Organizing SeaTac for 15

June 1, 2017

The new book Beyond $15 makes the case for retooling the labor movement to confront the challenges of a new era of working-class mobilization, writes Steve Leigh.

JONATHAN ROSENBLUM'S book Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists and the Revival of the Labor Movement gives an excellent overview of the last few decades of attacks on the working class, focusing on airline and airport workers--and, most importantly, it recounts a successful struggle to turn them back, at least partially.

Beyond $15 starts with a dramatic description of the destruction of family-wage jobs in the airline industry, starting with deregulation in the 1970s and consolidated in the "war on terror" era from 2001 onward:

Jobs that used to pay decently--baggage handlers, skycaps, fuelers, wheelchair attendants, cabin cleaners--increasingly were becoming minimum-wage, contracted-out positions with no job security. Even mechanics, flight attendants and pilots were becoming more precarious, threatened with contracting out, their pay under downward pressure...By 2007...Sea-Tac Airport would tally 4,000 poverty-wage jobs...which provided no economic security.

Waves of corporate takeovers, bankruptcy, consolidation, subcontracting and union busting have shaken the industry, workers and communities.

Workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport march for a living wage
Workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport march for a living wage

This process "drove down per capita income in SeaTac [the town surrounding the airport] 14 percent between 2000 and 2010," following on previous declines from the late 1970s onward.

As the quality of jobs declined, more of them went to workers with few options, especially newly arriving immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America. According to Beyond $15, "Between 2000 and 2010, SeaTac went from nearly two-thirds white to a majority people of color."

As employment conditions declined, so did general social conditions in the area. "By 2010, the poverty rate in SeaTac...was double the rate in surrounding King County," writes Rosenblum. "Average household income was 40 percent lower than King County's. About 75 percent of schoolchildren relied on subsidized meals for their daily nutrition--more than double the county rate."

ROSENBLUM'S BOOK outlines the developing campaign of unions and community groups to reverse the attacks on workers at Sea-Tac Airport, 10 miles south of Seattle.

The campaign at the airport was originally an offshoot of SEIU's "Fight for a Fair Economy" (FFE), which was aimed at targeting banks and other institutions for wrecking the economy, and at increasing private-sector union density.

Rosenblum, a labor organizer with several decades of experience under his belt, writes that he and fellow union organizers were wary of the FFE since SEIU had "used workers as props in a staged drama rather than as authors and creators of their own liberation." This record of SEIU is outlined in Steve Early's The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers' Movement of Death Throes of the Old?.

Fortunately for the workers in SeaTac, the desperation of union leaders for victories allowed the campaign to take on a life of its own by 2010, led by more left-wing organizers.

But it wasn't all smooth sailing. Rosenblum explains the problematic intervention of David Rolf, leader of SEIU Local 775, who provided much of the funding for the campaign and, near the end, tried to pull the plug on union organizing at the airport in favor of a purely electoral strategy.

Unions had to overcome the distrust of immigrant workers who made up a majority of the workers in SeaTac. In the past, some of the workers had asked for help from unions when confronted with oppression on the job. The response was often bureaucratic.

This changed when Teamsters Local 117 championed the right of Muslim workers to pray on the job. This opened the door for support for the campaign in the mosques, which were often used as organizing centers. Since a significant portion of the workers were Muslim, this change in union strategy was critical.

The campaign unfolded with confrontations against the management of subcontracted services and Alaska Airlines. Alaska, the main carrier at SeaTac, had destroyed union jobs and replaced them with minimum-wage, subcontracted work. It then denied any responsibility for the poverty caused by its actions.

Workers and their allies disrupted Alaska shareholder meetings. Once it became clear that Alaska and the subcontractors weren't going to budge, the campaign used another tactic: It put a referendum for an increase in the minimum wage on the ballot in the city of SeaTac, where the airport is located.

After an intensive electoral campaign combined with continued workplace organizing, the ballot initiative passed in fall 2013. Not only did it call for a quick move to $15 an hour in the city of SeaTac, but it included annual cost-of-living adjustments and paid sick leave.

The courts blocked implementation of part of the law, ruling that the airport was owned by the Seattle Port Authority, so an initiative in the city of SeaTac couldn't govern airport employment. The decision ignored the fact that the vast majority of workers at the airport don't work for the Port, but for private employers.

Finally, the Washington state Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling, and all workers in SeaTac received a $15 an hour wage. Those who had been temporarily denied the raise got back pay, often amounting to thousands of dollars.

Contrary to dire predictions by business groups opposing the increase in the minimum wage, employment in SeaTac has expanded since the law went into effect.

THE VICTORY in SeaTac had far-reaching effects. It was instrumental in spurring the movement that succeeded in passing a $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle in 2014 and in other areas of the U.S. over time. The Seattle law was actually more limited than the SeaTac law in phasing in a $15 minimum wage.

Besides being an inspiring story of workers organizing, fighting back and winning--even when they faced the most oppressive of conditions--this book raises many questions for activists to consider: 1) the connection between the fight against oppression and the fight against exploitation; 2) rank-and-file control of campaigns in the face of the continuing power of the union bureaucracy; 3) the role of community allies, especially faith organizations in workers' struggles; 4) the priority of workplace organizing as opposed to the focus on lobbying; and 5) the role of electoral politics in union struggles.

In the end, Rosenblum calls for a transformation of the labor movement. He stresses the need for rank-and-file power in organizing campaigns, which he admits was only partially realized in this struggle.

He calls for unions to stop accommodating to corporations and only considering the issues of their own members. Instead, labor should fight for the needs of the working class as a whole, according to Rosenblum.

He argues that unions need to redevelop a moral, and not just economic, rationale for their actions. Though he implies that this is best done by involving faith leaders in leading union campaigns, it should be noted that the "moral" basis of campaigns can be provided by class consciousness and working-class politics.

The social-movement unionism that Rosenblum advocates can serve as the broad ideological basis of support for such struggles, as it did in the 1930s and '40s in the U.S., before conservative business unionism came to dominate the labor movement.

This book is definitely worth reading for its inspiring story of an important victory--and also for the questions it raises about the future of the labor movement.

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