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Labor Library: Coaxing the Phoenix Out of the Ashes


Five years ago, in November 2013, SeaTac became the first city in the U.S. to implement a minimum wage of $15 per hour. The campaign to raise the wages of the workers in and around the airport between Seattle and Tacoma was won by narrowly passing a ballot initiative, against the might of corporate power, namely Alaska Airlines and the hotel lobbyists. However, it was so much more than just an electoral victory. It was an organizing effort, a community building success, and an inspiration to boost the self confidence of working class people. Jonathan Rosenblum, the lead organizer of labor in this battle, tells this story in his book “Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement” Paperback, 2017, $11.45

By Stephan Kimmerle, Seattle

“In the 1965 film ‘Flight of the Phoenix’, a cargo plane crash-lands in the Sahara Desert. The survivors […] realize that there will be no rescue. They grow despondent until one of them, an aircraft designer, announces, ‘We have all the parts we need to build a new airplane.’ They hack apart the old plane and cobble together a new one from the salvaged pieces. [...]

Today’s union movement […] is grounded and will not fly again. […] The sooner we collectively recognize this, the sooner we can get on with building a powerful new movement. And just as in ‘Flight of the Phoenix’, the elements of building this new movement can be found within the present debris, in the lessons we glean from Sea-Tac and other contemporary struggles [...]. But it will require a radical restructuring and reordering, and much bolder vision; indeed, we need a different conception of workplace unions and their role within the broader labor movement.”

“Beyond $15” tells the story of how “a largely immigrant workforce [...] infused with a deep spiritual call for justice, took on major corporations and their political allies, and against all odds, beat them.” The author Jonathan Rosenblum, is a long-time labor leader and the organizing director of the successful SeaTac $15 campaign. Rosenblum now collaborates and works with Socialist Alternative Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s council office.

As the title indicates, however, the book is about more than just the victory at SeaTac. It's also a story about how and why labor declined in strength over the past 40 years, and what's needed to revitalize it. Rosenblum draws on his decades of experience in the labor movement to illuminate the broader economic and political context in which the SeaTac campaign occurred, and to underscore the importance of building for the future. For Rosenblum, success for labor, here and now, depends on pursuing campaigns that are about more than just winning fair wages and working conditions. These campaigns must also focus on rebuilding the power of labor, a movement to unite workers and their communities in struggle, armed with a vision that goes beyond the framework of capitalism.

Business Unionism

Corporate America's assault on the gains workers won during the post World War II upswing has been largely successful. With the crisis in profitability developing at the end of the post-war boom, their willingness to make concessions to labor dramatically decreased. In fact, the neoliberal era was marked by attacks on unions. Restoring profitability necessitated a determined effort to both drive down wages and intensify working conditions (compelling workers to produce more during the working day).

In this effort, capitalist corporations were aided by both major political parties. While Ronald Reagan was the main usher for the neoliberal regime that would dominate from the 1980s onward, Rosenblum reminds us that it actually began under Democratic president Jimmy Carter. Carter's deregulation bills and especially changes to the bankruptcy laws were effectively used to weaken workers’ rights and union power. This laid the basis for Reagan's all-out assault on unions, starting with the mass firing of air traffic controllers in PATCO, to liberalize the labor market and effectively pave the way to poverty wages.

It was the airline industry, in fact, that spearheaded the neoliberal attacks on workers’ wages and workers’ power through their organizations. With airport unions weakened, once well-paid industries, such as the baggage handlers at SeaTac airport, were transformed into precarious work. No longer able to support their families with one job alone, workers now had to maintain two or three jobs just make ends meet.

Yet, as Rosenblum puts it succinctly, “corporate America was only half of our problem. The other half was the union movement itself.” Alongside the examples of corporate greed and political servitude, he also expresses how “remarkable” it was to see “the degree to which unions – and especially the leaders of unions – facilitated their own destruction”. In reality, “[m]ost union leaders focused on securing economic gains for their members, pledging allegiance to the capitalist economic system in exchange for collective bargaining agreements.” This is the essence of of business unionism, which has been the dominant model employed by labor leaders for decades.

The political content of the labor-business collaboration also found its mirror expression within the form of union structures: “Spirited and vigorous membership debates were replaced with staged routines of controlled democracy.” And eventually, “the union came to be viewed as a service.” The result was that, by the 1980s, business unionism was “hardwired into the operating system of most unions”: the workers became “accustomed to seeing the union as a third-party between themselves and their boss, not the collective strength of the workers.”

