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Envisioning New Political Formations to Fight for $15 — Part 1

A Q&A with Jonathan Rosenblum

SeaTac/Airport Link Station
Photo credit: SounderBruce

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.

Kevin Brice-Lall: In Canada, we have won $15/hour proposed minimum wage legislation in AlbertaBritish Columbia, and Ontario. In Ontario, the implementation is the fastest (an eighteen 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?

Jonathan Rosenblum: 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.

Beyond $15Those 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 one 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 one 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 thirty 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 ninety percent on what we do outside of bargaining, and only ten 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.


Click here to read part two of this Q&A.


About Jonathan Rosenblum 

Jonathan RosenblumJonathan 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 TikkunIn 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 @jonathan4212 and visit his website.