Interview, Labor, unions, War on Women — September 18, 2014 at 12:50 pm

INTERVIEW: AFL-CIO’s Liz Shuler – Has the “American Dream” become the “Impossible Dream”?


The American Dream, according to, is defined as: the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity traditionally held to be available to every American, or, a life of personal happiness and material comfort as traditionally sought by individuals in the U.S.

I might suggest that, based on generational differences, the definition of the American Dream might be different from generation to generation. Clearly, though, at least in the world I live in, one has to wonder if it’s time to redefine what the American Dream is. I’m not suggesting that the ideas set forth at are necessarily wrong. At the same time, however, I am concerned that the way it’s defined doesn’t exactly fit into today’s model of what our communities are, what we seek for them to be, and more importantly, how we get there.

shuler_l2For national AFL–CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler who was in Detroit on Tuesday participating as a panelist in the Techonomy conference, it’s a question worth asking. Techonomy is a gathering of technophiles who, through this conference, continue to explore how technology can continue to grow and boost the US economy and provide living wage jobs. The panel that Liz served on asked the question: “What happened to the American Dream and can we get it back?”

To some, that may sound like an impossible question to answer. During my interview with Shuler, she suggested that the American Dream, especially for millennials, may not be as easily achieved or neatly defined as it once was. Furthermore, the reason that Liz accepted the invitation to the Techonomy conference was actually very interesting to me, as I believe it will be to you. As she shared with me, “I wanted to throw a little cold water on the idea that technology is our only future.”

According to Schuler, certainly technology has a place, perhaps even a profound place, in our futures. But, as her roots in the union movement clearly demonstrate and as anybody who has ever worked on an organizing campaign knows, the face-to-face contact cannot be replaced by a tablet, a smart phone, or even a satellite uplink, for that matter.

Liz Shuler is the first woman to hold the number two job at the AFL–CIO and her bio suggests that being raised in a union household ultimately helped shape her past, her present, and, I would suggest, her future, as well. In recent years, as the union movement has become a political football, especially to the those on the right, it is taking an extraordinary effort to begin the process of rebuilding organized labor and shaping how it will function into the future.

I asked Liz if we can we still look at what we traditionally understand to be the American Dream and believe that it is attainable?

I think unfortunately it is different today. I think of a time when young people had opportunities but today they are struggling and at a time that unemployment numbers being double for young people over what the average unemployment numbers are, they, young people, are concerned about the higher cost of education and whether or not that’s attainable for them and if they do end up making it to college they end up with crushing debt and they end up having to struggle with what is considered to be the American Dream.

She went on to say that the idea that, if you work hard, you should be afforded a fair wage and fair opportunities is not necessarily manifesting in our society and communities the way it once did.

Schuler discussed in detail the importance of organized labor, unions, and the opportunities that they provide with respect to equality in the workplace, equal pay for equal work, and a more clearly defined path to whatever one believes the American Dream is. No matter what challenges organized labor is facing today, Schuler, who is no stranger to union organizing and door-to-door campaigns, passionately believes that technology cannot replace meeting face-to-face and shaking hands with someone who does not necessarily understand the great history and tradition of organized labor and what it has done for modern society.

With that said, Schuler shared with me that, “The White House has been very supportive of women, who make up half the workforce, and, whether it’s through policy or practice, it is clear that this is not a conversation that will go away. Nor should it.”

It is my belief that we are a society that is in a massive transition and one that is not necessarily easy to define. As we look at the issues that are facing society in 2014, I believe it’s clear that the conversation and the practical application, if you will, of how women fit into that society has finally reached a point where we may actually see lasting change in a positive direction. I asked Shuler if being a role model for women was something she embraced. Somewhat reluctantly, she agreed that, like other women in the union movement, including the UAW’s Cindy Estrada and the Michigan AFL-CIO president Karla Swift, women need to step into these roles when they are offered that opportunity and do it with pride and purpose.

When I asked her if today’s young person can still believe in the American Dream, the answer wasn’t as simple as you might think.

First off, I do believe it’s important for women to be good role models and those like myself that are stepping up to the podium and do accept that responsibility, do so with confidence. But we also need males to be good role models for women as well. And we need to be sure that we are providing the opportunities that young people need, especially in the union environment where we are providing equality where others are not.

She went on to add, “The idea of the American Dream is the question of our times – even Barack Obama talks about that – and we need to continue to provide policy and direction to create broader opportunities for shared prosperity.”

“At the AFL-CIO and at our affiliates,” Shuler continued, “We understand the importance of engaging young people and are creating opportunities to engage them by allowing young people to lead, not just discussions, but through the actual opportunities that are provided through union participation,” Shuler continued.

She concluded by sharing, “We need to tailor our message to reach a younger audience and, believe it or not, even though young people have been more negatively affected by the economy, they are still the most optimistic people and I believe, as I meet with more and more young people, that they are the ones that are going to create the change that we need.”

So, is the American Dream now the Impossible Dream? I’m not ready to concede that quite yet, and, not unlike Liz Schuler, I do believe that the millennials do hold the key to restoring values of the past while providing a vision for the future. I also believe this is a conversation we need to continue to have until we figure it out, for all of our sakes.