Moreover, business unionism often hopes to solve labor's problems by supporting the Democratic Party. Rosenblum describes how the union he worked for, SEIU, spent millions for Obama in the expectation that he would help pass more pro-union legislation, such as “Employee Free Choice Act” (EFCA). And yet, “[i]n the end the failure of EFCA stood as yet another illustration of what happens when unions seek political shortcuts to building power.”

However, with the onset of the Great Recession in 2007-2008, the ‘old’ political questions returned to confront labor: “Was it [the] job [of unions] to accommodate capitalism and get the best deal possible for their members, or were unions needed to challenge the profit system and fight for the interests of the entire working class?”

Rosenblum uses the experience and the testing of different leadership in the successful SeaTac campaign to freshly examine this question.

A Successful Campaign at SeaTac Airport

Under the leadership of Alaska Airlines, big business had turned SeaTac Airport into a great place to make profits. This was accomplished largely by outsourcing, significantly lowering wages, eliminating benefits for workers, and a no-tolerance policy towards organizing. In fact, if workers tried to organize, the subcontractor employing them would suddenly go out of business, and then be replaced by another subcontractor without a unionizing effort.

The $15 campaign turned this around. The airport workers and their community supporters not only made SeaTac the first city to implement a $15 per hour minimum wage in the US, they also won a series of rights aimed at ending the precarious nature of their work and strengthening their ability to organize in the future. These rights included tip protection for hotel workers in the service industry around the airport; the right to full-time employment, allowing workers to rely on a single job – not two or three; ending the abuse of the 30-hour threshold by employers to deny workers health insurance benefits as mandated by the ACA; and, crucially, the right to retain their jobs if their subcontractor is replaced by another company. Turnover in precarious work is extremely high, so winning retention is a huge boost to organizing efforts, laying the basis for stronger campaigns in the future. Lastly, the initiative included strong enforcement of these new rights. Wage theft and other abuses by employers is all-too common. The “private-right-of-action provision” within the new law gives individual workers or unions the right to sue non-compliant employers in court. Yet, even with all the good proposals in the ballot language, the most important aspect of the ballot initiative was that the campaign leaders also used it as a tool to advance the self-organization of the airport workers.

Building a Working Class Coalition in SeaTac

Rosenblum’s strategy was focused on building a strong foundation for the long term, for workers and their community. This meant that, from start to finish, the airport workers were not just the object of this effort, they were the driving force. The campaign sought to unite the working class in a much broader way, focusing outreach beyond workers already organized in unions or already employed at the airport. It also appealed to community and faith groups to join the campaign, not just as a mere calculation of adding up forces, but as a key part of the necessary long-term strategy of building trust and strength. “Trust is always vulnerable to being undermined by hostile management action that aims to divide workers or by narrow, short-sighted thinking movement leaders.”

This approach is what Rosenblum calls social movement unionism. And his long-term view on building unity in the working class means for him, that a “sustained movement must rest on more than economic and political principles. A movement should draw upon the values that emanate from our deepest human emotions and desires for justice and community. The call for spiritual morality, whether advanced by organized religion or secular humanist yearnings, has played a decisive role in leading struggles throughout history.”

Readers might not be used to this language of faith and morality on the socialist left. However, in Jonathan’s book, this ethical approach is an appeal for working-class solidarity from both our long-term common interest and to help each other, here and now, in our struggles to end exploitation and oppression. And though it may sound like abstract principles, in practice, having a long-term strategy of organizing, and not just a short-term effort geared towards mobilizing and using the already existing forces, made all the difference in the most heated period of the campaign.

Conflicts within the Campaign

In the last 3 months, after the SeaTac City Council put the initiative on the ballot and before the actual vote happened, tensions in the campaign increased. Alaska Airlines took legal action to prevent the vote from happening, and this opened up a debate within SEIU about which way forward for the campaign.

The “campaign’s main funder, a local SEIU leader [David Rolf], was panicking and had resolved, unilaterally, to redirect strategy, undermining the foundation of the entire effort.” Rosenblum fully acknowledges, that SEIU Local 775’s president Rolf, ”was willing to invest significant resources in bold campaigns when other union leaders shrank from commitment.” However, under the pressure of the ballot initiative, Rolf tried to end all the work that was invested to build relations with communities, with mosques and churches, even to end all the organizing work at the airport, and instead focus all resources on winning the vote. Other union leaders “had agreed to move some staff to door knocking, while keeping enough in the airport to continue to organize workers for the initiative campaign”. These leaders recognized that SeaTac was fundamentally an organizing campaign. It was crucial that workers play a central role in the initiative drive because their collective action would be essential in the ballot campaign and beyond. “They also must have recognized that what seemed to Rolf as the safest choice – reining in the campaign under the full control of his professional union staff – was in fact the most perilous path because it would tear asunder the foundation of trust and inclusion that we would need for the ballot and beyond.”

