When the 2019 NYC Labor Day Parade steps off on Fifth Avenue on Saturday, Elizabeth Shuler will proudly wear the sash as this year’s Grand Marshal.
Shuler became the youngest person to ever serve on the American Federation of Labor’s Executive Council when she was elected at age 39, and her meteoric rise saw her elevated to secretary-treasurer — the second-highest position in the labor movement — a position she holds at 49 years old.
“I grew up in a union household in Oregon and went to work as a union representative at Local 125,” Shuler recalled. “In electric utility you wear a lot of different hats. I always had a thirst for learning combined with a can-do attitude while getting her chops at the local level.”
Five years later she was matching wits against energy giant Enron, the so-called “smartest people in the room.”
“Enron came in and took a wild west approach to the electrical world,” Shuler said. “They wanted to take cheap hydroelectric power from the Pacific Northwest and sell it to California and make a bundle of money. We built coalitions and we beat down the beast with people power.”
When the scandal-ridden corporate giant went bankrupt in late 2001, her father Lance, a longtime power lineman working at a subsidiary of Enron, found himself caught in the fallout.
“Enron eventually collapsed and my dad lost his pension,” Shuler said. “I still get emotional about that.”
Shuler’s union work was noticed by IBEW in 1993, when the powers that be sent her to California to fight against Proposition 226, the so-called “Paycheck Protection” that threatened the lifeblood of union political fundraising.
Shuler’s next stop was Washington, D.C., where she lobbied Congress on issues including energy and electricity, telecommunications, health care, transportation, apprenticeship and training, pension reform and unemployment, in addition to developing political education programs and mobilizing local unions throughout the country to get out and vote.
“What I did was bring my voice to the halls of Congress trying to balance the scales of power against the rise of the corporations,” Shuler said. “So I left Oregon and before you know it 20 years has gone by.”
Throughout her career, Shuler has seen the corporations gain power and labor give ground. Last year, only 10.5 percent of American workers were union members.
“We would say labor law is broken. Nowadays it takes real heroes to organize in these conditions where so many jobs have been shifted overseas and regulatory structures are under assault,” Shuler said. “Meanwhile, the cost of health care makes it hard for unions to grow.”
The theme of the 2019 NYC Labor Day Parade is “Building Worker Power Together,” and Shuler has been working on that in her leadership position at the AFL-CIO.
“We have to make labor more modern and relevant to working people,” Shuler said. “Women and people of color will be the majority of the country. There are already 6.5 million women in the labor movement.”
She also launched the AFL-CIO’s Next Up Young Workers Initiative to open up leadership opportunities and create space for youth activism. Today’s young workers are part of the largest generation to enter the workforce since the baby boomers and the most technology savvy generation in American history.
“They’re being crushed by student debt and they are stuck in the gig economy working three low-paying jobs with so few jobs having benefits,” Shuler said. “We are engaging and mobilizing a network of young people across the country and they are organizing for new union members. We need to connect the dots and prioritize emerging areas of the economy.”
One industry in particular is drawing Shuler’s scrutiny.
“The video game industry is now three times the size of Hollywood. It’s huge and once you have your eyes on it you start to understand just how big it is,” Shuler said. “They’re making money hand over fist but it’s a modern day sweat shop with workers doing 16 hour shifts in the dark with no breaks with no overtime with unfair and unhealthy working conditions. The type of thing that started the labor movement in this country.”
Shuler might succeed AFL-CIO president Richard Trumpka who, at age 69, is said to be planning an exit strategy towards retirement.
“Well, we do have our next national convention in 2021 and I would certainly want to be in the conversation,” Shuler said.
For now, she is thrilled and excited to be leading the parade up Fifth Avenue.