by Cliff Cawthon
The Fight for Fifteen has become a common rally cry for economic justice these days but it has its roots in 2013 in the airport town of Seatac in South King County. One of that campaign’s directors, Jonathan Rosenblum has written a book about that disruptive moment in the U.S. labor movement’s relationship with capital, “Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists and the Revival of the Labor Movement.”
Labor unions have been under great stress and have found themselves in a deep depression for the last forty years with the shift towards a service-based workforce due to the decline of manufacturing, deregulation, wage stagnation and privatization. International free trade deals, such as NAFTA, have also helped to accelerate the troubles for what was once a national movement that claimed a third of the U.S. labor force in the 1950’s.
Fast forward to 2017, while the Trump Administration has yet to pass any anti-labor legislation, it has made no secret about its hostile intentions towards labor and their allies. That intention is probably best reflected by the administration’s failed attempt to nominate Andrew Pudlitzer, Carl’s Jr CEO, notorious for a number of sexual harassment and wage theft complaints from employees.
Hope springs eternal locally, however, as the last four years has seen significant progress for the labor movement in cities and states across the country. Many continue to adopt minimum wage ordinances, with Washington State recently passing I-1433, the ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $13.50/ hr statewide by 2020 and ensure 7 days of paid sick leave.
On Monday, I sat down at the Hillman City Collaboratory, where Jonathan Rosenblum co-works from to discuss the South Seattleites new book.
Emerald: What inspired you to become an organizer and now, author?
Rosenblum: Well, I grew up on the east coast and I began working for the newspaper industry out of high school. I became a rank-and-file member of the newspaper workers union and caught the union bug many years ago, became a union organizer first in Louisiana, then in New England and then I came out here beginning 1991.
Emerald: What was the inspiration behind the book?
Rosenblum: I was fortunate to be the Campaign Director for the Seatac Workers Organizing campaign back in 2011. After we won the initiative and workers continued to organize while we were waiting on the court’s final verdict on the initiative, I felt it was an important time to stand back and take a look at what we had done.
To me, there was so much that was transformative about the campaign, the amazing story of a community standing up against these entrenched powers and winning. Also, there was the story within the story of so many community members and activists doing work on the ground to start a new labor movement.
Emerald: Why did you decide to tell this story through the experiences of both individual workers and activists?
Rosenblum: I’d say that this was a political decision. Too often history is told through the eyes of people who are in official leadership positions or those who have the ability to write, or access to the media and access to power. While those histories are important, what they don’t do is they don’t tell the transformational stories that happen at a grassroots level, the stories that explain why people build a movement and how they do it.
When I sat down to write this story I wanted to focus it on them, the real people who make history and not just the people you hear in the headlines.
Emerald: Who are those people?
Rosenblum: Again, I don’t think that it’s about the leaders but about the ordinary people who are doing things. There are couple examples in the book, of people who I think are inspiring leaders. Habiba Ali, she was a wheelchair attendant at the airport and she and her co-workers organized, with SEIU Local 6, right after the court decision [on the $15 minimum wage in Seatac] and they went to their bosses with a [union] petition.
They said, we formed a union, we want you to recognize the union, and we want to have an election or else, we’re going to the national labor relations board. The [boss] locked the door on them and a dozen other workers were left outside and totally disrespected, but they didn’t give up.
The workers left the petition, BAGS Inc. brought in lawyers from all around the country and before they even got to vote management had several anti-union meetings to berate and intimidate them before they even got to vote so people would vote ‘no’. They even conducted surveillance on workers while they worked so they wouldn’t talk to union organizers and by a 2-1 margin, the workers voted to form a union.
So I take a lot of inspiration from people like Habiba, who have had to endure so much. I think that we have a problem in this country if we just put a few people up on a pedastool. It’s about us, it’s about all the Habiba Ali’s out there and what we’re going to do to support them.
Emerald: You mention that unions need to be involved in issues that workers care about outside of the workplace, so how would unions like local union SEIU 775 structure themselves to fight for things outside of the workplace?
Rosenblum: Unions can and already d work with groups like Washington Community Action Network, the Tenants Union of Washington, and S.A.F.E. and those groups who have been leading the fight around tenants rights. What I point out in the book is that these organizations are unions too, unions in the community.
There are workplace unions and unions in the community, and community unions take many forms, they’re places where workers come together to stand up for the things that they need and fight for the things that they need with their allies. It’s no different functionally to have workers fight in the workplace for pay raises than workers coming together in, say S.A.F.E., to fight against foreclosures.
These days we draw these artificial lines that [designate] your union and your non-union, the worker whose wages we fight to increase in the workplace is also the worker who’s facing eviction. These fights are connected, and there is no separate peace and we have to see community allies as a part of the labor movement.
