Not long after finishing a news conference on a deal to bring a $15 minimum wage to Seattle, David Rolf, president of the local home health-care workers’ union, SEIU 775, got a heady phone call.
It was the office of “a certain big-city mayor from a certain big city on the East Coast,” Rolf said. (He wouldn’t tell me which one, but what else could it be but New York?) The message: As soon as you’re done in Seattle, get on a plane and get out here to explain to us how you did this.
“There’s going to be an escalation in this at a national level, very soon,” says Rolf, who co-chaired Mayor Ed Murray’s advisory task force on the minimum wage. “Right now there is tremendous momentum for this, well beyond Seattle.”
Remember how unions were supposed to be dying?
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True they’ve been slip-sliding in a general decline for 50 years. But suddenly these are looking like the best days for unions in decades.
For starters, it’s an unexpected growth industry. Last year the number of unionized workers in this state shot up by 33,000, the largest increase since the mid-1990s. More surprising, all of that growth was in the private sector (none was in government).
All told, the number of union workers in private-sector jobs in Washington went up by 13 percent. Much of it was in more recently unionized parts of the economy, such as home health care or hospitals.
Still, only 12 percent of all private-sector workers in the state are in unions. Says Rolf: Despite the rising numbers, there isn’t likely to be any big surge in traditional unionizing.
“Even if workers want to form a union, it’s almost impossible to pull it off,” he said. “So there’s not going to be a big resurgence of shop-by-shop bargaining. We’re trying to take this momentum and do something else with it. Something more experimental.”
Rolf heads the local shop that unionized thousands of home health-care workers a few years back. It was the largest new union created around here in years. But even he acknowledges it succeeded only because there is a public component to that industry. (It’s heavily financed by government programs such as Medicaid.)
Instead of trying to organize workers business by business — the “rusty old machine called collective bargaining” — the idea is to wage broader, public-spirited campaigns like the $15 wage fight.
So they may start out petitioning for $15 city by city (first SeaTac, then Seattle, apparently next New York). But the end goal is national. All without involving Congress.
Example: SEIU also wants to take on the legal distinction that exists between the national corporations — say, McDonald’s — and their thousands of franchises. All McDonald’s restaurants have the same name, but each is its own entity, often with only a few dozen employees. So unionizing them one by one is untenable. But what if there was a way to get the parent corporation to dictate wages to its franchisees, just as it does the menu?
“We want to build enough strength with the wage movement, city by city, to bring the national brands to the bargaining table,” Rolf says. “Then you might force upward pressure on wages everywhere.”
It would be “disruptive to the power structure,” he said, approvingly. “You have to experiment. Seattle is now a major part of that.”
This is heady stuff, happening right here.
Rolf is the same guy, though, who just agreed to a moderate four- to seven-year phase-in for the $15 wage. So he’s not that radical. It’s old-school union bargaining. You take what you can get. Especially if you can then use the win to seek a bigger prize.
Maybe these successes will turn out to be a blip. But it’s been decades since anyone said this: Unions are back.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org