Description: We know that work is changing. But too often companies try to remake work with no input from workers themselves. The most senior woman ever in the American labor movement immersed herself in the technologies of tomorrow and emerged an advocate for change, but also for a deeper, broader, more inclusive dialogue.

The below transcript was lightly edited for grammar and readability. 


Why Workers Need a Place at the Futurism Table

(Transcription by RA Fisher Ink)

Kirkpatrick: Okay, from inside the brain to inside the labor movement. And inside America—

Shuler: There you go.

Kirkpatrick: So Liz Shuler is the secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO, and I think as you’ll find, someone who is unusually cognizant of the changes that are happening in society and how we need to think different about the relationship between labor and management and business and society. So Liz, first just tell us how you at the AFL-CIO are thinking about tech-driven change and what the labor movement’s role is now vis-à-vis what it may have been in past decades.

Shuler: Well, I am so excited to be here, first of all, because I’ve been in the audience for the last couple of days and I’ve been hearing so much about all of the innovations and people wringing their hands about what’s going to happen to the workforce. And I have news for you. The labor movement—unions—have actually been managing fluidity and dynamic talent throughout our history. And we are, I like to say, the original platform for how to upskill folks and credential folks and make sure that there’s a base of highly skilled working people in this country.

So we’ve done this before and we know how to do it so I was excited to be here just for that reason, to say, hey, we have a solution and we’ve been doing this since the 1800s through every industrial revolution, modernizing and evolving and adapting. So that to me is very exciting because, you know, a lot of folks feel that there’s a mystery in the future and I think if we work together and we partner and we think about working people being at the center of this change and how we can upskill folks, it’s not going to be so hard to solve.

Kirkpatrick: But is that—I mean, that is clearly not understood as the dialogue proceeds in America. First of all, I don’t think the dialogue in America has proceeded nearly far enough about the need for retraining, reskilling, redesigning the education system. But how can we change the terms so that this discussion is broader, so that business and government and the labor movement do work together, which seems like what you’re saying would be desirable—

Shuler: Right.

Kirkpatrick: And possible. But is it happening now and how do we get there?

Shuler: It’s not happening and in fact, in other countries, it’s part of their system. A lot of folks point to Germany as a success story and the system they have there is tripartite. They have government, they have business; they have labor all working together to solve these problems and having the voice of the working people who are on the front lines of the workplace is extremely important. They get that.

We don’t have that system here in the United States. We’re working in silos. I hate to use an overused term, but essentially everyone’s in their own corners trying to figure things out. There’s less collaboration than we find in other places. And so I think that is the ideal way to solve problems and the labor movement is poised and ready to do that.

And we have done it, and in fact, I was going to say, in so many instances in sectors across the economy, if you think about the entertainment industry—Hollywood, right? These are all union members. They work on a project basis. They have a movie and it’s a gig, if you will. But they have a way for the employers to come together across an industry and develop a system with the union in partnership to provide stable health care, retirement security. Even when the gig ends, the workforce is still able to access decent wages and health care and retirement security because everyone works together.

Kirkpatrick: But what’s a pathway by which we might get toward a system where the labor movement and business working together could bring that kind of system to more people?

Shuler: Well, that is the trick, and unfortunately most people know the labor movement has been shrinking steadily, primarily because of the labor laws in the country make it nearly impossible to form a union. A lot of fear, people get fired if they raise their voice in the workplace. It’s a risk. So in order to expand access to more people where there aren’t unions, we need to figure out a way to capture the notion of leveraging the scale that unions have, for example. I use retirement security as a prime example where the huge pension system here in California, how can we actually open the doors to that to make it more accessible to folks who aren’t in a union and be able to invest and capitalize on the leverage that a big pension system provides for their own retirement security, for example.

But there are examples like that across the labor movement where that’s all workers want is opportunity, opportunity to make a decent wage, to train and upskill their credentials, to have access to benefits. So we need to actually be thinking about, in the labor movement, modernizing and working with others to open the doors.

