In the recent history of economic justice, one of the most prominent success stories is the $15 minimum wage in Sea-Tac, Washington. The small town where the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is located, it is made up of a combination of older white working class neighborhoods and newer immigrants, especially from east Africa, who mostly work at the airport. In 2014, as part of a campaign to organize the airport, especially targeting Alaska Airlines’ anti-union practices and extensive use of subcontractors, the turn to the city-wide $15 minimum wage became a strategy to move around the intransigence of the Alaska and the rest of the airport businesses. The referendum succeeded, by a hair, which set the precedent that Seattle built upon to create for its $15 wage, something that has since spread across the nation as a nearly universal progressive demand.
Jonathan Rosenblum was SEIU’s campaign director at the Sea-Tac Airport and his 2017 book Beyond $15 is a pretty great exploration of the Sea-Tac campaign, with quite clear lessons for the rest of us interested in building worker power, fighting inequality, and reshaping the labor movement for the twenty-first century. Too often, this sort of a book is an almost stereotypical inside baseball account from union reformers where everything that Big Labor does is bad and everything that comes out of “worker democracy” is good. Of course, that is an oversimplified take, but you’d be surprised how pervasive it is. Rosenblum doesn’t per se disagree in principle–he has plenty of legitimate criticism of the contemporary labor movement and certainly believes in workplace democracy, but he also understands the complexity and challenges of building a movement toward worker power.
Rosenblum provides a deep dive into the nuts and bolts of this campaign, which primarily came out of Alaska Airlines’ anti-union methods that relied heavily on subcontracting to create large profits that hurt workers. Airlines were already heading in this direction and then fully embraced taking advantage of 9/11 to cut thousands of jobs, reduce labor costs to increase profits, and make the lives of workers far more contingent. The real roots of all this go back to the Carter administration deregulation in 1978. Of course, the choice in 1978 and to the present is not “regulation” or “deregulation.” There were and are many paths toward regulating the airlines and unfortunately deregulation went way too far and allowed the airlines to shed responsibility for many of the workers that provide their profit.
The heavily Somali immigrant community south of Seattle fled terrible violence at home but found their own American Dream undermined by the economic realities of the New Gilded Age. SEIU hired a lot of developing leaders in the east African communities at Sea-Tac, built trust by supporting Muslim workers’ demands that they be allowed time to pray on the job, brought in both Muslim and Christian faith leaders to support a broad-based campaign around justice that paved over divides over cultural issues by focusing on the demands of the workers themselves, and worked slowly toward unionizing the airport workers. Rosenblum interviewed many of the activists to build a complete story of the campaign, one that looks at everything from gender roles in the Somali community to how expressions of power through occupying city council meetings and disobeying corporate security to confront executives builds power and confidence among workers to lead toward a higher goal. His stories of workers gaining courage resonate powerfully throughout the text, demonstrating to readers outside the labor movement just what unions can actually do in ways that are far too rare in mainstream media sources. One of the best is that of Yasmin Aden, a Somali-born union staffer who fled her home nation as a teenager, first to Kenya and then the U.S., but also rejected the gender roles of her people and religion. Refusing to cover her head and smoking publicly, the other Somali workers were nervous about her personal radicalism, but then came to respect her toughness and stubbornness. She was first confused by unions, wondering why the heck dues were taken from her paycheck, but became a union activist, organizer, and officer.
What Rosenblum ultimately argues through this story is that workers don’t just need higher wages. They need power over their lives. Unions simply aiming for wage gains or union contracts really isn’t enough anymore and maybe it never was. He strongly, though sympathetically, criticizes unions for having long ago given up their fight for broad social change and instead embracing a business unionism that worked OK for members so long as the basic social contract between employers and unions held firm. Once that began falling apart in the 1980s, union structures and cultures were so ossified and union interests so entrenched that most of organized labor was simply unable to respond.
The Service Employees International Union was one of the only unions to move beyond this and engage in broad-based organizing. But SEIU itself became too enamored of top-down structures under the leadership of the now infamous Andy Stern, who was a Silicon Valley-type leader heading a huge union. The problem with Stern’s position is that his strategies reflected whiz bang techbro ideas over worker power. He discovered that one strategy to get beyond the employer-employee impasse was through combining worker power into effective political campaigns, but much of that came at the expense of what unions actually do well. For SEIU, that came with turning the union shop steward, often the voice of union leadership on the shop floor, to a 1-800 number that workers could call and complain, which in my view is arguably the worst idea in modern union history. In the case of the Sea-Tac workers, Stern’s acolyte pulled all the organizers out of the airport to fight for the referendum, which both undermined the other unions that stood to gain from unionizing the airport and most importantly alienated the workers themselves, who suddenly felt abandoned and used. That was reversed, but damage was done and the entire idea demonstrates the problem with contemporary union decision-making.
Ultimately, the victory in the $15 vote was hugely important. Many workers received back pay after the courts finally ruled it legal. And while a judge ruled the wage invalid inside the airport, all the organizing finally built a campaign for successful unionization of these workers. Workers now had greater power to control their own lives and function in this unstable economy. But a bad union model could still undermine this. Rosenblum notes that when the $15 campaign extended to Seattle, the same SEIU leader who pulled the workers from the airport organizing campaign was chosen by the neoliberal city mayor Ed Murray to work out a compromise measure over a wage implementation program rather than let voters decide what they wanted. For Rosenblum, this entire method of operating undermines what unions can do–not just give workers a few more dollars to spend but the tools of change they can use for their own purposes.
Rosenblum closes by asking unions to think about the real lessons of the Sea-Tac campaign. He urges organized labor to bury its business unionism with the 1950s and engage in broad-based social unionism campaigns with larger goals of engaging the community at large to provide workers power over their own lives. Unions must critique capitalism directly–and say the name–instead of hiding behind a tech-friendly vision of a 21st century America where labor and capital can coexist together, which clearly is not in the worldview of any capitalist. He urges greater focus on spirituality and religion, something much of the left is not so comfortable with but which is so important to so many people’s lives. Finally, he demands that unions take rank-and-file workers seriously. He fully admits, unlike some who make a fetish out of workplace democracy, that the rank-and-file can have ideas just as bad or worse than union leaders. But building a culture where real bottom-up leadership is cultivated and respected, in conjunction with good leadership from the top, can come together to create a far more effective labor movement than exists today. Easier said than done, but good principles at the very least. Rosenblum’s diagnosis is largely correct, even if the solutions are tough to implement.
The only real weakness of the book is the title, which doesn’t quite sell what Rosenblum is doing here. Yes, immigrant workers and faith activists are critical parts of this particular story, but Rosenblum’s insights are a lot broader. When I picked up the book, I figured I was going to get a deeper dive on labor-faith coalitions than this. I was pleasantly surprised, as this is a lot more interesting, but still, this could have sold more copies with a stronger title.
But really, that’s a cosmetic criticism. Beyond $15 is an excellent book for anyone interested in organizing, the future of the labor movement, building coalitions, socialists, pretty much anyone who is thinking hard about making the world better outside of the electoral system. And for those who do focus on change through the electoral system, remember that this sort of change can’t happen without mobilization outside of electoral politics and we need to think about how to build political movements out of mobilizations that aren’t just the middle class.