Ever since the American Federation of Labor merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations 67 years ago, there has been just one contested election for the presidency of the nations main labor federation (in 1995). But there could well be another contested election this year, pitting two of the nations most prominent union leaders against each other. Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, might challenge AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler. In such a contest, a charismatic insurgent popular with labor activists would face off against a well-liked incumbent popular with the nations labor establishment.
Last August, Shuler, then the Federations secretary-treasurer, became the AFL-CIOs president and first-ever female president, filling the remainder of Richard Trumkas term after he died of a sudden heart attack. Shuler, 52, has said she hopes to win a full term at the Federations convention in June. Before Trumka died, Nelson, 48, had strongly hinted that she might run to succeed him as Federation presidentTrumka had indicated that he planned to step down this June. In recent months, however, Nelson has declined to say whether she plans to challenge Shuler, although she has loudly and clearly voiced her concerns that she doesnt think the nations labor leaders are doing nearly enough to organize more workers and increase worker power.
Shuler and Nelson, both natives of Oregon, have followed different routes toward union leadership. After majoring in journalism at the University of Oregon, Shuler became an organizer with her fathers union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, then a lobbyist for that union and then an assistant to the IBEWs presidentthe position she held when Trumka tapped her in 2009 to be his running mate as the Federations secretary-treasurer, its number two position. As for her hopes of winning a full term as AFL-CIO president, Shuler has strong backing from the Federations executive council, a group of several dozen union presidents and other top union officialsin other words, from the labor establishment. Shuler is a talented administrator, uninspiring speaker, and steady-as-you-go leader who has won praise for managing to herd the dozens of strong-minded union presidents on the executive council to forge the Federations policies. Many union leaders respect her for navigating the AFL-CIO through its budgetary crisis and for keeping their concerns in mind as she did so.
Kate Shindle, president of Actors Equity, said Shuler is labor to the marrow of her bones, and has earned this [the AFL-CIOs presidency] through her intelligence and collaboration and grit.
I believe in my bones the labor movement is the single most powerful force for progress, Shuler said last August after the AFL-CIOs executive counsel elected her to succeed Trumka. This is a moment for us to lead societal transformations; to leverage our power to bring women and people of color from the margins to the center at work, in our unions and in our economy; and to be the center of gravity for incubating new ideas that will unleash unprecedented union growth.
Nelsons supporters say shes better suited to lead societal transformations. After graduating from Principia College in Illinois, Nelson was juggling four jobs to help pay off her student debt when a flight attendant friend told her she could make a solid living as a flight attendant for United Airlines. Nelson jumped at the opportunity, and soon became a union activist and later communications chair for Uniteds flight attendants and then overall spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants nationwide. In 2014, she was elected president of that union. An inspiring speaker who is often described as militant, Nelson has passionate backing from many labor activists and from those eager and impatient for the AFL-CIO and the nations unions to undertake many more organizing drives than they do now and to mobilize rank-and-file workers to get more involved in labors fights. These activists like Nelson because they see her as a fightershe took on the airlines for not doing more to protect workers and passengers against COVID-19, and she speaks out day after day against corporate greed and mistreatment of workers in any number of industries. Some labor leaders, however, especially in the building trades, complain that Nelson wants to shake things up too much, and some criticize her for backing the Green New Deal. Others note that while she may have once called for a general strike, shes never led an actual strike.
Nelsons profile soared in the media and among activists in 2019 when she called for a general strike to end the government shutdown engineered by Donald Trump and his allies in Congress. After The Chief-Leader, a New Yorkbased labor newspaper, ran a recent story about the possibility of Nelson challenging Shuler, some Nelson enthusiasts said shes so terrific that she really should be running for president of the United States.
She is probably as good a spokesperson as labor has, says Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers (and often said to be the best orator in all of labor). She is a great speaker. She is very passionate and fiery. She inspires. (Roberts hasnt said which candidate hell support if Nelson does formally challenge Shuler.)
Nelson recently told The Chief-Leader, Americans want solidarity, and they are hurting. They are looking for answers. You see that unrest everywhere. We have a moment where we have to harness the power of the labor movement that exists today to organize millions more people.
Nelsons supporters say shes better suited to lead societal transformations.
And yet, a Nelson vs. Shuler showdown could be highly divisive for organized labor. It could pit labors center against its left, its activists against union officialdom. Such a contest could also shine a light on problems within the AFL-CIO, including complaints that it is not doing enough to organize workers and has been fighting less on civil rights and immigration issues. Many progressives say the Federation is doing far too little to seize on this extraordinary momentwhen worker power is unusually strong because many industries are having a hard time finding enough workers, when the nation has its most pro-union president in decades, and when there has been a burst of strikes and unionization drives, ranging from Starbucks and the Art Institute of Chicago to Politico and the tech workers at The New York Times.
Heres one idea to avoid a divisive contest for the AFL-CIOs presidency, an idea that could strengthen and energize not just the AFL-CIO but the entire labor movement: Shuler should form a joint ticket with Nelson and invite her to serve as AFL-CIO co-president. (Fred Redmond, the AFL-CIOs current secretary-treasurer, could continue in that position as the third person on that ticket.)
In such an arrangement, Shuler could become the inside person and Nelson the outside person. Shuler could run the AFL-CIO as an institution, oversee its executive council and deal with its 56 member unions, their presidents, and their concerns. At the same time, Nelson could give inspiring speeches to workers seeking to unionize and to workers who are on strike, in addition to appearing on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, NPR, or CNN.
Some will say a co-presidency is unworkable, but considering labors decades-long slide in membership and clout, many will say that having a single person run the AFL-CIO hasnt worked out so well. Given all that the AFL-CIO needs to do to reverse labors decline, it often seems that a single Federation president cannot even begin to do all that must be done. Internally, the president has to oversee the executive council, handle the Federations financial woes and internal tensions, figure out the best way to marshal limited resources, and maintain relations with the 56 member unions. But theres also an unlimited amount to do externally: speaking at organizing drives, strikes, political campaigns, voting rights campaigns, immigrant rallies, media appearances, and conventions of the nations 50 state labor federations. Then theres lobbying the White House and Congressa responsibility the two co-presidents could share.
This Junes AFL-CIO convention could easily amend the Federations constitution to allow for two co-presidents.
Having these two talented leaders serve as co-president could bring new solidarity and new energy to labor. It could help get the labor establishment working more closely and effectively with labors eager, energetic activists. A co-presidency could translate into more organizing and increase labors on-the-ground success in political campaigns. Having a full-time external person who is an outstanding speaker could go far to reinvigorate organized labor, lift the movements profile, and persuade many more workers to unionize. With the AFL-CIOs budgetary woes forcing it to narrow its ambitions, having a speaker like Nelson as co-president could help the Federation expand its ambitions and achievements.
Skeptics will warn that there will be uncomfortable frictions between the co-presidents, that it will sometimes be hard to define which co-president does what. Those matters can be worked out. But having two talented co-presidents might do far more to boost and reinvigorate the labor movement than having just one president. The key questions are which leaders and what institutional structure will be most effective in lifting Americas workers and increasing their power.
At the AFL-CIOs convention this June, delegates will choose its next president, with delegates apportioned to reflect the number of members each union has. Union presidents customarily hold great sway over how their delegates vote, and that could well give Shuler the inside track to victory. But if Shuler wants to minimize division and do whats best to reinvigorate labor, she would be smart to ask Nelson to run with her for co-president. In this situation, sisterhood can be very powerful.