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You’ve probably been hearing about the many places where American workers are trying to unionize. 

STRIKERS: What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!

It’s been happening at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama; at Starbucks stores across the country. 

STRIKERS: Workers of the world, unite! One struggle, one fight!

It’s been happening among ride-share drivers; among graduate students in the Ivy League and the University of California system; it’s been happening at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan; and at the New York Times, where most of the journalists were already in a labor union, but the tech workers weren’t. And you might remember what happened in October. 

NEWS: Thousands of American workers are on strike, and thousands more are preparing to walk out, in what some have dubbed Striketober. 

NEWS: Hollywood, John Deere, Kellogg’s, even nurses are among the thousands on strike.

According to a “strike-tracker” developed by researchers at Cornell, last year was unusually busy, with 370 strikes and nearly 700 labor protests. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. For all the recent talk of labor about shortages and desperate firms offering employee bonuses, the bigger trend for the past few decades has been wage stagnation. When you account for inflation, even before the recent spike, the purchasing power of an average wage is lower now than it was in the 1970’s. So, yeah: given these circumstances — and all the news about unionizing at Starbucks and Amazon and the New York Times — you might think we’re living in a new golden age of organized labor. But you’d be wrong.

Last year, just over 10 percent of the U.S. workforce belonged to a union. That’s nearly as low as it’s ever been in modern history. If you go back to the early 1980s, union membership was around 20 percent. The peak was 1954, at 35 percent. So why does it seem as if everyone is unionizing these days? I’ll propose two answers. The first one is cynical: some of the unionizing employees work in journalism, and we journalists like nothing more than covering ourselves. Also, companies like Amazon and Starbucks and the ride-share companies — they provide goods and services that journalists actively use and care about. Here’s the less-cynical answer for all this news coverage: it turns out that the American public is extremely pro-union. A recent Gallup survey found that nearly 70 percent of Americans approve of labor unions; that’s the highest number since 1965. For people younger than 35, the approval rating is 77 percent.

These numbers raise a few questions: Why is union support so high and participation so low? Does this mean that millions of non-union workers want to be in a union — or is this just one of those free “sympathy” votes that a public-opinion survey allows you to cast? And if millions of workers do want to unionize: what, exactly, is stopping them? Are firms like Amazon as punitive and anti-union as their critics say? And here’s maybe the most important question: given that the U.S. economy is plainly not working for many people, is the old-fashioned labor union the right tool to fix it? The American labor movement likes to say they are the folks that gave us the weekend. 

Liz SHULER: And now we’re saying in the labor movement, okay, what is the next weekend? What is the next innovation that the labor movement can help workers achieve? 

That’s Liz Shuler

SHULER: I’m the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. 

DUBNER: A.F.L.-C.I.O. stands for what and is what? 

SHULER: American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. It’s an umbrella organization of 57 unions, 12.5 million working people. 

DUBNER: So you’re not a union, per se. 

SHULER: No, we are not a union. We are the umbrella organization of unions that are representing workers all across the economy. 

Given this strange moment in U.S. labor history, we thought it might be worthwhile to sit down with Liz Shuler and ask some questions. And so, today on Freakonomics Radio: is union momentum really on the rise, or are we seeing the last gasp of an antiquated machine? How do you form a coherent political strategy for a federation that includes Berkeley graduates students and police unions — especially when Shuler herself has said that policing is “broken”? Also, what is the next weekend?

SHULER: We’re seeing a lot of employers who want to abscond responsibility and not be quote, “employers,” so they don’t have to provide things like benefits and workers’ compensation. 

DUBNER: Would you like to name a couple names? Do they rhyme with Shmuber and Shmyft, perhaps? 

SHULER: Exactly. 

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Liz Shuler was elected president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in August 2021, after the sudden death of longtime president Richard Trumka, who was a mentor of hers. Shuler grew up in Portland, Oregon. Her father was a power lineman for Portland General Electric, and he was a member of Local 125 of the I.B.E.W. — the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Liz Shuler studied journalism in college, then she took an organizing job at Local 125. She wound up working on a campaign to unionize the clerical workers there. She has been a union advocate ever since — and she is now the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s first female president. Her federation covers roughly three-quarters of all U.S. union workers — although some of the biggest unions don’t belong: like S.E.I.U., or the Service Employees International Union, and the Teamsters. They are best-known for their truck drivers and warehouse workers, but the Teamsters, like a lot of big unions these days, have diversified. Their union now includes newspaper employees, vegetable pickers, and zookeepers.

