They Fought for $15 at Sea-Tac Airport: Meet the Stars Who Revived the Labor Movement
March 14, 2017
Happy publication day to labor organizer and journalist Jonathan Rosenblum and Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement! As recently as 2013, the call for a $15/hour minimum wage became a resounding rally cry against growing income inequality in the US. In Beyond $15, Rosenblum captures the inside story of the first successful fight for a $15 minimum wage. Just outside Seattle, an unlikely alliance of Sea-Tac Airport workers, union and community activists, and clergy staged face-to-face confrontations with corporate leaders, uniting a diverse, largely immigrant workforce in a struggle over power between airport workers and business and political elites. The workforce was made up of employees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Mexico, the Philippines, Iran, Iraq, India, and other countries who joined forces with Christian and Muslim leaders. Rosenblum was director of the Sea-Tac campaign for the Services Employees International Union.
In light of a Trump presidency, Rosenblum offers a blueprint for a new kind of all-inclusive labor movement, which he calls a “social movement union.” He argues there are three steps that unions must take to forge this newly empowered movement: Aim higher with a bolder vision of a just society that stands as a stark counterpoint to capitalism; reach wider by redefining who constitutes the “labor movement” to include all workers, not just those holding union cards; build deeper by cultivating the ideas and leadership of ordinary workers. Below you will meet some of the key players who took these steps to reclaim their power in the new economy.
- Abdinasir Mohamed, the former ANC youth organizer who came to America and was shocked by the poverty he saw on the streets. Mohamed arrived in Seattle and played a pivotal role connecting workers and area Muslim leaders in the Sea-Tac fight.
- Iraqi refugee Mohamed Kadhim, a trained computer programmer who escaped two wars before arriving in Sea-Tac, where as a baggage handler he helped his coworkers form unions and win fair pay.
- Somali refugee Yasmin Aden, who as a janitor in Seattle led a successful wildcat strike and went on to become one of the main organizers in the Sea-Tac campaign.
- Omar Mumin, a Somali Muslim and Sea-Tac Airport worker who was ordered to shave his beard off after 9/11. Mumin helped organize other Muslims in the community and create a video in Somali that explained the ballot initiative and voting procedures for first-time voters.
- Alex Hoopes, the Alaska Airlines baggage handler who, along with nearly 500 coworkers, was fired in 2005 when the airline contracted out the work to a poverty-wage employer. For Hoopes, the Sea-Tac campaign offered an opportunity to avenge the damage Alaska had inflicted on him and his coworkers.
- Sarah Mohamoud, the Somali refugee who went door-to-door throughout the Sea-Tac community registering new voters and challenging them to stand up to the big corporations that opposed the ballot initiative.
- Ethiopian immigrant Mulat Ayalew, who along with thousands of other Sea-Tac workers won huge back-pay settlements totaling millions of dollars from the airline contractors as a result of the ballot win. With fair wages now assured, Ayalew and his coworkers were able to return to school, reduce their work hours, purchase homes, and enjoy a measure of economic stability.
- Reverend Jan Bolerjack, troubled by seeing hungry airport workers at her church’s food pantry, led protests along with other clergy at Alaska Airlines as a way of bringing the living Gospel into the airport community.
- Reverend John Helmiere, the minister who, along with other clergy, stunned Alaska corporate executives by commandeering their annual shareholders meeting and challenging them with a prayer for worker justice at the airline.
- Sheikh Abduqadir Jama, a local imam and school director, who overcame his deep skepticism of unions when he saw unions stand up for the rights of Muslims to pray at work.
- Peace activist and civil disobedience practitioner Reverend Lauren Cannon, who brushed aside threats of arrest by airport authorities when she lobbied airline passengers about Sea-Tac’s poverty wages and unsafe working conditions.
- Socialist political activist Kshama Sawant, who backed the Sea-Tac movement and in the same election as the Sea-Tac ballot win scored a stunning upset over a sixteen-year incumbent to win a seat on the Seattle City Council. Following Sawant’s win, her Socialist Alternative party led demonstrations in Seattle and threatened a ballot initiative to force the political establishment to agree to a phased-in $15 minimum wage.
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. His upcoming book, Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement, will be released in March 2017. He lives in Seattle, WA. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathan4212.