David Rolf’s smartphone buzzed. Sitting in his sparse office, a framed Seattle Times article about the minimum wage movement on his wall, but not much else, the labor leader glanced down to eye the text message.

Mayor-elect Ed Murray’s top consultant was pinging him. Murray’s labor ally Rolf was in the loop about newly elected Socialist city council member Kshama Sawant’s surprise (and competing) minimum wage press conference, which she’d suddenly scheduled 48-hours before Murray’s. It did not go unnoticed by Murray’s camp that Rolf was playing footsie with Sawant.

It was the end of December and Murray was getting ready to roll out perhaps the biggest agenda item of his upcoming first term: a plan to increase the minimum wage, something he’d pledged to do on the campaign trail, earning him the endorsement of Rolf’s powerful union, the Service Employees International Union Local 775NW. After Murray won the election, Rolf had been appointed to Murray’s transition team. Now, to Murray’s surprise and chagrin, Sawant was beating Murray to the punch on the minimum wage issue—and with SEIU’s apparent support. One of Rolf’s staffers was slated to speak at Sawant’s attention-grabbing event and Rolf had known about it since the day before.

 

“The fast food movement has a lot in common with Occupy,” he says, “but it also has some things that are very different. It’s got very crisp demands. It’s not about how, it’s about what. 

 

“I’m on Murray’s transition team,” Rolf said last December as the competing meetings were in play, “but I’m not on his staff. I’m not in the habit of clearing speaking requests with the mayor.” 

Murray, who’d pledged to raise the minimum wage to $15 by the end of his first term, and Sawant, who’d won a surprise victory to the city council thanks to her own fiery stump speech about increasing the minimum wage to $15, were both staking out their ground. And they were also, evidently, both counting on Rolf, whose support they each needed to make good on their agendas. 

Rolf—a boyish and trim 44-year-old who wears suits but still looks like a teenager at an older sister’s wedding—heads up arguably the most powerful union in the state. The 43,000-member union, which represents home health-care workers, has been a major funder of recent liberal agenda ballot initiatives such as the high-earners income tax, marriage equality, and the fight against the soda tax repeal.

SEIU 775NW’s latest cause has been championing a higher minimum wage; it provided over $400,000 in cash and support for research and organizing staff for the successful SeaTac minimum wage campaign. The union-backed registration drive netted about 1,000 new voters and is credited with passing the ballot measure by a slim margin of 71 votes out of only around 6,000.

 

Rolf grew up with union politics. His mother, a schoolteacher and the only one in her family to go to college, came from blue-collar roots. He heard stories about fights for fair wages and picket lines from her “hardscrabble” dad, who left school at 13 and worked on a GM assembly line. Still, those modest beginnings led to a path of upward mobility. Rolf’s working-class mom married a lawyer, and Rolf grew up comfortably in Cincinnati in the 1970s. “We had a brick ranch home and a sandbox in the backyard. We had a station wagon. For vacation, throw the kids in the back seat, stay in the Best Western on the way to Disneyland. It was a sitcom, stereotype life.” 

Rolf’s parents lived their liberal values. His dad pledged to a predominantly black frat in the early ’60s to show allegiance to the civil rights movement, and when Rolf was 14 his mother, a Unitarian, took him to “U.S. Out of Central America” meetings at her church. His family paid for his college education at Bard, a prestigious private college north of New York City, where his left leanings blossomed. A college girlfriend turned him on to the left-wing publication The Nation. “Oh hey, I really agree with all this stuff,” he thought to himself (at his parents’ home it had just been “Newsweek, TV Guide, and the Cincinnati Enquirer”). “About every campus cause you could be involved in during the late ’80s and early ’90s”—apartheid, Reagan, and AIDS—“I was in.”

One of the causes, fatefully enough, was helping an SEIU local organize campus janitors. And after graduating, he went to work for SEIU in Atlanta. 

He’s been with SEIU ever since and still brandishes campus idealism (and outspoken rhetoric) when it comes to economic injustice. “You can look at any data point you want and tell a really sad story about the decline of working people and the middle class in America. It’s a Sal’s Pizzeria moment,” he says about the current $15 minimum wage debate. “Every time I hear about ‘the value of meals I give my employees,’ it reminds me of Sal in Do the Right Thing. In his own mind he was a benefactor to workers and the community, but in reality he was just an oppressive and racist jerk.”