The unions who do belong to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. include the United Mine Workers of America, the International Union of Police Associations, and the United Auto Workers, or U.A.W. — as well as the National Football League Players Association and SAG-AFTRA, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. As you can tell from just that short list, Liz Shuler’s membership is economically and politically diverse. In 2016, a reported 32 percent of U.A.W. workers voted for Donald Trump, which might be lower than you’d think for autoworkers — until you consider that 1 in 5 U.A.W. members today are in higher education. How did these strange bedfellows come together? For one thing: it’s easier to join an existing union, with bargaining leverage, than it is to start a new one. Still, this creates the potential for a fractured membership in what many people see as an economy that’s also fractured. Among the people who see it that way: Liz Shuler. 

SHULER: We’ve seen through this pandemic how the economy has not been working for working people. The economy is out of whack. It’s broken. Those Oreos that got everybody through the pandemic while they’re watching their movies on their couch? Working people actually worked overtime to make those Oreos, and they kept that company afloat — actually creating record profits.

DUBNER: And then how were those workers rewarded? 

SHULER: Exactly! Well, that’s why they went on strike. Strikes are an indicator that the economy is not working for working people. That companies are not valuing and appreciating their labor, and that enough is enough. Workers are fed up. 

DUBNER: It’s such an interesting setup, because the unions that your group represents, they each have their own constituencies and their own dynamics, but then also their own policies in the way that they want to make change. In the past, I know that an A.F.L.-C.I.O. president like John Sweeney, who was two presidents ago, he tried to require individual unions spend quite a bit of their budget, 20 or 25 percent of their budget, on organizing. And those unions said, “That’s way too much money for us to kick up to you,” and they basically told him to get lost. So do you have more leverage now than Sweeney did? 

SHULER: Well, we are in a moment. Everyone keeps talking about that the Gallup poll recently had 68 percent of the public approving of unions. We have this pro-union administration in office. And we have workers out there rising up and taking risks and pushing the labor movement to act more boldly than ever before. And we want working people in industries that have never heard of a union to see us as a path forward. For example, the Google walkout. A Google software engineer probably never really had heard of a union or had an old, outdated view of what a union was. And, in fact, there are new efforts to organize in tech because there are a lot of young people who see the value of coming together collectively. 

DUBNER: Google’s parent company is called Alphabet — and some of those employees did form what’s called now the Alphabet Workers Union. How meaningful is that? I gather from the outside that it’s a little bit of flag-waving and hand-waving. Is it anything more than that? 

SHULER: Well, it’s a different model because right now the labor laws in this country are so broken that it takes an act of absolute heroism and courage to form a union because you will get fired, most likely.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, an employee cannot be fired for trying to unionize. But one analysis of sanctioned union votes, done by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, found that more than 40 percent of employers were charged with violating at least one federal labor law.

SHULER: Under the law, it takes a long time for you to work it through the National Labor Relations Board and get your job back. And by that time, the employer has successfully created a chilling effect for other workers who are looking to organize a union. And what they’re doing at Google is leveraging their strength in a collective way short of being a formal union under the National Labor Relations Act. So they’re acting like a union.

DUBNER: No offense to them — that sounds kind of like, “We’re going to form a book club and talk about it.” They have no leverage, right? 

SHULER: That’s the beginning, though. You start acting like a union. You build the support and people see the power of it. 

DUBNER: It just seems like a hard problem to solve because when you look at the areas of the country that have a high concentration of union workers, those tend to be places that are expensive to live and have high taxes, and they’ve been losing population to areas that have fewer union workers. So if I am a state or even a local politician, I might look at that data and say, “No, I don’t think that unions are the way to create better-paying jobs and affordable housing and all the other things we all want for a more balanced economy.” I might think, “There’s got to be a better way. Unions are the 20th-century solution, but it just won’t work in the 21st.” How do you respond to that? 

SHULER: I think it’s an outdated way of looking at the construct. People have been trying to close the inequality gap for a long time now and no one has come up with a silver bullet. And we would say that it’s because workers don’t have enough power. And just now are we starting to see workers flexing their muscle with this “Great Resignation” or the “Big Quit” or whatever you want to call it. And you remember back before, when unions first started, there used to be a lot of wildcat strikes. There used to be a lot of unpredictability, a lot of instability. Unions were the solution then, and I think they can be again.

