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Beyond $15: An interview with Jonathan Rosenblum

September 24, 2017

Kevin Brice-Lall interviewed Jonathan Rosenblum, author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists and the Revival of the Labor Movement. Rosenblum was the campaign director of the first successful $15 fight in the country, the historic SeaTac Airport workers campaign, which he directed for the Service Employees International Union.

Rosenblum will be speaking at two forums in Toronto on September 26: “Lessons of the Fight for $15 in the Trump Era” at York University at 1:00pm and “The Fight for 15 – What Next?” at 7:00pm at the Steelworkers Hall on 25 Cecil street.

KBL: In Canada, we have won $15/hour proposed minimum wage legislation in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. In Ontario, the implementation is the fastest (an 18 month phase-in). The $15 and Fairness movement in Ontario has proven strong enough to force the demands out of the ruling Liberal Party. In Alberta and BC where the movements are smaller, some of the demands of the movement were granted from above and made more concessions to the business community, such as a slower implementation in BC. What is the sense of coordination and support between regional campaigns today in the US, and abroad? And how has the victory in Seattle been able to give confidence to workers in other Fight for $15 campaigns?

JR: At the institutional level, particularly within large organizations like the Service Employees International Union, there’s coordination among campaigns in different places. But I think what’s more noteworthy in the long run is how victories in one place inspire and build confidence among workers in other cities, regions, and countries. There’s a synergy in struggle. You’ve experienced it in Canada, as we did in the wake of the historic $15 win in 2013 at SeaTac Airport, outside of Seattle. As I talk to activists throughout North America, and even beyond, they often cite SeaTac as a source of inspiration.

And SeaTac wasn’t the start of it; indeed, the airport workers who made history drew inspiration from the New York City fast food workers, who were the first to hoist the banner calling for “$15 and a union.” It’s not just a regional phenomenon. Occupy in 2011 drew upon the experience of Tahrir Square in Cairo; and so on.

So we build confidence from one another’s struggles, and it’s really based on the simple but timeless truism for the working class: When we organize and fight, we can win.

KBL: In the beginning of your book Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement you give the example of workers’ rights on paper versus workers’ rights in practice. You write, “the balance of power is always in play”, to argue that rights won are in no way guaranteed because rights come from power, and power must be continually contested and built. What is the current “balance of power” in Seattle following the Fight for $15 victory, and what has happened to the campaign in the years following? What struggles have been advanced as a result of the victory? 

JR: The SeaTac Airport $15 ballot initiative win – a straight-up battle against big corporations and their political allies – and the subsequent $15 legislative victory in Seattle – the product of both street-heat and a negotiated deal – certainly shifted the balance of power in our city and region.

In the last three years, the movement has gone on to win a number of tenants’ rights laws, divested city funds from Wells Fargo Bank, passed a first-ever city income tax, won collective bargaining rights for Uber drivers, passed a secure scheduling law for Seattle workers, and won a statewide campaign for paid leave. And now a very broad coalition is gearing up for a 2018 statewide climate justice ballot initiative that will tax carbon to fund communities, pollution reduction, and renewable energy job development.

Those are signal achievements, but let’s look beyond the headlines to examine what’s going on in Seattle-area organizing, because it’s instructive for movements everywhere.

I see three main phenomena. First, the ruling class – big business and the area’s political establishment – made an assessment in 2013 that since they couldn’t crush workers, they instead would try to accommodate and co-opt. In other places the 1 percent might assess otherwise and try outright to destroy us – think what Scott Walker did to unions in Wisconsin, for example; or Missouri, where the politicians are slashing the minimum wage. But in Seattle the 1 percent assessed that frontal assault on the working class wasn’t feasible, so rather than take us on outright they’ve tried to hijack our issues and street energy, steering people toward “sensible” solutions and backroom deals, claiming to embrace our ideas but then try to water them down to the point of insignificance.

