AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Shuler on UAW strike: ‘We’re ready to fight’

By: - September 23, 2019 12:01 pm

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler with UAW strikers | AFL-CIO photo

A couple hours after presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) greeted United Auto Workers (UAW) members outside General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant on Sunday, workers got a visit from the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

“I told them, ‘I’m the other Liz,’” Liz Shuler told the Advance with a laugh during a phone interview Sunday evening, adding that Warren “made it clear that it was about the workers, not her.”

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Several Democratic presidential contenders have expressed support for the strike, with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (R-Ohio) also stopping by picket lines. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is slated to visit Wednesday.

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is the umbrella group for 55 unions, including the UAW, for a total of 12.5 million members. 

On Sept. 15, more than 45,000 GM auto workers went on strike. After giving up concessions during the company’s bankruptcy last decade, they’re asking for long-term temporary workers to be made permanent employees, more jobs coming back from overseas and benefits to be maintained.

Shuler, who also visited the Romulus plant on Sunday, noted other recent labor strikes for teachers and hotel workers across the nation.

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“We’re ready to fight. This is a time of absolute militancy and the labor movement,” Shuler said. “We’re seeing workers rising up all across the country … the teachers from West Virginia to [Los Angeles] and Marriott workers and grocery workers and nurses. 

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler at the GM Romulus plant| AFL-CIO photo

“So this is the time. We know that coming together collectively and in your union is really the only way to balance the scales in this economy. We don’t have to sit back and take it, right? That working people deserve to be treated fairly and with respect, and that’s why we’re here.”

Shuler also talked with the Advance about how long the strike might last and President Donald Trump’s role, as well as the impacts of the UAW corruption scandal and GM ending health care for workers, with the UAW picking up the cost.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: What do you feel is the most important thing for people to know about what the workers are fighting for right now?

Shuler: All eyes in the country actually are on the UAW heroes who are walking the line right now, because this is a classic example of corporate greed run amuck. And the fact that working people are getting the short end of the stick, even though they made sacrifices to help this company get back to profitability and they are not asking for the world. 

They are asking for fair treatment, decent wages, affordable health care and security. We don’t think that’s a lot to ask. So I think they’re taking a stand for working people all across the country right now. So we’re all here to support them and send our solidarity, and that’s why I’m here.

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Michigan Advance: How surprised were workers when General Motors ended up cutting off their health care? Is that an issue that some of the picketers brought up with you?

Shuler: Yeah, I cannot underscore how serious an effect that has. You’ve probably seen the pictures and read the postings and tweets all over social media of people who couldn’t go to treatments or couldn’t go to therapy as a cancer survivor. They are worried about how they’re going to manage this and health care is the most important issue to working people today. 

The folks on this line, yes, were shocked. And I think the company made a big mistake in cutting off health care as quickly as it did because all it does is energize and embolden our members. Because it’s exactly what they’re fighting against — the profits that are driving this kind of decision-making.

Workers participate in
“Solidarity Sunday” at the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, Sept. 22, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Michigan Advance: How much of a concern is the current investigation into some members of UAW leadership on possible corruption charges?

Shuler: I think that people want to distract from the issues at hand, which is the labor movements been under attack since its inception and that we’re fighting a lot of deep-pocketed interests and big corporations who want to see the labor movement decline and write our obituary. So we’re going to continue to stand together and stand strong and win this strike, because working people are relying on the UAW. What happens here will happen to working people writ large across the economy.

Michigan Advance: How much longer do you expect the strike to go on for?

Shuler: We’re ready to keep going as long as it takes. I think the mood and the spirit and the energy levels are extremely high and people realize that it could be short in duration or it could be long, and they’re ready to go the distance. We say in the labor movement, ‘One day longer; one day stronger.’ And that is exactly what is on folks’ mind.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler with UAW strikers | AFL-CIO photo

Michigan Advance: How much concern is there about a prolonged strike having a negative economic impact or even putting states like Michigan and Ohio into recession?

Shuler: Well, it is clearly up to the company to come back with some real proposals and get back to negotiating and it’s in their power to end this strike as soon as possible. So I think if people are worried about the impact it’s going to have on the company and the economy, they [GM] should come back to the table with some fair proposals. 

Like I said, the workers aren’t asking for the moon here. They’re asking for some security, decent health care, making sure that if you work for the company that you’re making a decent wage and sharing in the wealth that they’re helping create.

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Michigan Advance: There have been some news reports about President Trump possibly intervening in the strike. Can you talk at all about that?

Shuler: I think the UAW is better equipped to talk about that. I think my role here is just to bring the voice of working people writ large, since we have 12.5 million members all across every sector of the economy. We think that supporting this strike is absolutely essential to the health and vitality of working people’s ability to leverage their voice in this economy and it has a ripple effect across every company. Because I think companies across the country are watching this, too. So we want to make sure that the UAW workers are treated fairly and are successful in this strike.

MEA President Paula Herbart at “Solidarity Sunday” at the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, Sept. 22, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Michigan Advance: How much of an impact does it make to have other unions there in solidarity, whether it’s the AFL-CIO or Detroit Federation of Teachers or the Teamsters?

Shuler: Well, we have power and strength in numbers and that’s where the term solidarity comes from, is deliberate movements, breadth and depth, all coming together to fight each other’s fights. I was just walking the line with a teacher. We had folks from all across the city and different parts of the state joining together and you better bet that that is a shot in the arm for the workers at these plants. Because when they see that we have their back, that we’re going to support them in any way, shape and form we can so that they win this strike. That is what the labor movement is all about.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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