DUBNER: Although when you look back at that old history, it was bloody and it was brutal and it lasted a long time. I’m not saying it will be as bloody this time, but do you expect the firms to fight any less hard to protect their interests? 

SHULER: The firm will always fight hard when it comes to chipping away at their profits or their bottom line. Unions’ advocacy, actually, is what pushes the rest of the economy to behave, to get in line. It doesn’t happen out of the goodness of an employer’s heart. It usually happens when workers come together and demand it. 

DUBNER: So you have called Amazon the poster child for the modern firm that’s anti-union, essentially. Now, Amazon employs almost a million Americans. That’s one of every 170 or so U.S. workers. Walmart, even bigger, employs about 1.6 million people. Zero of those workers from Amazon or Walmart, as far as I know, are unionized. So let’s talk about that, maybe through the story of what happened recently in Bessemer, Alabama, where Amazon warehouse workers tried to unionize, but the vote failed.

SHULER: A lot of people see it as a failure. I see it as the first step in what is normally a very long process, because Amazon came at those workers with everything it had to discourage unionization. In fact, the National Labor Relations Board found them in violation of the law, and that election will be rerun. So if you think back, you had working people in a warehouse with unrelenting demands where they’re governed by an app. You really couldn’t even take a bathroom break because you had quotas, and you didn’t have anyone to talk to. So that was really the impetus for workers coming together. Because they’re paying $15 an hour in Bessemer, Alabama, it wasn’t as much about the wages as it was about the working conditions.

And the workers came together and said, “You know what? Forming a union is what we need. It’s what we want.” Once Amazon got ahold of it, though, they hired three anti-union consultants, which — you know, that’s a pretty hefty cost for the employer to be paying to union-bust. And they changed the timing of the stop light outside of the warehouse so that workers wouldn’t stop and talk to union organizers. They put a mailbox on company property with a surveillance camera installed over it. It made workers feel intimidated that once they submitted their union ballot, that they were being monitored or that the company could see how they voted. They followed workers around to the bathroom. It’s not a surprise at all that the vote failed, because people were afraid. They were fearing that they might lose their jobs. 

DUBNER: It’s interesting you say that the Amazon organization in Bessemer, Alabama wasn’t about wages, because when you look at the data and the wages that firms like Amazon and now Walmart are paying, they tend to be quite high, certainly above minimum wage, often higher than many other businesses in their geographical area. A group of researchers from Berkeley and Brandeis found that a 10 percent increase in Amazon’s advertised hourly wages led to an average increase of about 2.5 percent among other employers in labor markets where Amazon is located. 

SHULER: Well, the reason why a lot of firms like Amazon are paying $15 an hour is because the union has lifted the scale. It’s the rising tide that lifts all boats. The “Fight for 15” campaign, you may recall, many years ago, when they started with fast food and said, “Everyone should have $15 an hour” — because it was, at the time, what a living wage would look like — everyone thought they were nuts. It was, “Oh my gosh, $15 an hour? You’re crazy.” And now it’s become accepted because over time, workers have been fighting and demanding. And I’ll give a lot of credit to S.E.I.U. for that campaign because now it’s sort of in the ether. 

We asked Amazon to comment on the anti-unionizing tactics alleged by Liz Shuler. They replied: “Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. … Our employees had a chance to be heard and at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a direct connection with their managers and the company.” The first Bessemer vote was a blowout: for every vote in favor of unionization, there were 2.4 votes against it. The revote is now underway, with a final tally expected soon. As Liz Shuler tells it, huge companies like Amazon have a lot of options — and resources — to tamp down a unionizing effort. But it may be a different story at companies like Uber and Lyft. These ride-share companies have more than a million people driving for them in the U.S., but those are freelance gig workers, not employees, like the Amazon workers are.

SHULER: Oddly, the labor movement, in our beginnings, we worked in gig arrangements. And so I like to think of us as the original gig workforce. We came together and said, “You know what? If you work in construction, and you work for different types of employers, you still should be able to have a fund that you pay into for training, to make sure the profession has longevity and people don’t get hurt. You should have a baseline of healthcare and some retirement so that you can retire with dignity.” And so the union became the vehicle for employers to have a workforce that was very nimble, responsive, portable. And so we think that that can be done again. 