 He also talks in academic, machine-gun bursts of stats about the economic conditions of the working class until someone dares to interrupt. “We should keep focused on what the fuck is happening in our economy, right? Let’s talk about the fact that we tripled student loan debt between 2005 and 2012. Let’s talk about the fact that while family incomes increased by about 20 percent between 1990 and 2008, the cost of housing increased by 56 percent.... Let’s talk about the fact that between 1950 and 2006, payroll taxes have risen from 10 percent to over 40 percent, but corporate taxes, during the same time, have fallen from around 30 percent to below 10 percent. Let’s talk about the fact that we made an intentional choice to experiment in trickle-down economics in over 40 years of globalization, privatization, deunionization, detaxation, and privatization, and that the consequence of that is, not only that African American and Latino families are now living less than two paychecks away from bankruptcy, but that…college-educated white men now have less earning power than they did in 1969.” 

A solution, Rolf believes, is to increase the minimum wage. The magical $15 number hit the public seemingly out of nowhere when fast food workers took to the streets in a series of national fast food worker walkouts starting in May 2013. Like the Occupy Movement’s catchy 99 percent slogan, it stuck. But unlike the Occupy slogan, it represented a specific demand. 

Rolf, like most of organized labor, is struggling with dwindling membership—the percentage of American workers who belong to unions fell to 11.3 percent last year, down from 20 percent in the 1980s—and a sense that the labor movement has more in common with Woody Guthrie campfire songs than with Instagram and globalization. He was both caught off guard and inspired by Occupy’s left-wing energy, which fizzled all too soon. “Occupy quickly became about whether or not you could camp out in a park,” says Rolf. 

“If you were to deconstruct Occupy and fault find with it,” he says clinically, “you would say (A) there were no demands, (B) there was no structure and therefore no way of institutionalizing it past its moment, and (C) there were no ways that normal people could become involved. People who have to go home and read their kids a bedtime story and bring home some groceries if they can afford it or hustle up some dinner from the cabinet and fridge aren’t perfectly suited to being park occupiers. That’s a lot of who fast food, low wage, food service and retail workers are.”

Rolf’s union has deftly redirected Occupy’s ad-hoc political brushfire. “The fast food movement has a lot in common with Occupy,” he says, “but it also has some things that are very different. It’s got very crisp demands. It’s not about how, it’s about what.” And the “what,” the $15 demand, is something that Rolf played a big part in crafting. 

Last June he helped write an influential Bloomberg Businessweek op-ed by Seattle businessman and Democratic donor Nick Hanauer. Just before the editorial ran, Hanauer joined Rolf in a presentation to the influential Democracy Alliance, a group of rich donors including SEIU, which funds liberal causes, successfully making the case that raising the minimum wage should be the cause celebre. (You’ll notice it’s since become part of President Obama and the Democrats’ agenda.)

The minimum wage issue also, probably in large part due to Rolf, landed on candidate Murray’s agenda. Asked how much SEIU had to do with getting Murray to pledge to pass a $15 minimum wage ordinance during his mayoral run, Rolf smiled: “I think you know the basic facts. I think we were probably the only organization that asked in its candidate survey whether people were for $15. And we hosted a forum here that may have been the first televised town hall forum in the country around low-wage workers issues in a big-city mayoral race…Ed Murray was the only one holding up the Yes card during our lightning round when it came to $15.” 

Hanauer adds: “In the meantime, Rolf and SEIU started organizing the fast food workers around a $15 living wage and the SeaTac initiative. By summer that effort had gone great guns, and people were finally beginning to think about the economy in a new and better way.” Kshama Sawant also credits SEIU with playing “an absolutely spearheading role” in SeaTac, “getting out on the street and organizing.” 

And just like Mayor Murray’s team, which was eager to keep Rolf in its camp during the dueling minimum wage press conferences last December, Sawant also needs Rolf’s support. Without SEIU’s backing, her threat of introducing a populist ballot measure if city hall negotiations fail to meet her bottom line, lacks teeth. To successfully go forward with a ballot initiative, she’ll need SEIU’s dollars and doorbelling troops.


Just 48 hours after Sawant’s $15 minimum wage press conference, Rolf, despite the hiccup with Murray’s folks, stood front and center at Murray’s press conference, where he was introduced as the cochair of the mayor’s minimum wage task force. He strolled to the podium and fired off yet another meaty sound bite. “There is no more pressing issue facing our city, our region, and
our nation than the issue of the growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else…. Our economy is producing, for every five jobs that have been created that pay over $30,000, 15 jobs that pay less than $30,000.” And then he deftly credited Murray as “the first American mayor to run for, and campaign on, a pledge to reach a $15-an-hour minimum wage.” Of course Rolf sees SEIU as having made that happen. 

A few minutes later, Sawant, also in attendance at the press conference, announced that if the minimum wage task force failed to come up with a satisfactory plan, she’d make good on her promise to put an initiative on the ballot.

Rolf, clearly the kingmaker in the room, could only smile to himself.