The working poor lose a great friend and advocate – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

On Tuesday I attended the funeral of Beth Shulman, a Washington, DC-based labor leader and a champion of the working poor. I didn’t know her well; I had met her a few times at various events, most recently at the Retirement USA conference in October. Shortly after the conference, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. As I listened to the eulogies at the funeral this week, I had a feeling of deep regret that I hadn’t taken the time to get to know Shulman better, for her life’s work — advocating for low-wage workers, including working for minimum wages, paid sick days, and paid family leave — closely tracks the work of NCL.

Shulman was a vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and in 2003 wrote the book, “The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans,” arguing that society pays scant attention to the people upon whom it depends every day.

She was a sought-after guest on news and talk shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, PBS NewsHour, CNN, ABC’s World News Tonight, and National Public Radio. Like Florence Kelley, NCL’s first inspirational leader, she kept the drumbeat going on behalf of the working poor.

In a Washington Post op-ed in 2004, she wrote:

If work does not work for millions of Americans, it undermines our most fundamental ideal: that if you work hard, you can support yourself and your family. …Consigning millions of Americans to dead-end, low-wage jobs endangers the notion of equal opportunity. A key to turning this around is understanding what made ‘good jobs’ good. There is nothing inherent in welding bumpers onto cars or manufacturing steel girders that makes those better jobs than caring for children or guarding office buildings. Workers organizing through unions, and the passage of social legislation, raised wages and created paid leave and retirement benefits in these initially ‘bad’ manufacturing jobs, changing them into good middle-class positions.

Shulman became assistant general counsel at the UFCW, which has a seat on the NCL Board of Directors, in 1976 and worked for the union until 2000, with her last 13 years there as international vice president and executive board member for the 1.4 million-member organization.

Like Florence Kelley, Shulman was a prolific writer and advocate. She traveled the country speaking, serving on boards and committees dedicated to improving the lives of the lowest paid workers in America and calling upon Americans to recognize the dignity of their work and how dependent we all are on workers who earn low wages and receive few, if any, benefits. Tragically, Shulman leaves an 11-year-old-son and grieving husband. They should both know that her contributions will not be forgotten and that she inspired many young people to work in the labor movement. I feel sure Shulman would have felt right at home with Florence Kelley and her progeny at the NCL. If America had more Beth Shulmans, we might finally provide decent wages and benefits to our working poor and treat them with far more dignity and respect. Now that’s a goal to work toward.