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Veteran Organizer Gives Inside Look at the First $15 Minimum Wage Campaign

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Back in 2011, as the Occupy Wall Street movement was still spreading through the country, a smaller standoff was unfolding at Sea-Tac, the international airport in the small, eponymous town between Seattle and Tacoma that serves both cities. Along with some of her coworkers, Zainab Aweis, a Somali Muslim shuttle driver for Hertz car rental, was on her way to take a break for prayer, when her manager stepped in front of the doorway.

“If you guys pray, you go home,” the manager said.

As devout Muslims, Aweis and her fellow staff were dedicated to praying five times a day. Because it only takes a few minutes, their employer had previously treated the prayers like smoke breaks—nothing to worry about. Suddenly, the workers were forced to choose between their faith and their jobs.

“I like the job,” Aweis thought, “but if I can’t pray, I don’t see the benefit.”

As she and others continued to pray, managers started suspending each Muslim worker who prayed on the clock, totaling 34.

The ensuing battle marked a flashpoint in what would eventually be the first successful $15 minimum wage campaign in the country. The story of these Hertz workers, and the many others who came together to improve their working conditions, is recounted in Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement, a new book by Jonathan Rosenblum, a leading organizer of the campaign.

As the labor movement finds itself in a state of crisis, Beyond $15 is both a timely history of a bold campaign’s unlikely victory and an inspiring call for a flexible, progressive and power-building vision of labor organizing.

The decades-long decline of union power and the recent rise of anti-union legislation have made organizing workers in even the best of conditions an uphill battle. At Sea-Tac, one might have thought it impossible. While organizing even a single workplace is a challenge, Rosenblum and others were hoping to organize many. Decades of restructuring and union busting in the airline industry meant that many low-wage workers at Sea-Tac worked for various contractors rather than the airlines themselves. Though many of the employees worked alongside each other and shared grievances, they did not necessarily have the same boss.

Worse than that, Sea-Tac airport workers weren’t guaranteed most federal rights to union activity because those rights do not fully cover contractors or transportation workers. Due to an antiquated law called the Railway Labor Act (RLA), airport workers are all but prohibited from striking and so-called disruptive activity in the workplace. And, if all of that wasn’t bad enough, many of the workers wanted nothing to do with a union. Some had already had bad experiences with unions and did not trust them, while others were refugees who wanted no part in anything that might attract the government’s attention.

That Rosenblum and his colleagues were able to achieve victory under such circumstances, alone, makes Beyond $15 an instructive read. The book’s detailed portraits of organizers, workers and their actions are a testament to bold and creative maneuvers, which were executed so well that they made a seemingly invincible corporation feel threatened by a united front of cabin cleaners and shuttle drivers. Rosenblum’s coalition of faith leaders and a team of worker organizers, closely tied to the community, led picket drives on luggage carts, co-opted shareholder meetings with defiant prayers and songs, made a successful bid to demand union recognition and launched a citywide ballot initiative that narrowly beat its concerted conservative opposition (and I mean narrowly–the initiative passed by 77 votes, a 1 percent margin).

But more than just a collection of war stories, Rosenblum’s purpose in Beyond $15 is to persuade other advocates to follow his lead. The book uses Sea-Tac’s success to argue for a “social movement union” approach to organizing that grounds labor advocacy in moral terms, challenges the existing economic and political order and broadens the definition of union organizing to include a wide swath of community groups and faith leaders rather than union members alone.

“Today’s expectation among most union leaders …. is that the organization providing the most dollars and staff get to call the shots,” Rosenblum writes. “But community allies bring other assets, like relationships, credibility, or cultural competence, which can’t be measured monetarily but are just as vital.”

To be sure, Rosenblum’s vision for labor organizing is not exactly new. Many progressive union leaders, particularly younger ones, would find his recommended principles obvious. Even the most powerful and ostensibly hierarchical union leaders would likely agree with many of his points. And while this kind of progressive vision is important, there are practical conundrums that cannot be resolved by Rosenblum’s call to “aim higher, reach wider, build deeper”—namely, a history of industrial segmentation, automation and the large number of workers in sectors where traditional models of union organizing simply aren’t feasible. Even when union heads fully prioritize grassroots organizing, coalition building and collaborating with faith leaders, as AFL-CIO head John Sweeney did in the 1990s, this strategy is not a panacea.

