A Q&A with Jonathan Rosenblum
This Q&A appeared originally on Rank and File.
On September 26, Jonathan Rosenblum spoke at two forums in Toronto: “Lessons of the Fight for $15 in the Trump Era” at York University and “The Fight for 15 – What Next?” at Steelworkers Hall. Kevin Brice-Hall at Rank and File held this Q&A with Rosenblum before the forums. What follows is the second part of the Q&A. Read the first part here.
Kevin Brice-Hall: 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 RankandFile.ca 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?
Jonathan Rosenblum: 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 US to learn about the strike and the victory against Aramark, which as you know is a global behemoth with operations in twenty-two 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 twenty-one 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 six to eight 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.
About Jonathan Rosenblum
Jonathan Rosenblum has been a labor organizer for more than thirty years, playing key roles including SeaTac Airport campaign director. His writing has been featured in Tikkun, In These Times, and Yes! Magazine. He is the author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement. He lives in Seattle, WA. Follow him on Twitter at @ and visit his website.