Kirkpatrick: One interesting thing that happened in the last few years is the $15 dollar an hour as a minimum living—it’s still very low, but minimum living wage was really something that came out of the labor movement and has now been pretty much been accepted as a reasonable floor, but you didn’t get paid any dues for that. In other words, is there a role that the labor movement, the AFL-CIO in particular, could play more broadly than it has in the past as sort of a national spokesperson at an organization, maybe a membership or some kind of civic organization that is a more broader advocacy organization on top of the work you do negotiation contracts with employers?

Shuler: Absolutely. I think, as I said, we know how to work with stable employers where work is constant and we know how to work in these dynamic industries where work is fluid. And this fight for $15, as it was called, when it first got started, I think people thought, “They’re crazy, $15 dollars an hour, really?” And as you said, it’s now kind of accepted. Oh, and Jeff Bezos is saying, yes, of course, you know, we need to pay a basic wage. That was not without kicking and screaming. [LAUGHTER] I think, for years, people have been out in the streets and raising their voices and trying to push for that change. So it doesn’t just happen voluntarily is kind of how we look at it.

But I think, you know, again, the labor movement has been there for decades thinking about how we provide decent opportunity for employment so you can get a pathway to the middle class, feed your family, make sure that, again, inequality isn’t increasing. And I think that is one big concern with technology creeping in, right? We have all these advancements coming but we don’t have the policies in place to make sure that those efficiencies, those productivity gains, are actually reinvested into people, the actual people that are still on the planet that are going to be using these technologies.

Kirkpatrick: So the labor movement is and can become more of an articulating entity advocate for that sort of way of looking at the world?

Shuler: Well, hopefully, we’ve adapted over the course of all the other industrial revolutions, thinking about how worker voice and collective action looks when the economy changes. And yes, we are at that moment where we have to look at ourselves.

Kirkpatrick: Okay. Well, there’s a promising set of developments separately that are worth mentioning. I mean, I’m a baby boomer. I was a proud union member and activist in the newspaper guild, unit chairperson. But my generation generally was not very friendly to the labor movement. I think we didn’t generally support labor in our work. However, it seems like the young people today have a much less negative view about the idea of organizing for benefit. If you look at the astonishing developments that have happened in digital media in New York in particular, all these shops, you know, that are digital news organizations comprised entirely of millennials and very young people are organizing and joining unions.

Shuler: Right.

Kirkpatrick: At the same time, you have these walkouts at Google and employee protests at Amazon, Microsoft. There’s again, the technology industry under a microscope, but serving as an example that there’s a change in the psychology of a certain number of workers in this country of speaking up. So what does that mean for you?

Shuler: I think it’s exciting. First of all, when I saw the Google walkout, I said this is like the wildcat strike of the ’20s, right, where workers kind of stood up and they said enough is enough. And if it was on sexual harassment, if it was on wages, whatever the case may be, workers are rising up in this country. And the teachers we saw who were sick of going to their classrooms in West Virginia and paying for supplies out of their pockets—

Kirkpatrick: Yes, even better example, really.

Shuler: You see the Me Too movement. I mean, it’s an exciting time and I think that young people today have seen what the economy has done to their parents, where their parents have lost their pensions and have had to go back to work after they’ve retired. And that even democracy isn’t working. You know, the Harvard study that came out I think late last year about young people today think democracy is actually harmful. I mean, it was border, what, 35 percent I want to say. So that is troubling, right?

Kirkpatrick: That’s troubling.

Shuler: They see this economy [is] not working for them. So they innately in their generation, I would say, if I can stereotype, see the benefit of collaboration and coming together for power. And so that translates very easily to the union movement. It will look different though, right? It won’t be the traditional model that we’ve seen where you work for one employer for 30 years and the union office is right there next to the plant. It’s going to be more distributed, it’s going to be perhaps virtual; we’re going to use new technological tools to harness that power.