Can it be done again? If so, Uber and Lyft drivers may be a perfect test case.

SHULER: Ride-share drivers, they’re taking on tremendous responsibility. They have to maintain their vehicle. They have to ensure that it’s safe. All the risk is being carried by the worker and not the employer. And I think that’s what the employer loves about this model, right? 

DUBNER: I guess I think about it as a coupling and an uncoupling of worker protections from the job, per se. And the idea that your union confederation would like to see those protections afforded to employees who are not necessarily full-time connected with an employer. But there’s really no mechanism for that to happen right now, is there? 

SHULER: Well, right now all the trappings of employment, I guess you might say, are attached to your employer relationship. 

DUBNER: Including your health insurance.

SHULER: That’s right.

DUBNER: One thing that economists don’t like about that is that it limits job mobility, which is what you want in an economy. You want people to move to the next exciting thing, even if it’s not a full-time job. But if your health insurance is tied to that — and these days, increasingly, your other benefits — that really limits how dynamic an economy can be, yes? 

SHULER: Right now, the gig workforce is a very small percentage of the overall workforce, and so we don’t want to disrupt the entire employment model to chase after what some would say is “flexibility.” Because really, we’re talking about precarity. And most working people still work for an employer and have the baseline of that security and that stability and predictability, and we think that’s a pretty good system. We don’t want to upend that to accommodate a business model. So we in the labor movement and the union movement would argue that it’s really the responsibility of our country to say, “Is there a baseline that we all agree that working people deserve?” 

DUBNER: Let me ask about the auto industry. Historically, workers there did well and had a lot of clout, but over time, they were increasingly asked to make concessions. I guess this goes back at least to when Japanese automakers started making serious inroads here. Can you just tell me one story or give an example of a really successful compromise between the firm and the unions? 

SHULER: The auto industry most people remember from the auto crisis during the Obama administration, and the rescue plan — and the union was a partner in helping the company come out of nearly bankruptcy. To build back into a profitable enterprise, the union worked side by side with management to make that happen. And we’ve seen that time and time again, where the union makes sacrifices. We have one right now with a coal company in Alabama. Warrior Met filed for bankruptcy many years ago. And the workers basically took wage cuts, healthcare cuts, and pension cuts to get the company out from under bankruptcy. And now the company is at record profits and the workers are on strike because the company has not come back to the table to restore what was lost. 

We reached out to Warrior Met for comment, but didn’t hear back. One thing to note, however: it wasn’t Warrior Met who filed for bankruptcy; it was Walter Energy, the previous owner of the coal company. In any case, it’s interesting. I asked Shuler for a success story — where union employees and a firm came together to compromise successfully — and the story she gets to is the opposite, where the union made sacrifices but the company didn’t reciprocate. If you wanted to be callous, you might ask, “Why would they?” This, after all, is how free-market capitalism works: firms pay what the market will bear. If labor — even organized labor — doesn’t have the leverage to produce higher wages and bigger benefits, the firms typically won’t do it on their own. So what Shuler needs is more leverage. But no one’s just handing out leverage these days. And it’s easy to get the sense that the modern labor movement simply doesn’t have the tools or the reputation to do much about it.

Shuler would of course dispute this — and she would point to at least some small victories. Like what happened in Los Angeles recently, during Super Bowl week. Shuler joined a picket line with some union workers at a bakery owned by the gigantic Rich Products Corporation, a rather convenient name in this scenario. The factory in question made products like the ice-cream cakes that are sold by Baskin-Robbins and Coldstone Creamery. The workers had been out on strike for a few months; they wanted better pay and healthcare coverage and safer work conditions. They didn’t seem to be making much progress until Liz Shuler showed up to picket, along with members of the N.F.L. Players Association, as well as unionized firefighters and nurses. Less than two weeks later, the Rich Corporation reportedly met most of the strikers’ demands. So, yes, you could look at this as a union victory. But you could also look at it as a drop in the bucket — and a result made possible only by the scrutiny that comes from a high-profile picket one day before the Super Bowl in the Super Bowl’s host city. Coming up: how much is the modern labor movement held back by its reputation for corruption, embezzlement, and racketeering? 

