Liz Shuler – Executive Vice President
Elizabeth “Liz” Shuler became the first woman ever elected Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO when she was voted into office by acclamation at the Federation’s 26th convention on September 16, 2009. Ms. Shuler also became the youngest officer ever elected, rising through the ranks from her first union position in Local 125 of the IBEW in Portland, Ore.
From her earliest days on the job in Portland, Liz displayed a commitment to excellence and professionalism that helped her succeed in all she undertook, often against daunting odds.
When the Enron corporation tried to use its financial clout in 1997 to muscle electricity deregulation through the Oregon state legislature, it ran into an unexpected challenge. The challenge came from Elizabeth Shuler, then the 27-year-old state legislative and political director for Local 125 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).
To combat Enron’s assault on the state’s system of regulated electricity, Liz (as she’s known to her friends and co-workers) worked with a broad-based coalition of labor, community and environmental activists to challenge, and ultimately overcome, Enron’s powerhouse lobbying campaign, a victory that she says, “sparked my passion for advocating for people through political and legislative activism – especially in the energy fights.”
At 34, she was the highest-ranking woman in the IBEW, serving as the executive assistant to International President Edwin D. Hill, and now holds the second-highest position in the labor movement – AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer.
To this day, taking on Enron gives her special satisfaction. Her father, Lance, a long-time Local 125 member who worked for Portland General Electric, as did her late mother, Joyce, was one of the PGE workers hit hardest when they lost their pensions because of Enron’s reckless buyout of the Oregon energy company, and one of thousands who were disenfranchised nationwide when Enron went belly up.
Building Mobilizing Prowess
Only a few years before, Shuler’s success in challenging Enron might not have been possible. Newly graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism, Liz says, “I was the McJob woman.” Similar to many young people today, she had a number of part-time jobs to make ends meet. Not sure where she was going to find full time employment, she built experience as a political activist working for a firm that coordinated political events, before joining Local 125 in 1993.
A summer job in the payroll department at PGE during college had shown her how the nonunion clerical workers were disadvantaged, compared with their unionized counterparts. She had begun talking with her coworkers about organizing that summer, because she knew that the line department workers, like her father, had better benefits by being in the union. Now, as a member and full-time employee of the local union, she was thrust into a full-fledged campaign to organize the clerical workers.
The organizers on staff at the local were all men, so Liz was assigned to house calling mostly women employees, because she “looked like them” and they could relate to her more closely. “Those were challenging times,” she recalls. “The company was holding captive audience meetings and people were scared, so it was really tough to even get into their homes.”
The organizing experience taught Liz that the local union needed to build mobilizing capacity if it were to become more effective politically and legislatively. She traveled across the local’s multistate jurisdiction conducting Construction Organizing Membership Education and Training (COMET) and Membership Education and Mobilization for Organizing (MEMO) courses for each of the 5,000-member local’s 36 different bargaining units. She developed a political education course; formed local networks to bolster the union’s PAC, doubling the member contributions annually; built a chain of activists throughout the local’s five-state territory; and engaged the PAC board in a formal candidate endorsement process for the first time.
It took her a few years to build a program and the trust of the older, more established leaders in the local union. “They’d never worked with someone like me on a peer level before,” she recalls. “When you’re young, blonde and female, some people make certain assumptions, so you’re always battling those assumptions.”
Battling the Odds
When she arrived on the scene, 70 percent of union members in California were supporting Prop. 226. Shuler worked tirelessly to educate members in the IBEW’s 40 locals across the state about the disastrous consequences Prop. 226 would create. On Election Day, more than 70 percent of IBEW’s members voted against the proposition, and it was soundly defeated. Armed with a strong mobilization program, and Liz’s hard work to implement it throughout the state, the losing trend was upturned and the vote was completely reversed among IBEW members!
IBEW local leaders showered Liz’s work on Prop. 226 with kudos. “This lady is a real go-getter,” San Francisco Local 6 reported. Local 428 in Bakersfield wrote that Shuler “appeared to be in three different places at one time.”In recognition of her stellar work, the IBEW International Office offered Liz a job in Washington, D.C., where she served for six years as an International Representative in the Political/Legislative Affairs Department. In that job, she used her background and experience as a political organizer with a knack for policy detail and legislative procedure to lobby on issues such as energy and electricity, telecommunications, Davis-Bacon, health care, transportation, apprenticeship and training, pension reform, unemployment and telecommunications.
She continued to hone her political skills on campaigns in the field, as statewide coordinator for IBEW’s efforts to defeat “paycheck deception” measures 92 and 98 in Oregon in 2000. Just days after defeating both initiatives, she was sent to Florida to assist with the presidential recount in West Palm Beach. She trained pools of observers daily, to make sure every legitimate vote was counted.
Few labor leaders have such wide experience with different workforces – from blue collar to white collar to pink collar and now green collar, from manufacturing and service sector to professional. As executive assistant to the International President, Shuler oversaw the work and budgeting of eleven departments of the IBEW, including Utility, Manufacturing, Telecommunications, Broadcasting and Government, as well as Education, Research, Political/Legislative Affairs, Human Services, Media and Safety.
Besides advising President Hill on major policy issues, she managed the IBEW green jobs initiative, the planning and construction of the IBEW museum, a training partnership with the Panamanian government, sexual harassment/diversity training and electronic tracking systems for political contribution requests and for “Code of Excellence” implementation and accountability, among other projects.
She is especially proud of her work on the IBEW’s Code of Excellence, a program adopted by Hill in 2005 to renew union members’ pride in workmanship and guarantee to employers that workers were committed to a hard day’s work for a full day’s pay.
“If we’re going to rebuild the labor movement we need to start with a commitment to quality work, to show that union labor makes a difference not only for the workers and their families, but also for our employers,” she said. “Unions add value, and the IBEW is demonstrating how this value-added translates to new jobs and new members.”
Liz is active with many women’s causes. She is a member of the boards of the Women’s Campaign Fund, a bipartisan fundraising organization that aims to boost the number of women holding public office, and Women’s Policy, Inc., the caucus organization for women members of Congress. For several years she volunteered with the International Women’s Democracy Center, an organization that sponsors mentoring programs encouraging women to run for office and seek change in countries overseas.
She has been active with the American Council of Young Political Leaders, which brings emerging leaders under age 40 to the United States, a program to which Liz has succeeded in building a stronger labor component.
Liz is deeply committed to the Trumka Team’s call to renew labor’s appeal to younger people. “We have to change the perception of unions,” she says. “We need to figure out how to make unions “cool” again and reconnect with people where they live. We’re about community. We’re about people helping each other.”
Liz lives with her husband David Herbst in Washington, D.C.