Kirkpatrick: Are you seeing that in your membership yet or is there an uptick? What is the state of play?

Shuler: Well, I think that we’re at a moment where the labor movement is either going to grow exponentially or continue to die a slow death and perhaps be reinvented. But I think what I’m seeing out there, what I was saying about the uprisings, is that people, they’ve had enough of the way the economy is broken. They see inequality growing; they see stagnant wages for the last 30 years, and the only way they can fight back is to figure out ways to come together collectively.

In this country, we’re so conditioned to think about us as individuals and, you know, the whole pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of mentality, which is of course important. But at the same time, we can’t do everything on our own, right? We do have to come together and I think Silicon Valley is a great example of that, working in teams and innovating in groups, and I think the same is the case for workers in the workplace.

Kirkpatrick: Yes, actually this whole American thing of the heroic individual may be something that is changing, that there is more of a sense of something collective, and the internet probably has a lot to do with that. But I want to hear what people in the audience have to say. I’m sure there’s interesting questions or comments.

Shuler: While we’re waiting for a question, I want to say in terms of upskilling, to me that is a prime example of how more and more burden has been shifted to the individual.

Kirkpatrick: Yes.

Shuler: We used to have systems in our country where—you know, our education systems, where, the government took more responsibility, or employers took responsibility for training and upskilling people. And now we’re seeing individuals, at great costs to themselves, going down these paths where they’re investing tons of money in these programs and then they don’t have a job at the end of the program and they’re in debt. I think it’s on average $30,000 dollars in debt is what most people are carrying now.

Kirkpatrick: Yes. That’s got to change.

Shuler: Yes.

Kirkpatrick: Okay, who’s got something to add to this discussion?

Elron: Yes, hello. Dan Elron, Accenture. Have you seen any interesting models where employers and unions get together to promote training so that training is portable and the employer doesn’t risk losing their whole investment if the employee leaves, some kind of collaborative system for that?

Shuler: Absolutely.

Kirkpatrick: Good question.

Shuler: Yes. And in fact, I want to lift up Kaiser Permanente, first of all, for their labor management partnership. It’s an over 20-year partnership where they have an incredibly sophisticated system, where at every level of the company they have what they call unit-based teams. In the hospital, from the surgeon or the doctor all the way through the system of nurses and even transportation professionals, they meet and discuss the most efficient way to execute their day. So every morning, they’ll have a team meeting, and I remember once a nurse was saying, “You know, I’m the one that’s transporting the patient after they have their procedure”—because Kaiser wants the experience to be such a good experience that it’s like you stick with the patient throughout the whole process—“and in fact, it is so much cheaper to be able to get me back on the floor and have someone else move that person to exit the system than it is for a nurse who could be actually on the floor providing care to another patient.” So that’s an example of a really sophisticated partnership.

Kirkpatrick: You mean they figured out a way to change that as a result?

Shuler: Yes, they did. And it was all based on the worker feedback because, you know, you have the front line folks who are in the workplace seeing exactly what’s going on and management really not knowing how to create those efficiencies. And it saved millions and provided better care and better outcomes for patients.

Another industry that’s really a great example of the way we collaborate in terms of training I would say, is more stereotypical, but the construction industry, which I think, again, is the original kind of Uber platform for transactions where employers knew that in an industry like construction, they’re going to need a steady base of talent no matter which employer you are.

And so if you need an electrician, you know that you can go to the labor management partnership, that the union will train that electrician to the highest standards, and that any contractor in the country can draw on that talent pool. And all the while, they’re paying into a system where the worker and the employer pay in for the training and also for their retirement and health care. So it’s portable benefits 1.0, right?

Kirkpatrick: And that’s the union you came out of, in fact.

Shuler: Right, that’s right. Yes.

Kirkpatrick: Right. Okay, over here.