SHULER: Don’t mistake my diplomacy for covering up my outrage.

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I’m Stephen Dubner; this is Freakonomics Radio. By the way, we’ll soon be publishing our 500th episode of Freakonomics Radio; you can hear all of them, for free, on any podcast app. If this show is a positive part of your life, please leave a rating on your podcast app and, even better, spread the word to friends and family. 

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“A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” That was one of the major goals of the A.F.L., the American Federation of Labor, which was founded in the 1880s with Samuel Gompers as its first president. Gompers, the father of 12 children, was a longtime member of the Cigar Makers’ International Union in New York City. He came to be regarded as a giant of organized labor, a pro-strike activist who fought for the eight-hour workday at a time when many workers routinely put in 10 or 12 hours, even more. The A.F.L. focused on skilled workers, including carpenters, granite cutters, glass workers — and, yes, cigar makers. The C.I.O., meanwhile, or Congress of Industrial Organizations, was a separate operation, including more of what economists to this day call “unskilled” or “low-skilled” workers — a more derogatory phrase than perhaps intended, or at least necessary. These included many of the mechanized factory jobs coming on line in the early 20th century. For a time, the A.F.L. and C.I.O. were rivals, but they merged in 1955 to fight legislation like the 1947 Taft–Hartley Act, which made it harder for labor to strike and which allowed states to pass “right-to-work” laws. These laws allow non-union employees to work in a unionized workplace without having to pay union dues. As you can imagine, all this began to chip away at union leverage. So where does this leave the institution of organized labor today?

Yes, it’s credited with having accomplished some major victories: the eight-hour-workday and, as noted earlier, the weekend. Also: workers’ compensation and legislation like the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which was passed in 1970. But a lot of labor’s greatest hits are oldies, and union participation today is near an all-time low as a share of American workers, just over 10 percent. It is a completely different story in many European economies. Iceland has the highest union membership — more than 90 percent of the workforce. Sweden has 66 percent; Belgium: 54 percent; Italy: 34 percent; Ireland and the U.K.: around 25 percent. Great Britain is also where the labor union, or trade union, primarily got its start — in response to workplace abuses during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. But why is union participation still so much higher in Europe than in the U.S.? Some historians argue that in Europe, the state was generally quite powerful by the time capitalists and corporations took hold; in the U.S., it was the other way around, with strong-willed capitalists rising to prominence before the central government had much power. Whatever the case: labor unions in Europe today often have a different relationship with firms or industries than American unions do. Here’s what we learned a few years ago in an episode called “What Are the Secrets of the German Economy — and Should We Steal Them?” Here are, respectively, the economists Uwe Reinhardt and Jens Suedekum.

Uwe REINHARDT: In Germany, the unions have representatives on the board of the company. Siemens or Mercedes probably have two or three union bosses sitting on the board.

Jens SUEDEKUM: The unions, the employer association for each industry, sit together. They bargain a wage and that wage is basically applied everywhere in the country in that industry.

Liz Shuler, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. president, is a fan of the German setup.

SHULER: Any time we can be more like Germany in terms of labor relations, I’m in favor of it. And as we’re talking about the future of work, I do believe that that is the model we should be looking at for the United States.

Shuler also wants the U.S. government to be more aggressive in supporting workers — again, a common feature of European economies. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. is fully behind Build Back Better, the Biden administration’s plan to fund union-friendly positions like childcare, paid family leave, and health care expansion. But at this moment, that plan is essentially dead, lacking support from Republicans and a few Democratic swing voters. We should say: union support generally is much higher among Democratic voters than Republican voters: 90 percent of Democrats say they support unions while only 47 percent of Republicans do. Liz Shuler has backed calls to get rid of the 60-vote Senate filibuster to try to pass union-friendly legislation without Republican support.

SHULER: Ideally, we would like to see a safety net and a bigger share of responsibility held by the government, as we’ve seen in other developed nations. We should be able to figure this out in the richest country in the world. And it’s a matter of prioritization. It’s a matter of will, political will and commitment. But we also have a free market, right? We also have a model in the United States that we know is the best in the world, and to keep us competitive, businesses need to take on more responsibility. The pendulum has swung way too far in terms of the corporate largesse, right? It’s 299 to 1 — C.E.O. pay to the average worker. That is completely out of whack. I don’t think anyone thinks that that’s fair.

