Top Labor Group Gifts Biden With Friendly Union Boss

U.S. president Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh clap for AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler / Getty Images
June 16, 2022

The new heir to the late Richard Trumka at the AFL-CIO hailed President Joe Biden on Tuesday as "the most pro-union president in history," indicating in her first days as its elected president that her election will not interrupt the decades-long alliance between the nation's largest union federation and the Democratic Party.

Liz Shuler was elected to a four-year term Sunday and spoke of the need to modernize union organizing, declaring "this is not your granddaddy's labor movement." But critics of the group's leadership note Shuler served as Trumka's number two since 2009 as secretary-treasurer and was his handpicked successor. Grassroots labor organizers teased a potential challenge to the group's establishment over concerns it prioritizes Democrats in Washington, D.C., over local organizers, but were unable to propel a candidate that could compete with leadership's choice. 

The AFL-CIO and its affiliated PAC have since 1995 spent roughly $25 million to elect Democrats and $5 million annually on lobbying. Shuler's ascent comes as the AFL-CIO pushes the Senate to pass the PRO Act, which was renamed after Trumka and is touted by Biden as the most pro-union legislation since the New Deal. If passed, the legislation will overturn right-to-work laws in 27 states. Biden, in a speech at the group's convention Tuesday, pushed Congress to pass the legislation and spoke of his close relationship with Trumka in past decades.

"I promise you, I am gonna keep fighting for you, are you prepared to fight with me?" Biden asked the delegates.

Shuler pushed to keep her members unified amid speculation over potential challengers. Left-wing leaders, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), and their media allies propped up Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, as a challenger to the Trumka establishment who could build a "militant" and "progressive" labor movement. Nelson has pushed unions to limit their political activity in the nation's capital and shift resources toward more radical left-wing organizing at the local level. It is unclear why Nelson declined to run for AFL-CIO president.

Shuler told Axios in a story published ahead of her Sunday election that the union can engage in both national politics while also supporting grassroots movements. She presented herself as a progressive leader for a new generation of labor.

"The emerging workforce is people of color, is young people, is women, particularly women of color," Shuler said. "This is not your granddaddy's labor movement."

Patrick Semmens, vice president for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said the narrative that Shuler will be a fresh voice for the federation is nonsense. The focus, he said, will remain to bankroll political allies so they push pro-labor legislation to counter declining union membership nationwide.

"Coronation is more apt than election given there hasn't been a contested election for the head of the AFL-CIO in decades," Semmens told the Washington Free Beacon. "Shuler swept into power unopposed using the same machine that backed Trumka, so the idea that this is any new direction for big labor doesn't really seem plausible."

Shuler has not been without controversy as president. She refused to release information about an investigation into AFL-CIO Pennsylvania president-elect Frank Snyder after he faced a dozen accusations of workplace harassment, largely toward women. To release this information, she said, would be a political risk in a purple state.

"The report was never written," Shuler told Axios. "We decided to take action prior to official findings because I knew it would divide the labor movement, and we are going into an important election year. Pennsylvania is a critical state."

Snyder retired days before he was set to take the lead of the Pennsylvania chapter.

Frank Ricci, a fellow at the Yankee Institute, said Shuler's decision to keep the matter internal shows that the AFL-CIO "puts politics above the very workers it's supposed to fight for."

The AFL-CIO represents more than 12 million active and retired workers from 56 national and international unions. The last contested election for president was in 1995, which marked the start of Trumka's run as secretary-treasurer.

The AFL-CIO declined to comment.