Building Labor Unity (2) October 20, 2009

Some Friendly Advice to Liz Shuler on Pitfalls
To Her Job as AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer

By Harry Kelber

When leaders of the Executive Council picked Liz Shuler to become the youngest woman as AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer, they felt no need to look further. She was talented, aggressive and had a trail of successes for her work on Enron in the Portland, Oregon local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and later as executive assistant to IBEW President Edwin Hill.

That Shuler had no financial experience of any kind, especially in running a national organization like the AFL-CIO,. was not considered a handicap to deny her the No. 2 top position in the AFL-CIO hierarchy. IBEW’s Hill, her mentor and booster, assured Executive Council members that she was capable of handling the job.

It is to Shuler’s credit that, from the moment she was elected secretary-treasurer, she began to make her presence known through speeches to labor activists in several states. And she wisely picked on a theme where she, only 39 herself, could speak with some authority to: young workers in their 20s and 30s.

Wherever she went last month—Minnesota, New Jersey, Washington—she made a strong pitch for the “need” to organize young workers. “Do they need unions as much as older workers do? No. They need them more,” Shuler told her Minnesota AFL-CIO audience.

At the New Jersey AFL-CIO, she said “Our values and our morals are timeless: social justice, the dignity of work, equality for all, good jobs for those who need them, But we need to revisit how we present these values to the world, and we will.” The AFL-CIO web site carried this headline in one of its stories, lauding her emphasis on the importance of young workers. “Shuler: ‘Young People Must Take Lead in Building a New Economy.’

Has Shuler Forgotten? She’s AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer

During the month when she was making a strong pitch for organizing young workers, she had nothing to say about her secretary-treasurer’s job to which she was elected and for which she is receiving a salary of $238,975, and an annual pension equal to 60 percent of her highest pay when she retires.

Her first priority, it would seem, is to establish her credibility as the AFL-CIO’s chief financial officer by a straightforward act of transparency that union members would appreciate. She should describe the state of the Federation’s assets, either approving or dispelling the rumors that the AFL-CIO is in danger of insolvency.

Shuler could also take an important step to demonstrate her office would be guided by a practice of accountability by yielding to the desire of many international unions for monthly financial reports instead of annual ones. The dividends from transparency and accountability are confidence-building, and that is what Liz needs.

The complexities of the secretary-treasurer’s job are spelled out in Article VIII (Sec. 2) of the AFL-CIO Constitution: “The Secretary-Treasurer shall be in charge of and preserve all money’s, properties, securities and other evidences of investments, books, documents, files and checks of the Federation which shall at all times be subject to the inspection of the President and the Executive Council.”

Obviously, Liz will need a staff of financially-trained assistants, but in the end, she will have to make the final decisions. This can be particularly critical in the management of the AFL-CIO’s portfolio and decisions on new investments.

Probably the worst thing that Shuler can do is to remain silent, reinforcing the idea among her expected critics that she is not equipped for her job and that her mistakes can be costly ones.

Shuler faces extraordinary challenges in her new job, but she exudes confidence that she can handle them. Her immediate problem is to demonstrate to union members what kind of secretary-treasurer she intends to be.

LaborTalk (7) will be posted on Thursday, October 22, 2009.