The Changing Face of Leadership in Organized Labor

Organized Labor. Not just a club for good old boys anymore.

If you are reading this, and don’t know me, then I would like to tell you something about myself today in the way guys usually do it. At work, I am a labor relations strategist on the management side of business.

This means that I assist companies in managing their relationship with labor unions. This may mean acting as a contract negotiator in collective bargaining, providing conflict resolution assistance through the grievance and arbitration process, or providing consultative services and advice related to strategic labor relations.

Whatever the actual work might involve on a given day, it typically means that I am positioned on one side of what is viewed by many as an adversarial relationship. This makes it important for me to keep up with the latest trends in organized labor, because to quote some famous dead guy:

Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.   Sun Tzu

I don’t really view labor unions as my enemy. I view them as organizations worthy of attention by human resources professionals in the future. They still wield real power in our government and in the workplace. We need to pay attention to labor unions. We need to know who their leaders are.

So, here is what the Women of HR should know about labor unions today: many of the top new labor union leaders are women.

There has been a lot of turnover in the top level leadership at many of the largest and most influential labor organizations in the United States during 2010. A new guard has moved in, in some cases unexpectedly, changing the face of organized labor, and probably changing the leadership style of these organizations in ways that we won’t fully understand for some time to come.


A new leadership took over at the AFL-CIO when John Sweeney stepped down as President earlier this year. Sweeny was replaced by Richard Trumka. He was joined by Elizabeth “Liz” Shuler and Arlene Holt Baker at the top of the AFL-CIO leadership ranks.

Shuler is the first woman ever elected Secretary Treasurer of the AFL-CIO when she was voted into office by acclamation at the Federation’s 26th convention on September 16, 2009. Ms. Shuler is a rising star in the labor union movement, becoming the youngest officer ever elected, after rising swiftly up through the ranks from her first union position in Local 125 of the IBEW in Portland, Oregon.

In her new role, Shuler will be directly responsible for leading an AFL-CIO outreach to workers under the age of 35. This is a big strategic initiative for organized labor and reflects the growing level of attention being focused on the under-35 age demographic by organized labor.

Baker was previously appointed to replace retired AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez Thompson. Baker was rewarded with election by acclamation to serve a full term in the office by delegates to the AFL-CIO’s 26th convention on September 16, 2009.

Mary Kay Henry in charge at SEIU

When Andy Stern stepped down as the head of SEIU, the largest union in America, it was widely expected that he would be succeeded by Anna Berger, his second in command. Most labor experts were stunned when it was announced that Mary Kay Henry had won a stiff political battle to replace Stern.

According to her biography, Henry began working with SEIU in 1979 and rose to become a leader and chief health care strategist and was elected to the International Executive Board in 1996. In June 2004, she was elected to serve as an International Executive Vice President of SEIU, leading the union’s efforts to build a stronger voice for health care workers.

Recognizing that today’s global economy demands a new and different model of labor-management relationships, Mary Kay is leading a national effort by SEIU to build new kinds of partnerships with hospital employers-partnerships that will improve the quality of patient care, strengthen the hospital’s competitive performance, and give workers a voice in decisions that affect care and working conditions. Mary Kay is also active in the fight for immigration reform and gay and lesbian rights. She is a founding member of SEIU’s gay and lesbian Lavender Caucus.

The new face of union leadership is feminine.

It will be interesting to watch how this changes the approach of organized labor over the next few years.

Check out the the video below to hear how Liz Shuler speaks.  She is compelling and does a great job of outlining what unions are thinking about today.

One Nation March

Image by SEIU Internationalvia Flickr

Mike is our Women of HR Featured Contributor this week on LinkedIn. Click over to meet him and see what he has to say!

About the Author

Mike VanDervort

Mike VanDervort is a labor and employee relations strategist at a Fortune 100 company. He has two professional passions: human resources and social media and uses his extensive knowledge of both in the work he does every day. Mike speaks and write on how businesses can utilize social media tools to protect their brand and promote positive employee relations. He blogs at the Human Race Horses and is an active contributor to other forums.


John Cook

Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on March 8 provide us with the opportunity to commemorate women’s achievements, in particular the achievements of Teamster women. Teamster women have made significant contributions to the work force over the years, bravely fighting for worker justice. Teamster women, in particular, have been engaged and active politically, socially and economically, helping pass important legislation, volunteering in their communities and making life better for us all.

Keep a watch on Sandy Pope who is running for the top spot in the Teamsters Union against Jame P Hoffa.

Sandy Pope the next President of the Teamsters International.


Mike, thanks for this and for the reminder that we all need to know what is happening in the larger labor movement.

Too often I have a localized, “head-down, what’s-on-my-plate” focus. I may know about our Local, but our Local is part of a larger group – a group with its own agenda.

Dave Ryan

There is another woman’s name I see often as well. That is Peg Seminario, Director of Safety and Health, AFL-CIO. She is often tesitifying before Congress, or is often quoted in health and saftey publications.

While I think her views on health and safety issues are somewhat strident she does seem to be effective in getting her point across. As always thanks for sharing another informative post.


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