With Republican control of every branch of government, the rising popularity of “right-to-work” legislation and the increasing number of preemption bills that allow conservative states to nullify laws like the one passed at Sea-Tac, these challenges are only multiplying. It’s with that in mind that Beyond $15 may be exactly the inspirational fodder that organizers need. There may not be an easy fix for the tensions between grassroots organizing and newer forms of worker advocacy, but Rosenblum can attest that the problem need not be resolved to plod ahead. As he shows in his book, progressive organizing and coalition building can work alongside ballot initiatives and big unions, and victories can still be won—now.

 This article was originally published at Inthesetimes.com on June 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Author: Jonathan Timm is a freelance reporter who specializes in labor and gender issues. Follow him on Twitter @jdrtimm.

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“When we are united we can do anything”- Workers React to Wage Theft Prevention Act Victory

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EJCOn Friday, Mayor Gray signed the Wage Theft Prevention Act of 2014. Click here to see the bill or here for a marked up version of the DC Code that shows the changes that will be made once the legislation goes into effect in late November or early December. The legislation was passed after years of organizing, strategizing and campaigning by the Employment Justice Center, DC Jobs with Justice  and our other allies in the DC Wage Theft Coalition.

After a period of congressional review that should end in late November, the District of Columbia will have one of the strongest laws against wage theft in the country. The new law will combat wage theft by:

  • Establishing formal procedures at the DC Office of Wage-Hour (OWH) to enable victims of wage theft to recover unpaid wages and damages. OWH investigators will have 60 days to arrive at a formal decision, which can be appealed when necessary to an administrative law judge;
  • Increasing the penalties for those responsible for committing wage theft to include tiered administrative and criminal penalties, as well as the possibility of a suspended business license for companies that do not comply with administrative orders to pay the wages owed;
  • Providing greater protection for workers who stand up for their rights, by requiring that all employers issue a written notice of the terms of employment. If the notice is not issued, the worker’s testimony will carry greater weight if they need to demand unpaid wages; and
  • Making it easier for wage theft victims to get legal representation by clarifying how judges must calculate attorneys’ fees in these cases.

In late July, the EJC’s workers’ committee hosted a summer barbecue to celebrate the hard earned victory, look back on what they had won, and to start to develop a vision for the future.

Jose Cruz

Jose Cruz prepared the meat and chicken in a delicious marinade. “I feel content because we fought for this law that will have an effect on the whole community that needs this support. I am content with our organization, because we have fought this battle and we have won. We won and we will keep moving forward! (Me siento contento porque luchamos para esa propuesta y tiene efecto para toda la comunidad que necesita está auda. Me siento contento con toda nuestra organización que hemos luchado para está batalla y la ganamos. Ganamos y vamos a seguir adelante!).”

 

julio sanchezJulio Sanchez, a restaurant worker who testified in support of the Wage Theft Prevention Act as well as the Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act of 2013, shared how his life had changed as a result of his organizing efforts. “I learned that together, we can make something great like the law that just passed, as well as the paid sick days. I am happy because I met more people and I am now in the group. We make a great team. And we never stay silent. (Aprendí que juntos podemos hacer algo grande como la ley que se aprobó, junto con los de los derechos de enfermedad. Estoy feliz porque conocí a más gente y estoy ya en el grupo. Hacemos un gran equipo. Y nunca nos quedamos callados).

Dalia Catalan, a mother who was fired for taking a sick day to take care of her sick child, expressed how she felt when she learned the bill had passed. “When I knew that we had won, wow, I felt happy because of all of our sacrifices, and we did it! (Cuando supe yo que si lo habíamos ganado, wow, me sentí feliz por todos los sacrificios de uno, y si se pudo!).”

“There are laws for me too, and we have rights here, something that I didn’t know.

Si hay leyes para uno también, y tenemos derechos aquí, algo que yo no sabia.”