Mattison: Yes. John Mattison, Kaiser Permanente. I wanted to ask an unrelated question and that is, the Institute for the Future has advocated what they call asset equality and they refer to the Scandinavian countries in particular, where the base of free resources—education, healthcare, and so forth—is such that there is much more fluidity in retraining and so forth. Do you see the future being more state-sponsored or more employer-sponsored or some combination? How do you see, in our culture, approaching the kind of floor that’s established in asset equality that enables social mobility such as the Scandinavian countries?

Shuler: Wow, that’s an interesting question. I think we’re all kind of studying the other models overseas, right? Because they do have such a high quality of life in the Nordic countries and there’s been a lot of talk about universal basic income and what that could portend for the future, and I know there are some experiments going on with that.

But I think we believe that really, for the most part, people want to work, they want to have a decent job; they want to have opportunity, and the respect and the dignity that comes with work is worth investing in. And if you think about the opportunities we have now to determine the policies and the underpinnings of when in fact technology does take off and automation and robotics and artificial intelligence do start to displace people, we have a responsibility as a society to reinvest some of the profits that we’re seeing come out of that increased productivity back into our society. And so you know, I think that if we don’t make the right choices now, that dystopic future that people keep worrying about could indeed happen.

Kirkpatrick: Okay. On to making the right choices now, when we talked on the phone the other day, you were about to get onto a plane to go down and campaign for Stacey Abrams. The AFL-CIO has made a major commitment to Democratic Party candidates in this recent election. There’s a been a huge gain. How does that change things? Do you require the Democratic Party to have more influence in American society for you to achieve the results you want? And are you more optimistic because of this election that just happened?

Shuler: I think I want to clarify that we are politically independent, right? It just so happens that the issues we care about, making a decent future for working people and all that members of Congress vote on, their voting records end up aligning more with the Democratic Party.

Kirkpatrick: So some Republican candidates you do support?

Shuler: Yes. Yes. So we are bipartisan. And I will say a lot of the attacks that the labor movement have faced come from that stereotype of that if you kill labor, then you kill the Democratic Party. So on the Republican side, there’s been this anti-labor trend all across the country. But we were excited to see working family candidates elected all across the country and I will say that we had over 900 union members actually run for office and win. Or thousands ran, but 900 won—

Kirkpatrick: At all levels of government.

Shuler: At all levels of government. And we have a U.S. senator that’s a union member.

Kirkpatrick: Who is that?

Shuler: Jacky Rosen from Nevada.

Kirkpatrick: Wow.

Shuler: Was a culinary worker. We have 18 members of Congress, two governors. And so that was sort of our answer to this is if you don’t like what you’re seeing, get off the sidelines and run for office.

Kirkpatrick: Is that new to have that many elected officials come from the labor movement?

Shuler: Yes. It’s a big surge and you’ve seen it with women candidates post Me Too movement and the Women’s March flooding into the arena, and so union members as well.

Kirkpatrick: So we need political change though to set the groundwork for a lot of the changes you want to see, I assume.

Shuler: Yes, absolutely, and I would say having working people in those positions of power will help us change the rules of the economy and make it easier, we hope, for workers to be coming together, like you said in new media and other places as the economy grows and changes, figuring out what that modern labor movement looks like.

Kirkpatrick: Well, like I said several times, inclusion is one of the themes of this conference.

Shuler: Absolutely.

Kirkpatrick: And it’s a clear example of how that can work and should work and that’s why we’re so glad to include you in our program.

Shuler: I want to thank you for that.

Kirkpatrick: And in our video that we will distribute after that fact, and want you to keep your good work going.

Shuler: And I want to offer a challenge to the folks here that the labor movement is ready and willing to partner at anytime, anywhere to think creatively and innovatively of how we upskill the workforce of the future and make sure that people still have access to good jobs. I want to thank the folks who are working here. You know, I think backstage and the folks serving your food and cleaning your rooms and the firefighters who are out literally in danger as we speak, valuing that work and seeing that work as you go through this technological shift.

Kirkpatrick: Thank you.

Shuler: Thank you so much.