One Question

One Question for SEIU President David Rolf

One question about the minimum-wage fight for SEIU union head David Rolf.

By Erica C. Barnett December 3, 2013

One Question

Allow me to editorialize here for a second: The current fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Seattle—on the heels of the 77-vote victory for a $15 minimum for airport workers in SeaTac—seems like the best opportunity yet to improve the livelihoods of low-income workers and help galvanize the move for a real decent wage for low-level workers across the country.

Occupy, Schmoccupy: The momentum for a higher minimum has never, in my lifetime, been more momentous, nor has the national conversation turned so vociferously toward lifting the floor for our lowest-paid workers. Forget Paul Krugman; today, CNN ran an opinion piece by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka pointing out that had the minimum wage kept pace with productivity over the last 45 years, it would be nearly $19 an hour; if the minimum had increased at the same pace as the incomes of the highest 10 percent of wage-earners in the U.S., it would be more than $28. 

Image via Economic Policy Institute.

Instead, we're stuck at $7.25. ($2.13 for tipped workers; $9.19 in Washington state, where the minimum is indexed to inflation). Obama is proposing a two-year increase to $10.10 an hour, which won't get low-wage workers close to the U.S. median wage, which is above $16 an hour. 

Given all that, the $15 minimum seems like a no-brainer. (How much do you make? Is it above $15 an hour, and do you think you could survive on less?)

Still, it's far from a done deal. This Thursday, as fast-food workers strike in 100 cities nationwide, union leaders and activists are marching from SeaTac to Seattle City Hall to show their support for the $15 minimum. We asked Service Employees International Union Local 775 president David Rolf whether, and why, this effort may actually pay off for worker rights. 

Here's what Rolf had to say about our basic question—how is the current living wage movement different than the Occupy movement: 

At SEIU 775 we are very happy to support this march & to help resource and organize it, and I’m personally very sorry to miss it (I have to be on the East Coast).  

The fast food workers’ movement has similarities to & differences from Occupy.  It shares a generally dispersed & disaggregated leadership model, a commitment to direct action,  an “open-source” membership concept, and confrontational positioning vis-à-vis corporate power.

Where this movement diverges from Occupy, first, is that it has very sharp demands: $15 and the right to organize. Further, it is focused on a specific industry and group of workers, it is tied to employment standards and poverty wages (not to a generalized list of grievances against global capitalism), and while not electoral per se, it is much more political in that it is open-minded about how to achieve victory—whether living wages should be paid voluntarily by employers or mandated by government action. 

But most importantly, what the fast food workers movement aspires to in many ways replicates what the early labor movement attempted to do:

1. Exercise economic & political power to change workers’ lives dramatically for the better ($15).

2. Do so to scale, throughout an entire industry and/or geography.

3. Build a permanent organization (“the right to organize”) not tied to the expiration of a momentary mobilization.

Clearly there’s a lot going on here and a lot to say about this, and as you can imagine we’re very involved in this struggle here and nationally.  But there’s something special going on in Seattle – the Seatac Initiative, the Mayor’s race, the Sawant victory [socialist Kshama Sawant, who defeated city council member Richard Conlin in November], the fast food mobilizations—around the question of wages & inequality.


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