Beth Shulman, 60, dies; fought for low-wage workers

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; B04

Beth Shulman, 60, a lawyer, author and union leader who fought for improving conditions for low-wage workers throughout her career, died Feb. 5 of complications from brain cancer at Georgetown University Medical Center. She lived in Washington.

Ms. Shulman, former vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, wrote "The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans" (2003), in which she argued that society pays no attention to the people upon whom it depends every day.

"She was one of the nation's leading advocates for addressing low-wage workers' issues, including minimum wage, paid sick days and paid family leave," said Phil Sparks, co-chair with her of the Fairness Initiative on Low-Wage Work, a collaborative of more than 20 nonprofit and advocacy groups. Ms. Shulman was also a senior fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan public policy research and advocacy organization.

An energetic and lively speaker, she appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "PBS NewsHour," CNN, ABC's "World News Tonight" and National Public Radio as well as in scores of articles.

In 2008, as the economic downturn worsened, she told The Washington Post, "A lot of issues that have long confronted low-wage workers are now increasingly facing middle-income workers" who face the prospect of jarring income declines and the lack of health care and pensions.

Americans, who have always honored work, have lately degraded work that is defined as requiring few skills, she said: child-care or nursing home workers, poultry processors, retail clerks, security guards, ambulance drivers, janitors, billing and call-center operators, teaching assistants and hotel employees.

"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," she wrote in a 2004 op-ed article in The Post. "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."

Born in Los Angeles, she graduated from UCLA and received a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1974. After clerking for U.S. District Judge Robert McRae Jr. in the western district of Tennessee, she worked at a Memphis civil rights law firm preparing and litigating cases of employment discrimination and school desegregation. She became assistant general counsel at the UFCW 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.

She served on multiple boards, including those of the National Employment Law Project, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and Wider Opportunities for Women, and was a consultant to the Communications Consortium Media Center and the Russell Sage Foundation while also working on a book about the economy.

Her marriage to Mark Kaufman ended in divorce.

Survivors include her husband of 14 years, Ernie Englander, and a son, Aaron Shulman-Englander, both of Washington; and her mother, Annette Shulman of Los Angeles.

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