DUBNER: A lot of prominent Democrats, including President Biden, are devoutly pro-union. There’s Labor Secretary Marty Walsh at the moment, there’s Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That’s just a handful. So we typically think of the Democratic Party as closely aligned to unionization generally. How closely do your organization’s priorities align with the Democratic Party? Because you also represent a lot of law-enforcement unions, which typically tend to not be so Democratic.

SHULER: We go strictly based on issues and how elected officials respond to the needs of working people. So whether that’s a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, a Green Party, we don’t care. We just look at how you stand on a particular issue. If you stand with working people, we’ll support you. So it just so happens that Democrats tend to vote more in sync with working people’s issues.

DUBNER: If I have $100 to spend at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., wouldn’t I want to spend a significant chunk of that on trying to bring the Republicans on board because presumably half of all workers are Republicans and they’re getting the short end of the stick as well.

SHULER: Oh, absolutely. And you’re right; about 30 percent of our membership is aligned with the Republican Party. No matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican, we should be focused on creating good, sustainable jobs for every person in this country who’s working.

DUBNER: In addition to saying that labor laws in this country are broken, you’ve said that policing as a profession is broken. Now, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. represents police unions, yes?

SHULER: Correct. We actually have 13 unions who have law enforcement.

DUBNER: So how do you square that circle? You are representing individuals and departments that are providing a service that you, the head of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., says needs fixing. What are those conversations like?

SHULER: After George Floyd’s murder, we knew we had a responsibility as workers in law enforcement to come to the table with some solutions. The system is broken because we have literally 18,000 different police jurisdictions in this country, and they all have a patchwork quilt of approaches. And the one thing that we believe is constant is the ability for working people to have the training, the high-quality and high-caliber approach to their work. And if there are union members or police officers that aren’t approaching their work in that way, who aren’t standing up for the values that we hold dear, then we need to be holding our members accountable. So we engaged in a process and put out a blueprint for reform from a labor perspective. And that includes an accountability mechanism that we call ULEADS. Everyone likes a good acronym in law enforcement, of course. It’s Union Law Enforcement Accountability and Duty Standards. It’s this notion that if you see a fellow law-enforcement person on a scene that is not acting according to our values, that you are holding that person accountable and breaking down that blue wall of silence. Because I think the inclination is to defend each other at all costs, but in reality, speaking out saves lives.

DUBNER: Your predecessor, Richard Trumka, opposed a Green New Deal, as we commonly hear it discussed. And as I understand it, you have the same position. Can you talk about that for a minute?

SHULER: It’s not really the Green New Deal as much as the clean-energy economy being a future for good-paying, sustainable jobs. It shouldn’t be a choice between the environment and good-paying jobs. I personally have been engaged in this debate for a long time, coming from the electrical workers’ union, which represents the electric utility industry. I have been out advocating that this clean-energy economy runs right through the labor movement because you’re going to need highly skilled, trained people to make sure that this clean-energy infrastructure works for our country. At the time when the Green New Deal was contemplated, it wasn’t about creating good union jobs as much as it was about finding ways to reduce carbon emissions and do it through the electricity sector. 

DUBNER: And building trades and things like that would all be affected, I assume, yes?

SHULER: Yeah, and there are so many elements to how we reduce our carbon footprint, and the emphasis has to be not just on electricity emissions. It has to be on transportation emissions. It has to be in how we manufacture. But also do it in a way that’s responsible, that helps working people make that transition, and make sure that the jobs that we’re creating that replace the jobs we’re eliminating are good union jobs.

DUBNER: So if I were a little bit of a cynic, Liz, I might think that you are speaking in a protectionist manner in that a lot of your union members represent old-guard sectors that would inevitably be hurt by these developments under the Green New Deal. Persuade me that’s not the case, that you’re not just protecting your incumbents.

SHULER: Well, we’re protecting jobs that exist and will go away. But we’re also looking to make sure the jobs that emerge are high-quality, family-sustaining. And that is not the case right now. Renewable-energy jobs are right now low-wage jobs with no benefits. So if you’re eliminating a job for a power-plant operator who’s making $40 an hour and has good healthcare benefits and a retirement, if that job’s going away and you’re displacing that person, then we need to make sure we have a pathway to a good, sustainable job in a new opportunity that isn’t going to be installing solar panels, because they’re working out of the back of a pickup truck and have no wage security.