A classic example of this: holding real estate developers and speculators accountable for the affordable housing crisis in our region. Nearly half of all Seattle tenants are “rent-burdened,” paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Average one-bedroom apartments cost more than $2,000/month. Facing growing popular unrest, the mayor convened a “big table” of developers, community organizations, union leaders, and civic activists and hammered out a requirement that developers commit a certain amount of their projects to affordable housing. But the number developers must meet is pathetically low. It represents a small fraction of what’s needed in our city.

The second phenomenon is the growth and maturation of the movement. We’ve won tangible victories, and in doing so have shared methods and tactics of struggle among organizations that have very different cultures and approaches to the work: Unions to #BlackLivesMatter to faith communities, immigrant-led organizations, worker centres, climate justice groups, LGBT advocates, and so on. That sharing brings more movement creativity and resilience over the long haul.

The third phenomenon is the tension around inside versus outside strategy. As we experience success, and as the establishment tries to co-opt the movement, there’s a powerful temptation to overvalue the access and relationships we’ve achieved within halls of political and economic power. People can easily forget how they got here in the first place, and they put too much trust in the inside game. This fall, for instance, a number of unions have endorsed establishment candidates for local office – including one notable incumbent who fought us on $15, for goodness sake! – because they unfortunately think that’s the way to advance our interests.

On the other side of this tension is the recognition that our power to win has been, and always will be, based upon our numbers and our ability to act collectively in the political and economic arenas; it flows from a clear class analysis. We don’t reject negotiating with the establishment, of course – but we recognize that organizing and movement-building is the source of all the power we have at the bargaining table.

As we get more successful, this tension shows up more frequently, and we have to wrestle with it.

KBL: The Liberal’s announcement to advance $15 minimum wage legislation Ontario and make progressive changes to labour legislation via Bill 148, came near the same time as the release of the University of Washington’s now debunked study on the negative effect of the minimum wage in Seattle. Ontario’s business community used this to try and sway public opinion against increasing minimum wage. Following the recent setback in St.Louis where Governor Eric Greitens successfully lowered the minimum wage from to $10.00/hour to $7.70/hour. In Alberta, United Conservative Party candidate Doug Schweitzer has vowed to lower the minimum wage from $15.00/hour to $12.20/hour, should he win the nomination and the upcoming Alberta election.

What can you tell us about the business backlash in Seattle–how did they fight the movement for a $15 minimum wage? Given the Ontario Liberal Party’s promise of a $15 minimum, what advice do you have for activists currently fighting against business lobby?

JR: Business of course fought us every step of the way, and in early 2014 when they recognized that $15 was going to happen in Seattle, they fought for compromises within the final package. The backroom deal that got cut by a small group of insiders gave us $15 but included a long phase in-period – five-to-seven years for most workers – and “tip penalty,” which allows employers to pay sub-minimum wages to tipped employees.

That’s a cautionary tale for any movement that is negotiating the terms of a wage victory.

I think it’s critical for us to recognize what produces concessions in the first place. In my experience bargaining union contracts and negotiating with politicians, I’ve found that it’s easy to overestimate the importance of what happens at the bargaining table. When I’ve led union negotiations I’ve emphasized to bargaining team members that what we win in the end depends 90 percent on what we do outside of bargaining, and only 10 percent on what takes place inside the room.

There are three related principles that constitute the bedrock of effective movement work in politics. First, a clear recognition that anything and everything we win in the political arena isn’t the product of political enlightenment by the establishment; it’s a concession to our power. Second, a recognition that power – the ability to shape and influence things – is what we get when we band together and take action, whether in the streets, workplace, in halls of parliament, or through political campaigns. Our power is a function of our demonstrated ability to harm, punish, or embarrass our adversaries, to disrupt their agenda. There are no gimmicks or shortcuts to building collective worker power. And third, an understanding that the balance of power is not static, and we have to keep organizing or we’ll lose whatever gains we’ve achieved.

