The head of America’s largest labor federation says that unions can and must play vital roles as technology constantly reshapes workplaces.
AFL-CIO President Elizabeth Shuler delivered that message June 9 at the Maritime Trades Department Convention in Philadelphia. She also expressed the federation’s unwavering support for the U.S. maritime industry.
Primarily, she explained her vision for how the Labor Movement can protect its hard-won gains while remaining vibrant for many years to come.
“We cannot sit back and think it’s just going to take care of itself,” Shuler stated. “We want to be that Labor Movement that’s opening its doors wider than ever, showing workers that we are the place to go to prepare for the future. I see a future where unions can be the constant – where unions can be the solid foundation that people keep coming back to, to learn that next skill, to join that next industry that’s growing and emerging.”
She said that, partly as a result of the pandemic, “people are waking up to the power of collective action and unions, like never before. There is activism like we haven’t seen in decades. This is a whole new generation of trade unionists that are showing us all how to be bold, how to take risks, how to be creative and how to be fearless. We need to do the same.”
Shuler mentioned various businesses where people have organized or joined unions in recent months, and noted that new technologies can leave people feeling unsettled.
“Our workplaces are changing, especially coming out of the pandemic,” she said. “How do we build that future? It’s about embracing innovation and change. But it’s also about organizing.”
Echoing the sentiments of MTD President Michael Sacco and other speakers, Shuler insisted, “Workers need to have a seat at that table where the decisions about technology are being made. No one knows our industries better than we do. We need to have workers’ voices at every stage of that process. That’s on us, and the Labor Movement has to prioritize it. We’ve got to keep evolving, and we’ve always been the source for those cutting-edge training programs. The maritime unions are right in the middle of this.”
With that in mind, she announced that the federation recently launched the AFL-CIO Technology Institute.
“We have to be the ones that shape that technology and control it for workers,” she added. “The industries that are emerging around us, especially coming out of the pandemic – we want to make sure that those are good, union jobs from day one. We want to be the source for the highly skilled, most productive workers on the planet. That’s how we get a foothold.”
She called for a “solidarity” approach to organizing, and pointed out that during the Amazon campaigns in Alabama, upwards of 15 unions participated, even though most didn’t have a membership stake. She sees that strategy as a model for the future, also saying the campaign inspired other organizing drives in different economic sectors.
Additionally, Shuler noted the importance of domestic shipbuilding, the Jones Act and cargo preference. “Maintaining a first-class maritime industry is all of our fight,” she said. “Having highly skilled, union, U.S. mariners is how we do that.”
She also described U.S. maritime labor as “the most patriotic group of trade unionists. The role that the maritime trades play in keeping our country moving, making sure that our national defense is operable – this is who our movement is, and more people need to see that.”
Shuler concluded by designating the Biden administration as “the most pro-union administration in history…. That means that working people were at the table as we were planning the country’s recovery. We’re going to keep pushing to get more investment in working people.”
She expressed concern about polarization among some union members and encouraged everyone to “get back to our roots, focus on issues, get back to face-to-face communication, talk about our shared values and vision. Listen before you talk.”
Immediately after her remarks, the convention delegates nominated and elected Sacco as president, Anthony Gonsiewski as vice president and Daniel Duncan as executive secretary-treasurer. Shuler swore in the officers for another term.