DUBNER: So let me ask you, Liz, about the reputation of unions. Going back in history — and I think that history informs the way a lot of people think about unions today — one smear on union reputation is corruption. So this past November, The Detroit News reported that federal prosecutors are charging a local United Auto Workers, U.A.W., official with stealing a couple million dollars in union money, assorted other wrongdoing. The newspaper noted this was the 16th person charged in a long investigation of corruption within the United Auto Workers union. So, look, you’re not that union. I recognize that. But what do you say to someone who reads that headline and says, “Unions? I don’t think they are the solution. I agree that there’s a problem. I don’t think they’re the solution.”

SHULER: I would say that, unfortunately, we have bad actors in every industry, in every organization. But it is unacceptable, and it’s up to us as working people to hold our leaders accountable. And that’s what they’re doing at the U.A.W. The new administration has put in all kinds of new controls to restore the trust and confidence of the members, because that’s really what’s important.

DUBNER: And what do you, as the A.F.L.- C.I.O., do? Do you spank the U.A.W. in some way or is that not really your job?

SHULER: It’s not as much our job, but we stand for the values of integrity. And knowing that those dues dollars come in from working people, they’re precious, and we use those dollars wisely and in a way that’s accountable. 

DUBNER: But I guess what I’m thinking is if I were you, I would be a little bit more ticked off than you are very diplomatically sounding because one mess-up, like the U.A.W. has done over and over and over again, tars the reputation of the other unions in your federation, right?

SHULER: Absolutely.

DUBNER: So there’s the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. If I’m them, I’m ticked off at the U.A.W. The I.B.E.W. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the air traffic controllers, the National Football Players Association — these are all unions under your umbrella. So I guess that’s the problem of being a confederation that has all these constituent unions that you can’t actually control. So what do you do as the head of that umbrella organization? What can you do to try to keep your cats in a herd and not hurt the reputation of the blameless parties?

SHULER: Well, don’t mistake my diplomacy for covering up my outrage, by the way. No, I am disgusted. And, as a union member who paid my dues over time, nobody wants to see their money squandered like that or misused. And it’s absolutely unacceptable. But as the federation umbrella, you’re right, there is a lot of autonomy. Each union has a different culture, a different leader, a different type of industry. And so it’s a big, beautiful, diverse group of workers that we try to bring into one umbrella and keep aligned and moving forward on the things we care about. And unfortunately, when a scandal like that happens, it takes people’s attention away from the fact that the labor movement fights for all working people, not just our members. 

DUBNER: Did you think about kicking the U.A.W. out of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.?

SHULER: We’ve had internal discussions. At the time when it was happening, there was a debate around it, but as far as what we knew at the time and what the remedy was, and then the government stepped in, so we left it to the government to do the oversight.

DUBNER: So, Liz, I personally have a great respect for labor unions historically, because when you read history, you see how exploitive firms were in the early days of American capitalism. And many would argue they’re still extremely exploitive. But, you know, that was a long time ago. The only union job I’ve ever had — as far as I know or recall, at least — was in the Newspaper Guild when I was at The New York Times. And I’ll have to tell you, I did not like it one bit. Because as a younger employee coming in, it felt like the union’s primary goals were to overpay employees who’d been there a long time and often didn’t do a lot of work. It decreased job mobility both internally and externally. It protected employees who messed up. It made it very hard to discipline or fire them. And so, to me, just as one employee, it felt like the union promoted a sort of lowest-common-denominator strategy versus a rising-tide-lifting-all-boats strategy. So what do you say to someone who feels that way?

SHULER: Wow. Well, I’m sorry that you had that experience because the News Guild is certainly growing now. We’ve seen some new bargaining units come online with the L.A. Times and other places that have a very young and dynamic membership that is reshaping what the priorities are for their union. And one thing I would say is: without getting involved in the union, you can’t change it, right? And so there probably are some cases where you’d have leadership or membership that has been around for a while and doesn’t listen to the younger people — like we know, youth is not appreciated like it should be. But that’s up to us to change that. And so if you get involved, and you get active, and then organize your younger coworkers, you can make that change happen, right? 

