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.