It’s great that the Ontario Liberals have announced they will advance $15 legislation. It is a concession to the power you’ve built. Now the challenge will be to hold them accountable to that commitment, and to organize to win the strongest possible legal provisions.

KBL: One of the strengths of the Fight for $15 in Seattle, and here in Ontario, is the activism of some of the most marginalized sections of the working class (e.g. women, people of colour, and immigrants without Canadian status). In Toronto, at York University, food service workers in Unite Here Local 75 recently had a strike for a $15 starting wage. Their strike brought awareness about how employers use racism and Islamophobia in workplaces to divide workers so that they would not to organize together, and to exploit some workers more than others. As Alia Karim writes at about a worker who faced Islamophobia:

“Not only was she singled out but she noticed that her manager divided workers based on racial bias. “They made groups of us–Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, etc.” Management would favour certain groups of workers and pressure others to work harder. Over years, the favouritism of some and discrimination toward others, along with the consistent pressure to work harder and faster, reached a breaking point and culminated with a strike.”

Considering events surrounding Trump’s election, Charlottesville, and an increase in far-right activity, what role do you see the Fight for $15 playing in combating this racism, white supremacy, and Islamophobia.  Are there any particular examples you can share?

JR: First of all, let’s salute Malka Paracha, all of the other members of Unite Here Local 75, and the students and workers at York University for their successful fight for $15 and a fair contract. It was inspiring to many of us in the U.S. to learn about the strike and the victory against Aramark, which as you know is a global behemoth with operations in 22 countries, $14 billion in annual sales, and nearly $300 million in annual profits. You took them on and beat them – congratulations! I think many of us could learn from your struggle and experience.

Second, regarding Trump, the rise of the far-right, and the role for Fight for $15: Big topic!

I was tremendously heartened in the first days of the Trump administration in January to see thousands of people come out to airports around the US to protest the president’s travel ban. People mobilized because of what was at stake. It was not just the status of foreign travellers, but our core values as a society. In the echoing halls of airport terminals from coast to coast, a spirit of resistance and humanity came alive. It was these protests surging into the national news that secured the weekend release of detained travellers and set the Trump administration back on its heels.

In SeaTac, we had upwards of 6,000 people who descended on the airport on a Saturday night with no advance notice. We blockaded the security lines and disrupted the airport. Many of the protesters were activists and leaders from the SeaTac $15 campaign. That was inspiring!

I’ve also been tremendously inspired by the Moral Mondays Movement, led by the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina. He has united faith leaders, union members, LGBT activists, and immigrant rights activists in a powerful movement to reclaim democracy and raise the call for a moral economy. They’ve led multiple mass civil disobedience actions, aimed at disrupting business as usual. I write a lot in my book, Beyond $15, about the vital yet undervalued role of faith communities in the new labour movement. The Moral Mondays Movement is a primary example that we need to learn from.

In many places, Fight for $15 has been uniting with Black Lives Matter activists and fighting white supremacy, and that’s good. But more needs to be done. There’s a tendency by some on the (white) left to see the economic fight as primary and other fights as important but ancillary or distinct. Bernie Sanders was rightfully criticized last year for not drawing a strong enough connection between racial and economic justice.

But these aren’t separate fights. Racism is a system of oppression that was invented hundreds of years ago to justify and bolster a brutal system of economic exploitation called slavery. It was on that foundation of slavery, plus the mass extermination and deportation of native Americans, that the economy of the new nation was developed. Racism still occupies the same role today. It’s an essential feature in the architecture of capitalism, perpetuated to divide workers, rationalize oppression, and ensure the hegemony of the boss. You can’t separate racism from capitalism. That’s why fights like yours at York University are so important – because they recognize and act upon the premise that racial and economic justice struggles are the same fight.

KBL: In 2018 Ontario is going to have a provincial election which risks electing a government who could roll back the gains of our movement. How did the Fight for $15 relate to electoral politics both locally in Seattle, and nationally during the 2016 election?