DUBNER: So I guess in the end, I’m personally grateful that I disliked the setup because — I’m not saying the union is what led me to ultimately leave The New York Times, but it was certainly a factor, because I felt like I could work about three times as hard as the person sitting next to me and get half the pay. And then the future didn’t look very good. I thought, “Oh, I have to sit here for 20 years to get that pay, no matter how good I am, no matter how much I produce.” So I thought, “I’m going to go away now.” And I started writing books and making radio and podcasts. So honestly, thanks to the News Guild. 

SHULER: I don’t want your listeners to be left with this notion that the union doesn’t want productive, skillful workforces. If I draw on my own experience, which is from the electrical workers and with construction, I think it’s a great example of the fact that the employers work with the union to invest in a pipeline of talent that goes out 10, 20, 30 years because they’re looking at the trajectory of an industry, and they know they want the highest-quality, most highly skilled, trained workforce that you can find. And that’s how the company is successful, because that’s the competitive edge.

DUBNER: What was your first job — real job?

SHULER: Well, my first job was babysitting at age 11.

DUBNER: Okay. Not a union job.

SHULER: Not a union job, and terrifies me to this day to think I was caring for infants at the age of 11. But my first, like many people, was working in a restaurant. I was 16, and I learned about sexual harassment, actually. That was my first experience. 

DUBNER: Sorry to hear that.

SHULER: And working for tips, you’re subjected to a lot of bad behavior. And also, when you’re new into the workforce, you don’t think you have a voice or any power. So I learned a lot in that first job. 

DUBNER: Did you go to anyone to report or tell them how you were feeling?

SHULER: I didn’t. I was afraid. And I think as a young woman, you’re kind of insecure anyway, and you just want to fit in, and you don’t want to make waves. I think most women, frankly, when they start in the workforce, it’s a roll of the dice to hope that you get actually a good boss and can learn as you go that you do have rights and you can exercise that voice.

DUBNER: I’m really sorry to hear you went through that. That’s terrible. Do you think it’s gotten any better?

SHULER: I do. And having come up through the electrical workers, which is a very male-dominated union and industry, I have seen over time how women have risen up and learned more and exercised their power more by coming together. And the #MeToo movement has really changed things, so that now there’s an awareness level of what’s acceptable, what’s not.

DUBNER: You’re the first female president of the A.F.L-C.I.O. I’m curious whether — not necessarily whether your gender gives you any advantage or any particular insight into solving these riddles. But I’m actually thinking about: as more and more women come into leadership roles, especially at firms — you know, women have the reputation for being more collaborative than men, for being a little bit less competitive or exploitive than men. At least there’s some evidence in some experiments and some research. Do you think that more female leadership, whether it’s in individual unions, whether it’s in individual firms, may start to shift the dynamic toward a more collaborative relationship between firms and employees?

SHULER: I think it will help. And it is interesting to see the shift that’s taking place. You’re seeing women rise up in leadership in so many different places, and certainly at the corporate level, but also in government, in unions, in academia, in the nonprofit sector. So it is definitely a moment for women’s leadership. We are in a very polarized environment in this country. Some would say predominantly male leadership has something to do with that, that we need more women because we’re facilitators. We listen. We bring people together. I really do hope that we can make the change.

DUBNER: Last question, I promise. Tell me one thing that for a long time you were sure you were right about, but then you realized you maybe weren’t quite so right. Maybe you were even a little bit wrong.

SHULER: Immigration might be an example because many years ago when I was coming up as a young worker, we had this mentality of us versus them, right? That immigrant workers were stealing our jobs and suppressing wages, low-roading a lot of the work because if you’re working in the shadow economy, you’re working for less. And so over time, I have come to see very strongly that that thinking is absolutely wrong and that we should be embracing immigrant workers. We should be advocating for immigration reform to bring everyone to the table for a good, sustainable job and that we can’t allow there to be a substandard workforce where employers are exploiting workers because they don’t have a voice or protection because of their status. And the labor movement has evolved its thinking around this as well over time. And so we are one of the biggest advocates for immigration reform and won’t rest until we get it passed.

That was Liz Shuler, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the largest federation of American labor unions. She’s up for reelection in June. Her most serious rumored challenger is another strong female leader who also happens to have grown up in Oregon — Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski; we had help this week from Jeremy Johnston and Jared Hohlt; and special thanks to Steven Greenhouse, author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowGreg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Morgan Levey, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Mary Diduch, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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