“Beyond $15” is a memoir and a call to action

Nearly 10,000 showed up the May Day march with signs and flags, calling for a higher minimum wage and an end to discrimination against immigrants. (Photo by Seth Halleran)
Many people held signs and flags calling for a $15 an hour minimum wage at a May Day March in 2014. (Photo by Seth Halleran)

Recently, most news articles that covered United Airlines’ recent scandal, in which a passenger was violently removed from his paid flight seat, ignored the fact that the flight was operated by Republic Airlines, a subcontractor agency.

But such instances would be no surprise to Jonathan Rosenblum, a leader in the successful fight for $15 an hour minimum wage in the city of SeaTac, home to the Puget Sound’s major airport. In his book“Beyond $15,” Rosenblum (who has also contributed articles in The Seattle Globalist) argues how airline deregulation of the 1970s and the airlines’ pursuit of profits brought a shift in power which routinely results in subpar customer service — and explains the state of morality in that industry.

Many books on social movements deal with either the art, theory or science aspect of social agitation. Rosenblum attempts to combine all three, leaning heavily on the practical side of organizing.

Rosenblum says his experience in the campaign for $15 an hour minimum wage shows that greater inclusivity can lead to the revival of labor movement — and thus labor unions.

Rosenblum seems to be energized and enamored by the wisdom of immigrant workers, many of whom are “nonunion,” faith-based activists and community leaders.

Rosenblum, a longtime organizer, uses his intimate knowledge of the airline industry, labor unions and community organization to lay out how the “ossified” unions, which follow a 60-year-old model that has not adjusted to new developments, can start re-balancing the “power inequality.” Rather than just surviving the age of plummeting union membership, they can become a vehicle of social transformation.

In his scathing critique of unions that is hard to distinguish from a sharp critique of capitalism itself, he offers a friendly escape route from what looks like the inevitable irrelevance of unions.

“Beyond $15” is a “David vs Goliath” story remade in modern-day settings with an even thicker plot. Here is a campaign director attempting to form a formidable coalition, against what he calls corporate power and establishment politics, out of the chaotic cultural mess of the Greater Seattle area: secular union staff, devout immigrant Muslims from Iran to Somalia, and Christian and Jewish faith-based activists in the liberal Pacific Northwest.

What could possibly go wrong?

As documented by Rosenblum, plenty. Some setbacks were serious, such as the movement suffering a court battle loss. Others incidents were delightfully awkward, such as when faith-based activist John Helmiere offered prayers in the middle of decidedly secular and formal Alaska Airlines annual shareholders’ meetings.

Other conflicts were the emotional rollercoasters: a gap in trust and culture between union staff and community leaders, union conflicts concerning different campaign strategies, and a disheartening screaming match at SeaTac City Hall where an elderly resident told immigrant workers that they were “uneducated” and didn’t deserve $15 an hour.

Rosenblum says the SeaTac campaign became an unanticipated testing ground.

After the tumultuous campaign and narrow victory, the SeaTac campaign went far beyond an issue of the small town. It gave an impetus and a campaign slogan, “$15 Now,” for the first campaign of Kshama Sawant, who won a seat on the Seattle City Council. Major cities such as San Francisco and Chicago would later raise their minimum wages to $13 or more.

Personal stories

Beyond airline deregulation, Rosenblum details how contracting and outsourcing industry operations has turned “good jobs” into “bad jobs,” and tilted power towards executives and away from workers.

He does so in a collection of amazing stories of workers and their families. He contrasts the story of Democratic Congressman Adam Smith’s father, Ben Smith — who had a well-paying union job at the airport — with the story of Alex Hoopes, whose job as a baggage handler suffered after Alaska Airlines switched to contractors.

Another story featured Abdinasir Mohamed, one of Rosenblum’s fellow organizers, who emigrated from Somalia in 2008 only to find himself shocked at the level of poverty in New York when he gave $5 to a homeless women with blue eyes a few days after he arrived in the States.

I interviewed Rosenblum for a May Day story last year and we’ve informally discussed politics, protests and his experience in the labor movement.

I know that Rosenblum is not one to shy away from taking radical positions. During the WTO protests in Seattle, he joined other labor protesters who broke away from union leadership to defy the city’s mandatory curfew. But later that day, he ended up looking after a Starbucks, after its windows were broken by the Black Bloc.

But Rosenblum doesn’t focus on himself in “Beyond $15,” except when addressing the tensions between himself and SIEU director David Rolf, a technocrat with Silicon Valley-style leadership. According to Rosenblum’s own account, his strategy got the community support over the union strategy, for the most part.

In “Beyond $15,” Rosenblum doesn’t want to settle for the achievement of the successful minimum wage campaign, arguing for an even bolder vision of a just society through a revival of the labor movement. However, he regrets that labor unions have not taken advantage of the activism of recent years — especially of the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights and environmental justice activism.

He challenges labor union leadership to strive for a more inclusive and open membership. Instead of continuing in a “business union” model, he suggests learning from South African and Filipino worker organizations to establish a hybrid of political union and business union — which are not necessarily partisan.

One of his more radical suggestions for transforming labor unions is to expand the number of workers who can be represented, regardless of who pays dues.

While Rosenblum makes a strong case for just society with moral and power imbalance arguments, he doesn’t provide much in the way of theory of justice.

One of the book’s weaknesses is the lack of discussion about race, which might reflect the labor movement’s largely white leadership. What’s more, while Rosenblum quotes literature from 50 years ago on the relationship between capitalism and “coercive force,” he doesn’t talk about it in the context of today’s movements, except for a few scattered mentions of Black Lives Matter and police reform.

Another criticism is Rosenblum doesn’t explore the possibilities of alternatives to the corporate ownership of airlines, such as a publicly run airline or one run as a cooperative to give workers an edge on the means of production. He also doesn’t tell us if his idea of a “just society” through labor social movement has anything to say about climate change and the environmental justice activism.

There is one more thing that seriously irritated me: as he criticizes airlines for outsourcing maintenance jobs to mechanics in other countries, Rosenblum describes black and brown engineers as cheap and incompetent workers who can’t even read a maintenance manual. To me, this cherry-picking sounded as if his vision of good jobs and just society is limited to U.S. borders —  if not entirely nativist.

There are various ways to read Rosenblum’s book: as a call for class warfare, as a conflict between technocrats vs. social activists, as a collection of stories, an author’s biography or a campaign organizing guide, among other things. Regardless, it’s enjoyable, which is helped by the author’s dry sense of humor.

“Beyond $15” is a book for our time. Its proposed ideas are practical, groundbreaking and fresh. Rosenblum has put forth blunt ideas, bold vision and field-tested strategies to achieve his version of a just society through the revival of inclusive labor movement.

Even though some of his prescriptions could be controversial, his proposals should be considered seriously by those who care about the future of every worker.