Seattle Author Jonathan Rosenblum on the Struggle for a $15 Minimum Wage

A local union organizer and writer talks about his new book and the need for a revitalized labor movement
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Author Jonathan Rosenblum

The push for the $15 minimum wage has an interesting story going far beyond workers seeking an affordable wage. In his new book, Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement, writer and community organizer Jonathan Rosenblum details the successful campaign for a $15 minimum wage that took root at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and went on to spark a renewal in the U.S. labor movement. It all began when unions stood in solidarity with Somali immigrants, who were in a dispute with their employer over prayer breaks. What ensued provided an introspective look at labor relations, the power of organizing and the justice that hangs in the balance. We caught up with Rosenblum to learn more about the movement and the book, which is released today. 

Rosenblum will discuss his book Thursday, March 16 from 6-8 p.m. at the Washington State Labor Council and Tuesday, March 21st at 7:30 pm at Seattle Town Hall.

Seattle Magazine: Tell us a little about your background as a labor organizer and writer.

Jonathan Rosenblum: I got involved in the union when I worked in upstate New York at the Ithaca Journal, owned by the Gannett Company, at the time the largest print media corporation in the country. I became a union and community organizer in the mid-1980s–first in Louisiana, then Connecticut, before finally coming out to Seattle in 1991. I helped start the Washington State chapter of Jobs with Justice, a labor, faith, student and community coalition in the 1990s. We organized demonstrations and other collective actions to support workers–janitors, construction workers, healthcare workers, machinists, musicians, fast food workers, and so on. We did a fair amount of non-violent civil disobedience, and it was effective: workers secured their jobs, saved public services, won new contracts. And most of all, we gave people confidence that it’s possible to fight back and win.

SM: How did you come to write a book about the push for a $15 minimum wage?

JR: I didn’t start out planning to write a book. Between 2011 and 2014, the Sea-Tac Airport workers campaign was a non-stop marathon. When I finally got a chance to reflect in 2014, after we had won at the ballot but were awaiting a court ruling, I realized that if no one stopped to recount the Sea-Tac experience, then what we learned in this campaign, along with the moving and revealing stories of workers and grassroots activists, wouldn’t become part of the justice movement’s DNA. We’d all segue to the next battle and the lessons would disappear into the ether of history. In the rush of campaign work it’s hard to really get to know someone, particularly if there’s a cultural divide. But sitting in a café, in a church or mosque, or in a living room, with no pressing business to tend to, we got to talk and unpack experiences, emotions, and perspectives: What people gleaned from the campaign, how faith informed their activism, their observations about the economy, their life story of journeying to the US and the Sea-Tac Airport community, and their ideas about how we build a labor movement that fights for justice for all workers.

SM: How and why did the effort for a $15 minimum wage start at Sea-Tac, of all places?

JR: In 2011 nearly one in every five workers across the country was seeking employment, banks were foreclosing on millions of homeowners, many of whom had been duped into signing dodgy loans, and collections companies were forcing millions more into bankruptcy. My union at the time, SEIU, chose this moment of crisis to do a remarkable thing. It deployed thousands of union members and staff to knock on more than a million doors of low-income people in 17 cities across the US, with the goal of engaging people in a big national fight for a fair economy. In many cities, these efforts led to union organizing campaigns. Sea-Tac began not as a $15 wage fight, but as an organizing campaign, to win union recognition and raise standards across the airport. At the same time, fast food workers in New York City began staging walkouts under the call for “$15 and a union.” When Sea-Tac workers heard of the New York protests, they were inspired. And after Alaska Airlines and the other airport employers rejected the call for bargaining and we turned to the initiative process, the centerpiece of our proposal to the voters was obvious: $15. So New York fast food workers deserve credit for starting the call for $15 – we just picked up on it in Sea-Tac. And from there it spread.

SM: Why is the $15 minimum wage so important?

