Posted March 12, 2015
Celebrating Women On and Off the Stage
COMING TO THE TABLE
AFL-CIO Secretary/ Treasurer Elizabeth Shuler isn’t just the first woman to take on the job, she’s also the youngest person to join the Federation’s executive council.
Elizabeth Shuler has learned that when it comes to having and maintaining a career in a union, you can’t let gender, race or age be the first set of lenses through which one looks.
When Shuler became the executive assistant to the president (similar to a chief of staff) at age 34 for the IBEW International, she knew what she had to do in order to succeed within her career.
“It wasn’t about me being the first woman in the position,” she said. “I put my head down and worked really hard — and tried to just let the work speak for itself.”
Taking on the executive assistant job wasn’t the only first “first” for Shuler. Her current role as the secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO also marks the first time a woman has been elected to the position. Additionally, she holds the title of youngest person to date to join the executive council, which was when she was 39 years old (current AFL-CIO President, Richard Trumka, held the record at 40).
Still, with records broken and titles earned, the Portland, Oregon, native never expected to see herself in her current career, let alone position. Graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism, Shuler’s professional journey with unions continually catches her by surprise.
Though her father worked what she called a “good union job” as a power lineman, Shuler hoped to come out of school and find a reporting job, and aspired to be like NPR’s award-winning legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg.
Instead, the college graduate found herself in an employment-barren market, piecing together a few part-time gigs to make full-time work.
One of her jobs was at the local utility company in Portland, Oregon, alongside her parents. Shuler worked as a clerical worker during a time when the women were trying to organize into a union. She was hired by the IBEW local to help with house calls, and, though the campaign to organize failed, Shuler found herself a new, full-time position in the union.
“I think that they were clear in that if they were going to organize clerical workers — because they already represented the linemen — they needed to have some women, they needed to have some younger people,” Shuler said.
“As the president’s executive assistant, the nomenclature makes it sound like you’re a secretary, but it’s the opposite,” she said, “which often became confusing for people, with me as a woman and at a young age. Most people thought I was in a clerical role as an administrative assistant, which often added an additional challenge in doing my job.”
Shuler was assigned to work closely with the AFL-CIO on numerous initiatives and got to know then Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka.
As Trumka was assembling his ticket for president of the AFL-CIO, he approached Shuler, and in her mind, very unexpectedly, asking her if she would consider running for Secretary-Treasurer.
“It seemed like every five years I was kind of thrust through an unexpected door that opened,” she said. “And so, at 39, I was elected secretary-treasurer in Pittsburgh at the convention.”
Part of Shuler’s mission since joining the executive council in 2009 has been to increase the presence and importance of women, people of color and youth in the labor movement.
“I think that women bring a different set of lenses to the table,” Shuler said. “The more women we have around that table, I think the richer the dialogue, the richer the problem solving, the richer the set of solutions will be that we can craft to address challenges.”
In addition to focusing on women’s issues and participating in many women’s causes, Shuler’s outreach to youth has included the AFL-CIO’s NextUp young worker initiative, which strives to educate, empower and mobilize youth both inside and outside the labor movement.
“I think there are more opportunities for this generation than what previous generations had in terms of opportunities for young people and women in our movement. But I would say we still have a lot of work to do to open up the possibilities, and it’s an exciting part of my job to be able to help make that happen.”