Dalia’s husband, Carlos Chajon, spoke about his favorite part of the victory. “My favorite part was to become part of a group that is small but with a lot of power and a lot of enthusiasm. I learned that we can share with others, and that there can be laws that can help us. (Mi parte favorita fue de integrarme a un grupo pequeño pero con mucho poder, con bastante entusiasmo. Aprendí poder compartir con otros, y que hay leyes que les puede ayudar).

bruno avilaBruno Avila, who kept the grill running until all the meat was gone, reflected on what this victory means for his community. “My favorite part was that we make our rights worth something, despite everything that someone has going against them, maybe that they don’t have papers, that they have a boss that wants to abuse them, that supervisors in the workplace think that they aren’t going to do anything, we start to plant the seeds of credibility. And with this we can do big things. (Mi parte favorita fue que se hacen valer los derechos, a pesar de todo lo que tienes en contra, ya sea que no tenga documentos, que tenga un jefe que quiere abusar de ti, que supervisores en el lugar de trabajo piensan que no sa va a hacer nada, se empieza a poner las semillas de la credibilidad. Entonces con eso comenzamos a hacer grandes cosas).”

“Here we don’t stop, it’s just the beginning.

Aquí no paramos, es el comienzo de seguir.”

Salvador Martinez discussed what he had learned through this struggle. “I learned that nothing is impossible (Aprendi que no hay nada imposible),” he said. “I am joyful. This beginning, this process, had a big impact on the city and throughout the whole metropolitan área. I am joyful to be part of this group, to volunteer and to help the city so that this city makes progress. (Me lleno de regocijo. este inicio, este proceso, tuvo gran impacto en la ciudad y más allá en la área metropolitana. Me siento gozoso de ser parte del grupo, el cual puedo desempeñarme voluntariamente y ayudar a la ciudad para que está ciudad siempre vaya en progreso).”

“When we are united, we can do everything.

Cuando estamos unidos, todo lo podemos.”

gregorio hernandezGregorio Hernandez had been fighting to recover his unpaid wages for nearly two years. “The dishonest employers will be afraid because they won’t want to lose their license (Se tendrán miedo los empleadores deshonestos por no querer que se les quite su licencia), he said. “I don’t think they will continue working in this way (No creo que van a seguir trabajando así).”

jonny castillo

 

Jhonny Castillo, who will be honored at the EJC’s Labor Day Breakfast as Worker Activist of the Year, spoke about his vision for the future. “We will think about and take on a project to work towards, with the support of the Employment Justice Center (Eso vamos a pensar, vamos a tomar algún proyecto que tengamos para trabajarlo, siempre con la ayuda con el Centro de Justicia),” he said.

 

Mario de la Cruz gave advice to his community: “Don’t give up! You all have rights, but we must lose our fear. We all have rights, we are all children of God. Everyone has rights. (Que no se deje! Que tienen derecho como persona, pero siempre cuando tiene que perder el miedo. Todos tenemos derechos, todos somos hijos de Dios. Todos tienen derechos).”

The EJC is proud to attribute this victory to the hard work and unity of the DC Wage Theft Coalition and the EJC’s workers’ committee. Thanks to the workers who took time off work to speak out at rallies, host community meetings, and tirelessly tell their stories to DC Councilmembers. 

¡Para adelante! Forward!

This blog originally appeared on the Employment Justice Center blog on September 22, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.dcejc.org/2014/09/22/when-we-are-united-we-can-do-anything-workers-react-to-the-wage-theft-prevention-act-victory/

About the Author: The Employment Justice Center was founded on Labor Day 2000, the mission of the D.C. Employment Justice Center is to secure, protect and promote workplace justice in the D.C. metropolitan area.  Since their founding, the EJC has successfully used a combination of strategies to protect the rights of low-income workers, including legal services, policy advocacy, community organizing, and education.  In the past eleven years, the EJC has returned more than $7,000,000 to the pockets of low-wage workers, achieved many legislative victories that have touched the lives of countless workers, educated thousands of workers about their rights and responsibilities on the job, and launched three vibrant community organizing groups. They believe that in securing, protecting, and promoting workplace justice for the most vulnerable among us, we raise the floor of workplace rights for us all.


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