JR: The Fight for $15, and more generally, the demand for economic justice, played important roles in the 2016 national elections, coming up frequently in the debates and on the campaign trail.

But on a much more basic level, the entire election underscored the urgency of our fight. From Bernie Sanders’s remarkable insurgency to Donald Trump’s brutal and ugly win, the presidential campaign laid bare the deep alienation and pain felt by broad swaths of working people. The election represented an outright rejection of neoliberalism and the political duopoly that has driven the agenda over the decades: NAFTA and the destruction of unionized industries, the evisceration of the social safety net, multiple foreign wars, the mass incarceration of Black and brown people, domestic spying, bailing out Wall Street but not Main Street, and so on.

I think the challenge – and the opportunity – for Fight for $15 activists in the coming years is to engage the political system not as it is, but as we envision making it. We have to take the long-term view, as we engage in short-term electoral work. That means building political parties that are independent of the establishment, and running candidates who are accountable to that working class base.

Where I live, in the same 2013 election in which we won the historic SeaTac $15 initiative, Seattle voters elected Kshama Sawant, a union member and member of Socialist Alternative, to city council. She went on to lead the Seattle street fight for $15. Two years later we organized to win Kshama’s re-election, and prevailed against the concerted efforts of the business and political establishment. This past year, the Seattle People’s Party formed and put forward Black Lives Matter activist Nikkita Oliver as a mayoral candidate. She came in third out of 21 candidates, and her presence helped shift the mayoral debate leftward. This fall a member of the Democratic Socialists of America is running for another city council seat.

What’s crucial here and in other cities in the US is that we challenge head-on the notion that “there is no alternative” to Democrats and Republicans. We need to assert that a better world is possible – indeed, necessary – and that new political formations will be necessary to advance our vision. The 2016 election experience lends urgency to our work.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy to this, as conditions vary from one city and region to another. But my hope is that by the time my daughters are old enough to vote in 6-8 years, saying you’re a socialist running for political office will be an unremarkable statement. Perhaps even a boring one!

KBL: Can you tell us more about the role community support played in the fight at Sea-Tac? What lessons do you think labour activists should take away in terms how to work with community allies and why it is important?

JR: We learned a lot through the SeaTac struggle on this.

Too often in campaigns, union organizers view community organizations instrumentally – allies to be brought in to provide moral authority, language or cultural skills, research savvy, or political connections. These are fundamentally transactional relationships, failing to tap the full potential of a true partnership.

We recognized early on in SeaTac that the airport workers didn’t see any distinction between themselves and the community. My organizing colleague Abdinasir Mohamed noted that from the perspective of East Africans, defining the union solely as a workplace-based organization makes little sense because workers “belong to the community, they have places of worship, they have community centers, and there is no way we can separate the community from working people.”

Many of the airport workers’ leaders – the people they looked up to, would turn to for advice – were not fellow airport workers, but rather their imams, ministers, job coaches in the community, neighbors. And we needed the leaders in the union drive.

So we proceeded to build a campaign based on the understanding that the union-building was a community-wide effort. The community was not an ally of the union; it was part of the union. Community activists did the organizing work – registering and talking to voters, engaging workers, and so on. But they also were strategic partners in the campaign, engaged in decision-making, developing actions, and playing leadership roles in public demonstrations. That was new (and even uncomfortable!) for many of us, including some union leaders who felt that because they were writing the checks, they got to call the shots.

Today, tenant rights organizations, advocates for ending homelessness, worker centers, immigrant rights organizations, parents standing up for public education, groups fighting police brutality and mass incarceration, health-care advocacy organizations, faith institutions – all of these and more, along with workplace unions, are organized expressions of the interests and desires of working people.

A key takeaway for me from SeaTac is that these groups are essential building blocks of a powerful new labour movement. Unions need to embrace these groups not as allies to be invited in only after strategy has been set, but as unions in the community – part of the core of our labour movement.

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