where you can actually sit at a table with your employer, talk about what matters, what's important and work through that together.

Labor and management negotiating together and against each other in some cases, right? Because often there's a tension there where working people want more of a say in the workplace and want to be heard, and sometimes employers don't like that. But I think the issues are certainly the tangibles as we discussed, you know, the wages, hours and benefits.

But on the intangible side, I've seen so much creativity in using this tool we call collective bargaining, where working people are talking about, you know, time off, talking about how the workplace is going to look if you're remote working, to be able to have a say in how that's set up, especially as there's more surveillance in the workplace.

I've even seen workers come together to negotiate their company's carbon footprint or environmental protections where they're seeing something happen on the front lines in a workplace and they know it can be done more efficiently or more eco eco-friendly. They're using their collective bargaining agreements to negotiate.

So those are the kinds of things that we're seeing that this tool of unions and collective bargaining has become modern, and it's become more relevant than ever in the workplace.

MUI: And certainly, it's spread across more industries, maybe than it had historically been in. I think a lot of business leaders, a lot of companies look at what's happening at Amazon, looked at what's happening at Starbucks, and they wonder what this means for their own relationship with their employees.

What's your advice for business owners, for managers, who say How should I be potentially rethinking the way that I interact with my workforce?

SHULER: Well, absolutely, and I would say to any business person listening that unions can be thought partners, they can actually be solutions driven and make your workforce more productive and then you more profitable.

So, the idea here is it's a partnership. And that, you know, it knows no bounds like you were saying working people in every sector of the economy are looking at this idea of coming together, making their voices more powerful collectively through a union.

And so whether it's video game developers, or minor league baseball players who just joined the AFL-CIO, graduate researchers at the University of California – the workplace is the workplace no matter what kind of work you do, and it's working people coming together, having that conversation that forms a union.

And businesses don't need to be afraid of that. They can see it not in a stereotypical way that I think a lot of business people do from the, you know, models of the past that it has to be adversarial, that it's only for certain types of work. Absolutely not. The labor movement is a modern movement. We are fighting for a more inclusive workplace and want to continue to be solutions driven.

MUI: Yeah, you've actually pointed to Microsoft in the past as an example of a successful relationship. What about that worked?

SHULER: Well, I think Brad Smith is a pioneer in so many ways, but he saw the trends. He saw working people and so many industries saying you know what, this is something we want to see in our workplace. So he said if this is what the people want, we should allow them to make that choice for themselves.

And right now under the law, it really is written to allow working people to form unions, it just doesn't always happen so easily because of employer interference. And employers break the law with impunity, you know, obviously harassing and intimidating workers who often want to form a union.

But Microsoft decided, you know what, if this is what our workforce thinks is most effective for them, to bring their voices to the table, then we're not going to stand in the way. So that's really all people want is a neutral position from companies to allow working people to make that choice themselves.

MUI: Are there certain industries or other companies that you see as right for that level of organizing?

SHULER: Well, as I said earlier, really every workplace can and should form a union primarily –

MUI: Across the board?

SHULER: Yeah, across the board, because it's really about that seat at the table. And so, no matter what type of work you do, we've seen it in the professional sector where, you know, people in the medical field, doctors are forming unions because of what they went through during the pandemic and not feeling safe to really raise the issues around safety and health without having the safety of their coworkers behind them in their contract giving them that voice.

We're seeing it as I said, in the tech industry. Google workers just formed a union in the south of all places. And so, it really knows no bounds. And it really is just, you know, workers coming together, talking to each other and standing up for themselves.

MUI: And you all have leaned into – the AFL-CIO has leaned into the use of technology to help workers come together and organize. Can you talk a little bit about some of the new tools you're using to foster that type of community?

SHULER: Well, of course, using technology for organizing is absolutely what we're seeing. But nothing ever replaces the good old fashioned face-to-face conversation as we know and in fact, I think more of that needs to take place because we are in our tech kind of bubbles often and not talking to each other. But you know, we're seeing tools like TikTok and Reddit and, you know, we have a tool called Action Builder that we use in terms of relationship mapping.

So, we're actually seeing more technology use than ever before because it's a way for people to communicate without fear. Without, you know, that kind of looking over your shoulder and, you know, using the traditional methods. So, we're absolutely modernizing the way we can communicate with workers and, you know, workers talking to workers is what this is all about.

MUI: And final quick question for you, President Schuler, we are all trying to create the new normal here as we come out of the pandemic. Everyone's wondering, what's going to stick? What did we learn from the pandemic? What do you see sticking for workers?

SHULER: Well, coming out of the pandemic, I think people are seeing work like never before. We used to take it for granted. We used to go about our day and expect that things were just going to be there that the working people that provided the grocery stores being stocked, you know, the folks who were driving public transportation and getting us to our jobs, were just going to be there.

And I think that that was an awakening that people finally can appreciate and see the value of working people that really make this country move. So, that's my hope that that's not just a temporary thing, that working people continue to rise up, find their power, demand what they deserve and make this the most productive economy that we continue to see.

MUI: President Shuler, thank you so much for taking the time and for talking to me today.

SHULER: Thanks, Ylan.