As the director of the campaign, Rosenblum recalls in his book how he was “worried that this move would undermine the nature of the movement we had built in SeaTac, damage relations with unions and community allies that were critical to our credibility in the city, and destroy the trust of airport workers.” He feared that “[a]t best the campaign would stand as yet another illustration of a labor movement that can fight for wages but fails to build working-class power; a ballot success, but a union-building failure”. Already, the internal crisis of labor had taken attention and resources. Workers were getting skeptical and some drifted into cynicism.

Business Unionism in Practice

To Rosenblum, Rolf represents “a robust, modern form of business unionism,” “disdainful of other unions and prone to making sweeping statements about the obsolescence of strikes and proclamation about ‘the death of collective bargaining’.” Rolf ran political campaigns “developed by top leaders, presented to the members with little discussion, and implemented with agility by a disciplined professional union staff.” To Rosenblum this approach effectively meant that “workers were pieces to be moved about on a chessboard, deployed in public actions, legislative hearing rooms, and at press conferences, given scripts of what to say in these public forums, but not encouraged to be the authors of their own emancipation. I saw his work as a political operation – a very competent one – but lacking in authentic worker power.”

Nonetheless, in SeaTac, the coalition stood firm. Labor and community leaders insisted that a number of organizers had to be returned to the airport and community assignments. In addition, SEIU 775 would add staff to win the ballot initiative. “Outwardly, the coalition moved forward, the campaign’s larger purpose intact. But the previous easy camaraderie inside the coalition had been broken. Among the non-SEIU 775 staff, there was indelible mistrust of ‘Rolf’s people,’ and we had to repair frayed ties with airport workers and community allies.”

Crisis of Labor

The SeaTac campaign is rich in lessons, and Rosenblum is masterful in bringing them to light. But, the most impressive part of the book is when he connects the internal debates of the SeaTac campaign to an analysis of the different trends within labor.

The question of how to take up business unionism and push back is posed in so many unions and workplaces. In the SeaTac campaign, a group of labor leaders, with the author playing a leading role, stood against business unionism and were successful. But unfortunately, this example is an exception.

The rule in labor is that business union advocates call the shots. They occupy the most influential positions, are organized through the apparatus of most unions, and are well connected. In any case of doubt, they also have the media on their side. In the worst cases, they openly, or behind the scenes, work with the employers.

Socialists see this as part of the effort to domesticate labor within capitalism. In the whole history of capitalism, the bosses have never accepted the self-organizing of workers in unions. Wherever they have failed to simply crush unions, they worked to limit and control them with anti-union laws, and simultaneously invested huge resources – materially and ideologically – to develop a pro-capitalist tendency within working class organizations, which often finds a basis in sections of better-off workers. These pro-capitalist tendencies are often backed by union bureaucracies focused not on advancing the material conditions of the whole working class, but on furthering their own careers. Union bureaucrats, drawing huge salaries from members’ dues, are not accountable anymore to their members and in reality have risen in their social position above our class.

“Beyond $15” explains how Rosenblum and his co-leaders were able to overcome that tendency. Their integrity, left tradition, and approach helped to withstand the pressures. However, in the spirit of the discussion initiated by Rosenblum, we have to highlight that such behaviour by labor leaders is rare without a conscious organized left that holds such leaders accountable and mobilizes rank and file power. In the end, workers have to solve their problems themselves and will not be saved by individual, unbending leaders, but by building strong structures to hold them accountable. And what’s crucially needed is not only a rebuilding of labor by workers, but a rebuilding process that recognizes the importance of organizing against the business unionism from above.

A lively, democratic culture in our labor organizations is needed, linked to the right to recall leaders at any time, to hold them accountable and to keep the strategy and tactic decisions in the hand of the workers. Further, elected officials should live in the same world as the people they want to represent. They should not be allowed to take more than an average skilled workers' wage. But, such an approach within labor will need to be forcefully advocated for - and Rosenblum does not elaborate more on those strategic needs in this book.

The rebuilding of labor also needs a combative, class-conscious method, and Rosenblum adeptly explores this crucial aspect.

Unions Need Anti-Capitalism

Rosenblum’s patience and long-term view on building worker and community power is combined with a palpable impatience about the discussion on “income inequality”. He sees “the country talking about the symptoms rather than the disease”. “Dig […] beyond the manifestations of income inequality – and you will come face-to-face with the problem of power inequality in our capitalist society”, he writes. He points out that “’[t]he growing divide in the United States is no accident or misfortune. Rather the leaders of big business and finance have imposed their design on the rest of us through their disproportionate economic, political and cultural power.”

