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We need a modern labor movement that brings good jobs

For decades, our economy has undermined working people. Income inequality remains at an all-time high. The middle class is hollowed out and harder than ever to break into. 

ALF-CIO President Liz Shuler speaks alongside President Joe Biden (left) and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, during an event on workers rights and labor unions in the East Room at the White House on Sept. 8.
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Flying into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport recently, I spotted the ramp workers on the tarmac, busily unloading bags and doing safety checks on the plane in 115 degree heat. Most passengers were anxious to deplane, ready to head to baggage claim, not giving a second thought to the work happening all around them to make their journey happen.

Working people are re-evaluating pre-COVID employment and refusing to accept a substandard job. As a result, wages are rising, schedules are more human and benefits are increasing. Millions of new jobs for working people, mostly unionized, will result from the $3.5 trillion budget blueprint moving through Congress. The latest Gallup poll found that 68% of Americans — and 77% of people 18-34 — have a positive opinion of unions. And the devastating pandemic taught America that without nurses, first responders, teachers, grocery clerks, truck drivers, postal workers and essential heroes, we’d be utterly nowhere.

These positive developments are not sufficient to right our economic ship. For decades, our economy has undermined working people. Income inequality remains at an all-time high. The middle class is hollowed out and harder than ever to break into.

This economic system, neither sustainable nor fair, creates instability and threatens democracy. Whether out of self-interest, moral outrage, or both, it is in no one’s interest for this slide to continue.

Welcome, then, a modern labor movement.

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. It focuses on creating and protecting good, predictable, desirable, union jobs that sustain a middle-class life.

A modern labor movement prioritizes inclusivity, reflecting the radically diversifying and talented work forces made up of women, people of color, immigrants, LGTBQ people and other historically marginalized groups. It dismantles systemic racism, structural barriers and other fatal flaws in our economy and society, wherever they exist.

A modern labor movement embraces innovation, experimentation and change at pace with a modern economy. It ensures working people have a say in the development and deployment of new technology such as AI, machine learning and advanced manufacturing that will drive future growth.

A modern labor movement both organizes at the local level to expand union membership and advocates for legislation in Washington D.C., including securing voting rights, rebuilding our infrastructure and fixing our broken labor laws through the PRO Act, essential for protecting workers’ right to organize.

Finally, a modern labor movement delivers results. Especially in a divided country, a modern labor movement must identify what binds us together while respecting each of our strengths. There is power in listening as well as power in doing.

Considering all that we must accomplish, our modern labor movement will require a steady hand to take on tough issues directly. As the new president of the AFL-CIO and its first woman leader ever, I have been preparing for this moment my entire life.

As secretary-treasurer for 12 years, I have been honored to lead many of the AFL-CIO’s most recent, productive breakthroughs. For example, I brought together a wide range of unions to work together and pass $86 billion in pension fund relief that will shore up retirement security for millions of working families. I was proud to work with unions in every sector to establish the AFL-CIO Technology Institute, now partnering with MIT, Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon, to co-create worker-centric technology jobs. I took personal joy in launching Next Up, a program that recruited young workers nationally to organize for change and develop the next generation of leaders. And working with our building trades unions, I helped broker an innovative clean energy agreement with a major international wind developer that is a model for high-wage, good union jobs all along the East Coast.

Unions are in my DNA. My dad was a union member, and I organized alongside my mother to fight for clerical workers who wanted a voice on the job. My parents worked hard and in exchange, we lived a decent, middle-class life. But then Enron acquired our local utility and its reckless behavior drove the company into bankruptcy and turned my father’s pension into pennies, just as he was set to retire. Decades of work down the drain. It motivated me to join the IBEW as a full-time grassroots organizer, and I never looked back.

I’ve lived firsthand the benefits of a good union job as well as the cruelty of laws and rules turned against workers.

Today, many businesses and labor unions partner together constructively, but in the broader economy, it is too often the exception, not the rule. Those partnerships should be the model going forward, grounded in a shared understanding that fairness and decency result in prosperity and stability for working people, companies and ultimately, the nation.

My friend and mentor, Rich Trumka, embodied that ethos. After his sudden, tragic passing on Aug. 5, Tom Donohue, the long-time head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a frequent political adversary of labor, praised Rich’s tenacity and effectiveness, but also his decency and collegiality. They fought hard and then, afterward, shared a meal. These values will live on in our pursuit of new, modern ideas and approaches.

Each day, millions of Americans go to work, thankful to be employed. But we can and should do so much better. A good job is what we want for ourselves and our kids. A good job can be life changing: it joins people together, builds families, and launches careers. A good job, made possible by unions, is arguably the most powerful social tool ever invented. It is the surest way to build human dignity, unify communities, boost our economy, strengthen our democracy and reduce inequality. That’s the mission of a modern labor movement. And this Labor Day, it is our commitment to every working person in America.

Liz Shuler is president of the 56 union, 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO, America’s labor federation.