Emerald: These are extremely lean periods for labor unions, with great uncertainty around their funding. With that being the case how can social movement unionism be sustained?
Rosenblum: That’s not a simple question and I don’t have the answers. Look at the organizations who are out there, like Working Washington, for example; or the Fair Work Center, which was an outgrowth of the Fight for $15 here in Seattle. The fair work center is doing a lot of great outreach in the community and in general, Cliff, I think we have to see all of these organizations as connecting the same people.
Again, all of these people go to work, have housing issues, food issues, education and health issues and so on. To the extent that we can build a coalition to fight for a different vision, instead of on different issues, we’ll be a stronger movement.
A point that I make in my book is that the labor movement needs to claim a different vision for society instead of these different ‘issue’ fights. These issues are all connected, just look at what the other side is doing. You can blame Trump, you can hate Trump, you can hate what the Billionaire Class is doing but, what you see is that they have a very clear vision for America and they are clear about it when they talk among themselves. They’re very clear about that vision, and they also understand what they need to do to work towards it. We have to have our own vision.
Often, [certain] labor movement [members] just fight for those who are union, and see other fights in the community as maybe, worth supporting, but not central to their needs and interests. We can’t see these fights as singular and that has to do with another vision for society that is more than what the next campaign offers.
Emerald: In a previous life, I was an organizer with the successor to the Fight for $15 campaign, so one constant that I hear from you is that we have to have a “vision”. How is your “vision” accessible to everyday people?
Rosenblum: You have a society, that most people understand and recognize that it’s not that complicated, in which its major institutions, whether it’s healthcare or production, are about making money. Not the question of what do we need? How much do we need? How can we distribute it accordingly?
It may seem like a radical notion to many but, it’s a choice made by those in power who want to impose a different set of values on them.
Emerald: In your book, you criticize “business unionism”, do you think that way of organizing and structuring unions is holding them back?
Rosenblum: I think many unions have to break a very bad habit that we’ve had for the last 65 years, which I identify in the book: business unionism. I think that it’s not just a leadership challenge but, we have challenge [the view] that labor unions are just a glorified insurance company that negotiates contracts on members’ behalf and mediates their grievances, and so on and so on.
[We] end up with this dynamic with members seeing the union not as a vehicle for social change but, to protect what they’ve got and at the same time you have union staff that comes to see their job as protecting workers and not as building a social movement.
People come to see unions through this model as limited purpose organizations, so it’s not surprising that this idea is thrown around and their energy becomes focused on representing the ten percent of unionized workers in this country that belong to unions, instead of, figuring out how to uplift the entire working class.
Unions have figure out how to do two things: [first] they have to [continue to] fight for the interests of workers and figure out how to organize more workers into unions; [secondly], they also have to work on how to transform themselves and represent the broader interests of the entire working class as I describe in the book.
Emerald: So how should we, in building a new labor movement address union staff who wish to organize? Or issues of structural racism and/ or sexism within the labor movement going forward?
Rosenblum: Unions are made up of people so they’re going to be imperfect. They are going to have problems but, they’re still the best idea for workers.
To put it in a more articulate way, there’s always going to be problems and the question is, do you have an organization that has the ability to be self-reflective, to look inside and sees what the problems are and address them. I unions today doing a tremendous amount of work today that are doing a lot of work around issues of racism and bias that may not be immediately evident to some of us and those are important things to do.
In Seatac, we had to really change a lot of what we did as a union. In the book, I detailed how we scheduled meetings around Muslim prayer time. We had a number of staff that were Muslim and we had to schedule meetings around that time where they would be praying and that was a basic reality, and those of us who weren’t Muslim had to take it into account.
Emerald: I know we’re running out of time but, if someone is on a park bench, or picking this up in a bookstore, and they open it and read it, what do you want them to takeaway from this book?
Rosenblum: People need to get involved. There are a few key lessons from Seatac in the book; which is, when we unite and fight we can win. A corollary to that is that you have to get involved but, a corollary to that is that you have to get involved. No matter where you are get involved in a local fight and stand up.
Not just to fight Trump but, to fight for what we need.
On Thursday, March 16th Jonathan Rosenbaum will be hosting a launch party and discussion for his new book Beyond $15 at the Washington State Labor Council 321 16th Ave S., in Seattle’s Central District.
Cliff Cawthon is a Seattle-based writer originally from New York’s queen city, Buffalo. Clifford has been civically engaged since he was a teenager in Buffalo and his advocacy work taking him to places as far away as Cuba. He’s also an alumnus of the University of Manchester, in the UK, where he graduated with an M.A. in Human Rights and Political Science.