The remedy isn't to dismiss the symptoms, but rather to build campaigns that recognize that the burning issues we face today, whether it's housing, healthcare, or oppression, are just starting points. To achieve lasting success, they must go beyond and challenge the power that determines much of our lives, how it “gets concentrated in the hands of those motivated by personal profit, not human need. Only then can you figure out what must be done to reverse it.”

Rosenblum argues for a fundamental change of society, for socialism, but does not explore further how this alternative to capitalism could look like, what the fundamental changes would entail, and how to move there. Nonetheless, his claim that unions need such an alternative is powerful and all too true in the age of the Great Recession and its meager aftermath for working people.

Wind of Change blowing from SeaTac

In SeaTac we had started with a losing number [in opinion polls] and an untested theory that we could eke out a win if we could expand the electorate, motivate new, immigrant voters to vote in unprecedented numbers, and hold our own with older white voters.”

In a very narrow result, voters approved the ballot initiative. Legal fights followed. “[T]he five port commissioners [that is, the authority governing also the airport] – three Democrats, two Republicans – announced they would join Alaska [Airlines] in challenging the legality” of the ballot initiative. Meanwhile, the success of SeaTac spread confidence – not the least to Seattle, just a short 20 minutes away on the lightrail.

Rosenblum describes how Socialist Alternative decided to run a candidate against a sixteen-year incumbent on Seattle’s city council. “To take on Conlin, SA tapped a community college economics professor, a union member and Indian immigrant who had played a leading role in the 2011 Occupy movement: Kshama Sawant.”

And even for Jonathan, a left labor leader, Kshama Sawant’s and Socialist Alternative’s approach was something to slowly adjust to: “Speaking at the packed, contentious July 2013 hearing inside SeaTac City Hall, Sawant brushed aside our campaign’s admonition that speakers refrain from harsh, polarizing rhetoric. She rendered a blistering critique of Alaska Airlines and ‘corporate politicians’ from both major parties. After the hearing, I debriefed the evening with a group of workers and union staff. What was the highlight? I asked them. The size of the crowd? Our clergy who spoke? The community members? The answers were immediate and forthright. None of the above. ‘We liked that Indian lady from Seattle!’ a worker exclaimed. ‘Yes – she was the best,’ another said. Heads nodded and everyone seemed to agree: Sawant’s lashing assault on corporate greed had stirred their passion and provided a level of moral clarity that our polished talking points lacked.”

This unapologetic approach for worker justice, rent control, the bright red $15 yard signs, all of that was the basis, Rosenblum acknowledges, for Socialist Alternative’s candidate, Kshama Sawant, getting elected at the same time as the ballot initiative succeeded in SeaTac. Following her success, Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant proposed to build a broad movement for $15 minimum wage in Seattle in the following year. Unsurprisingly, within this new campaign for $15, new clashes developed in labor along similar political lines as in SeaTac.

David Rolf now argued for a moderated process bringing business and labor together by the newly elected mayor “to cut a deal behind closed doors”. In contrast, “Sawant called for a mass movement, building on SeaTac and her electoral victory.”

Rosenblum explains , “labor negotiators – both paid union staff and also union members – nearly always overestimate the importance of what happens at the bargaining table.” Instead, “the bargaining rewards will be in direct relationship to the amount of power that workers have been able to exert away from the table.”

The rest is history. Seattle was the first major city to win $15 per hour minimum wage. The movement for $15 was given a tremendous boost, spreading to Oakland, Chicago, Los Angeles and many more cities.

Higher, Wider, Deeper

Rosenblum concludes this inspiring story with advice on how we can re-build labor. “[A]im higher, reach wider, [and] build deeper”. The Labor movement must start with “a sharp critique of the capitalist system – not just what has happened to wealth distribution” and engage people in the ideas of democratic socialism that inspired so many people to support Sawant and then Bernie Sanders. It needs to “redefine who constitute ‘the labor movement’ to include all workers.” And finally, to be sustainable, it must “cultivate the ideas and leadership of workers.” It’s not enough when union democracy - “not just voting rights but the genuine engagement of worker ideas”” – is just given lip service. “The idea of a union is, at its essence, workers uniting to fight for the things they need.”

As Rosenblum says, the SeaTac experience “points the way toward the great possibilities that exist in a re-imagined labor movement.” This inspiring book kindles this re-imagination and nudges the present labor activists to move forward out of the ashes of business unionism.