JR: It’s important for both practical and symbolic reasons. As a practical matter, winning $15 lessens worker poverty, and that’s been huge. The wage campaigns of the last five years have improved the lives of some 19 million workers across the country. Yet let’s not kid ourselves: Fifteen dollars an hour is still not a living wage in the Seattle market. But it’s an important start. Winning $15 also is important symbolically, because it demonstrates to working people everywhere that it’s possible to stand up and win. It gives people confidence, and that increased confidence spills over into other fights–for quality healthcare, immigrant rights, reproductive choice, fair housing, and so on.

SM: Your book explores the "revival of the labor movement." Why was the movement in need of a jump start?

JR: The US labor movement was–and is–in a deep crisis. Today, only about one in every ten workers belongs to a union. Corporate profits are soaring. Income inequality stands at a record high. Corporations, billionaires, and their political friends have seized control of the reins of power–just look at the current cabinet–and workers are being pushed to the margins of civic life. When I say “workers” I mean the 99 percent–all of us who use our muscle or brains for work, from janitors to doctors. We need to revive the labor movement by remaking unions into vehicles for social transformation, organizations that fight for a just society for all of us.

SM: Where do the events that unfolded at Sea-Tac, and the push for $15 that started there, fit into the bigger picture of union and organizing efforts across the nation?

JR: Sea-Tac was an experiment of social movement unionism, the idea that the union is an inclusive organization that concerns itself with fighting for social rights, not just workplace rights. Sea-Tac is not a unique experiment. Today there are lots of similar experimental unions going on. One is the Moral Mondays movement led by the Reverend William J. Barber II in North Carolina,  a fascinating fusion of union members, faith activists, gay rights advocates, and others. They recently mobilized an 80,000-person march in Raleigh, NC; pretty impressive!

SM: What does the struggle for a $15 minimum wage say about labor laws in the U.S.?

JR: The laws don’t work for working people. Indeed, I think it’s not an overstatement to say that in 2017, labor laws are used by political elites to quash workers’ dreams for better lives. Let’s take Sea-Tac, for example. The labor law governing the rights of airport workers to organize into unions is a 91-year-old piece of legislation that predates commercial air travel and was written for an entirely different industry. It’s called the Railway Labor Act. One of the features of this law is that it doesn’t recognize groups of workers who organize at a single airport–it says that workers have to organize nationally. So for instance, an aircraft cabin cleaner at Sea-Tac, employed by the contracting firm DGS, isn’t supposed to organize a union at his airport. Under the Railway Labor Act, he’s told he has to organize his 30,000 fellow DGS employees at more than 100 other airports around the country before he has the right to sit down with his employer at Sea-Tac to negotiate job improvements. It’s absurd.

SM: Beyond $15 examines many of the red-hot issues of today: how to secure a living wage, the political and corporate establishment, the freedom of religion. Where do you think the movement is headed, within the current political landscape?

JR: The current political landscape is incredibly volatile, presenting us simultaneously with huge danger but also great opportunity. On the one hand, we have Donald Trump occupying the White House, with his horrific racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, and homophobia, his long record of exploiting workers, his disregard for the safety of our planet. (And, I happen to believe that he’s a lot savvier than most of us in progressive circles would like to give him credit for.) On the other hand, his ascension to power has summoned into being this amazing, budding resistance movement. I have great hope for our country, knowing that on [the day Trump announced the travel ban], thousands of people dropped whatever plans they had for dinner, movie night, work, or study to mass at transportation centers in defense of people they had never met. They came out because of what was at stake—not just the status of foreign travelers, but our society’s core values. In the echoing halls of airport terminals from coast to coast, a spirit of resistance and humanity came alive.

SM: Tell us about your upcoming reading and what comes next for you.

JR: I’ll be doing a book launch party on Thursday evening, March 16 from 6-8 pm at the Washington State Labor Council. It’s at 321 16th Avenue South, Seattle 98144. The event is co-sponsored by a range of unions, community groups, and faith communities. Sea-Tac was a combined effort involving so many people, so we’ll hear from a number of folks at the party, not just me. And there will be opportunities for others who were involved to add their stories to the growing University of Washington’s “SeaTac/Seattle Minimum Wage History Project.”

For more information about Jonathan Rosenblum and the struggle for a $15 minimum wage, visit his website, jonathanrosenblum.org.

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