How Fight for $15 Took Off

A new book explores faith, immigration and workers power.

Steven Sherman Feb 8

Issue 232

Jonathan Rosenblum’s Beyond Fifteen: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement is an impressive addition to the considerable list of books this year that take stock of recent social movements and try to map out more effective strategies. His focus is on the struggle to organize airport workers in SeaTac, Washington, where he was an organizer. He delivers an especially vivid account, bringing to life concepts like respecting the priorities of community members and framing a struggle as a moral issue. With all the practicality that an inside view of an organizing campaign implies, he offers a radical vision of what needs to be done.

Like many writers on U.S. labor issues, Rosenblum looks back to the period ending in the mid-1970s, when the benefits of capitalism, in this case in the airline industry, were more equally spread.  He highlights the way the stability of unionized, decent-paying jobs made possible the political career of Adam Smith, the son of a SeaTac Airport ramp serviceman, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1996. The next generation would not be so fortunate. Airlines were deregulated in the late 1970s, ostensibly on the grounds that it would benefit consumers. That eroded protections for workers, and airlines also repeatedly exploited a change in bankruptcy laws that made it easier for corporations to escape commitments to workers — something rarely mentioned in populist accounts of “what went wrong.” The airline crisis triggered by the 9/11 attacks became a whirlwind of union-busting via bankruptcy protection, as airlines reorganized themselves, firing unionized workers and replacing them with low-wage workers hired through subcontractors.

The campaign built community alliances by framing its demands as moral issues, which clergy could speak about authoritatively.

So SeaTac Airport became a low-wage workplace, often staffed by immigrant workers doing jobs that were increasingly unhealthy and unpleasant, as corporations used their growing power to shift burdens onto workers. This was the context for the organizing campaign. Many within the union movement were rethinking both the focus on business unionism — trying to accommodate business so that workers could share the benefits — and the turn away from organizing campaigns in favor of political contributions. The massive unemployment after the economic crisis of 2008 undermined the hopes of business unionism. Many union leaders hoped that Barack Obama’s election as president would lead to a “card check” law that would enable unions to organize workplaces simply by signing up a majority of the employees, but Obama never seriously pushed for it.

These failures led to an opening for a new approach epitomized by SEIU’s Fight for a Fair Economy, which tried both to change the national conversation about inequality and launch large-scale private-sector organizing campaigns. Although most of the campaign’s canvasses identified unemployment as a top problem among workers, in SeaTac they learned that it was the struggle with multiple low-paying jobs, and all the consequent family and health problems, that was most urgent.

The SeaTac campaign threaded a needle through the numerous dilemmas posed by U.S. labor law, dominant union strategies and alliances between the local government and Alaska Airlines, the airport’s most important carrier. Responding to community demands was an important element. A fight erupted between workers and employers over whether prayer time for Muslim workers should be treated like normal break time, as the workers desired. This isn’t the sort of demand unions are accustomed to, and some cultural resistance needed to be overcome, but when the campaign embraced it, it opened up alliances with imams and mosques. Another way the campaign built community alliances was by framing its demands as moral issues, which clergy could speak about authoritatively — a tactic it used when it disrupted an Alaska Airlines shareholder meeting with speeches and gospel songs.

The unions had been reluctant to try to organize the airport workers into unions quickly, because their situation made it complicated and difficult under labor law. But with pressure from workers to move forward on unionizing, the campaign moved towards a hybrid strategy, in which it threatened a citywide referendum on what amounted to a union contract — a $15-an-hour minimum wage — if Alaska Airlines balked at unionization. When the company did, the campaign moved forward with the referendum. As it overcame legal challenges to the vote, organizers and workers also overcame union leadership, which wanted to run the campaign in the kind of staff-heavy format they were comfortable with. Instead, the energy and knowledge of the workers was continuously foregrounded. The referendum passed by just 77 votes, and spurred increased union membership at the airport. It reverberated through neighboring Seattle, where newly elected socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant led the charge for a similar increase in the minimum wage, and helped inspire “Fight for $15” campaigns nationally.

Rosenblum describes all this with verve and empathy. Individual workers, organizers, clergy and politicians come to life and illuminate aspects of both the larger context and the particular campaign. These little-known stories of contemporary working-class struggle could make for quality television drama, if scriptwriters ever tire of the drug trade.

Rosenblum compares the state of the labor movement to the protagonists of the 1960s film The Flight of the Phoenix. Its characters find themselves stranded in a desert after their plane crashes. Near death, they realize that they have the parts to make a new plane from the wreckage and manage to fly to safety. Rosenblum implores readers to recognize that the union movement as we know it will not be revived, but lying in the wreckage — the organizations, coalitions, practices that have been developed — are the materials needed to build something new, a social-movement union. His advice is to “aim higher,” offering a moral critique of the capitalist system; “reach wider,” by redefining the labor movement to include all workers; and “build deeper,” by developing workers’ leadership skills and taking their ideas seriously.

The writers of “what is to be done” literature are often polarized between academic dreamers, who offer grand alternatives to the present but little in the way of a roadmap of how to get there, and experienced organizers, who suggest refinements of present-day practice but don’t seem to fully grasp the depths of the transformation necessary. Jonathan Rosenblum does justice to both sides in his worthy contribution to this literature.

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Photo: Airport workers in SeaTac, Washington, rally for a union, March 26, 2013. Credit: WorkingWA.