Is a new labor movement brewing?

Kai Ryssdal and Richard Cunningham Oct 1, 2021
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"What we're seeing out there is a demand for change," says new AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, shown here speaking at the White House on Sept. 8. Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images

Is a new labor movement brewing?

Kai Ryssdal and Richard Cunningham Oct 1, 2021
Heard on:
"What we're seeing out there is a demand for change," says new AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, shown here speaking at the White House on Sept. 8. Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images
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We’ve heard a lot about how workers have reevaluated their relationship with work during the pandemic. Between labor shortages across industries, a series of strikes and union organizing drives, and the shift toward remote work, workers are claiming greater control of their position in the economy. And public sentiment is with them. A recent Gallup poll found that 68% of Americans — and 77% of people age 18 to 34 — have a positive opinion of unions. Worker movements at high-profile corporations like Amazon, Nabisco, Starbucks and now Kaiser Permanente are building up to what may become a wave of labor unrest.

Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, argues that we are in the beginning stages of a modern labor movement. In an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times, she wrote that “a modern labor movement begins by putting good jobs and working people at the center of our national conversation — back where it used to be, when work was respected culturally and rewarded economically.”

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke to Shuler about labor policy and the makings of a modern labor movement. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: You had a piece in the Chicago Sun-Times a couple of weeks ago, in which you said the current model of American capitalism basically creates instability and threatens democracy. And you said, “Welcome, then, a modern labor movement.” And the question I have to ask you now is, what does a modern labor movement look like?

Liz Shuler: Well, a modern labor movement is a movement that grows and changes as the economy grows and changes. And we want to be that movement that meets the needs of workers in the future to make sure that, you know, the jobs in emerging industries are good, high-quality jobs to support a family. We think one job should actually be enough. And we want to be that bold, dynamic, inclusive place to unite working people and, you know, show that when they come together, they’re more powerful, and we can actually make the economic scales work for them. Because we see inequality at record highs, and workers actually need more power, you know, to leverage and demand that better-paying job. And so we think that a dynamic and modern labor movement will be the place to do that.

Ryssdal: The catch, of course, is that while support for organized labor is very high in this country, something like 11% of the American workforce is unionized. That’s a low going back, you know, decades and decades. What do you do with that, as the woman whose job it is to make that number go the other way?

Shuler: Well, we have a lot of faith and hope in working people. And what we’re seeing out there is a demand for change. So our challenge is, in the labor movement, to connect the dots for people to show that when you stand up through a union, that you’re better off, you have better pay, you have that security, and you can retire with dignity. And that’s what’s missing in this economy. So we hope that more workers, since we have everything lined up right now — the popularity of unions is so high, we have a Gallup poll that showed that 68% of the public sees the labor movement, sees unions favorably, including 77% of young people — that now is the moment of opportunity for the labor movement.

Ryssdal: With all respect, though, ma’am, you know, faith, hope and popularity don’t pay the bills. So I have to ask you about moves in Congress to help your cause. The House has passed, as you know, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the PRO Act. It now sits having passed one house and the prospects in the Senate are up in the air, shall we say, as a lot of things are in the United States Senate. Where do you go from here at a national level?

Shuler: Well, the PRO Act is one piece of a Workers First agenda that we’ve been pushing for. If you don’t have the right to come together in your workplace and demand and bargain for better wages and conditions, then the rest of democracy crumbles around us. And I think we’re seeing that, that people have less faith in democracy because of the economy and how it’s treated working people, and people have lost hope. And so we are advocating for, yes, the passage of the PRO act. And, you know, getting pieces of the PRO Act in any legislative vehicle we can find, including reconciliation. But we also see the role of the labor movement to advocate for working people and the plight of working people in our country, including preserving democracy and getting the needed investments that we need in this Build Back Better agenda.

Ryssdal: That’s a big swing, linking the fate of this democracy to the economic advantages of unionized labor. And I point that out just to make sure that people understand what it was that you said without making a value judgment on it. But I wonder what it says about that linkage, that Congress can’t agree on what day it is, let alone what to do with organized labor.

Shuler: Well, Congress is busy at work as we speak, trying to come to terms on what this investment agenda is going to look like. And right now, workers are getting the short end of the stick. The inequality levels are sky-high. We have a polarized economy where some people are doing very well, and others — you know, most of us, the 99% — have to work two and three jobs just to get by, when we think one job should be enough to support a family. So that’s what we’re advocating for, is that the labor movement will be that center of gravity for working people to demand more and get their fair share of the growth that’s happening in the economy.

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