David Rolf, one of the region's top labor leaders is leaving his position. He will be succeeded by Sterling Harders.

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David Rolf, a labor leader credited with a string of political victories including the $15 minimum wage, is handing off the top job at Seattle-based Local 775 of the Service Employees International Union.

As founding president of SEIU 775 since 2003, Rolf, a power player in Seattle and state politics, reached the 15-year term limit in the union’s constitution and could not stand for re-election.

Sterling Harders, the organization’s vice-president since 2012, won an uncontested election to succeed Rolf as union president.

Although stepping away from his SEIU role, Rolf, 48, said he intends to stay in the fray over politics and labor issues locally and nationally.

“This is where I live. These are the waters I swim in,” he said in an interview. “I expect to be very involved.”

He will remain president of Working Washington, the SEIU-backed nonprofit organization that has pushed for higher pay for workers and higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations. He’ll also stay president of the Fair Work Center, which provides legal aid to help workers enforce pay and labor standards. Those two organizations recently announced a merger.

Rolf said he’ll also participate in think tanks and academic task forces, including Harvard Law School’s Clean Slate Project on the future of labor law, as well as a collaboration with Seattle venture capitalist Nick Hanauer on a yet-to-be named project on rebuilding the U.S. middle class.

The SEIU chapter he has led has for years bucked the broader national trend of declining union membership, as more jobs follow the U.S. economy’s shift away from manufacturing and toward services.

SEIU 775 represents some 45,000 health-care workers in Washington and Montana, including long-term care workers at nursing homes and those providing in-home care paid for with Medicaid dollars. The union has been a potent force in state politics over the last decade, becoming a top political benefactor for Democrats.

Rolf and his union have been a sought-after endorsement in Seattle mayoral races and often advises local politicians on public task forces as well as behind the scenes, including during the recently abandoned city “head tax” on larger businesses.

In a statement through a spokeswoman, Mayor Jenny Durkan said she first met Rolf when she worked as an attorney for Gov. Christine Gregoire during the 2004 gubernatorial-race recount. Republican Dino Rossi was declared the winner of that election but lost after two recounts and a lawsuit.

“I love David for his intensity, his smarts and his great wit,” Durkan said, adding “If I’m going to be in a foxhole, I want David in there with me.”

Rolf took a job as an SEIU organizer out of college in his early 20s and climbed the organization’s ranks. He was paid a 2017 salary of $206,687, plus expenses, according to annual union financial reports. In addition to his local role leading SEIU 775, Rolf has been a vice president of the Service Employees International Union.

Harders, described by Rolf as his “protégée and designated successor,” grew up in Montesano, Grays Harbor County, the daughter of a union mill worker and home care worker.

She was the first professional organizer hired by SEIU 775 14 years ago and is credited with unionizing and negotiating contracts for workers at 35 nursing homes, directing the union’s expansion in Montana and leading the field campaign in SeaTac for Proposition 1, which led to the nation’s first $15-an-hour minimum wage. Harders was not available for an interview Thursday.

Heather Weiner, a partner at progressive political consulting firm Moxie Media, who worked with Harders during the SeaTac campaign, recalls meeting her for the first time at a rally outside the airport, megaphone in hand, leading a group of chanting workers.

“She is a real down-to-earth person who connects very strongly to the members and the folks who are working sometimes two jobs to get by,” Weiner said. “She is one of the hardest working people in the labor movement.”

Harders, 38, is a decade younger than Rolf, who described the union’s term limits as a deliberate means to continue infusing its leadership with new energy.

“[T]oo many elected officers try to lead well into their seventies or eighties,” Rolf wrote in an online post announcing the transition.  “Union officials are (demographically speaking) the second oldest profession in the U.S., exceeded only by morticians.”

Like other unions representing workers in the public sector, SEIU 775 faces major challenges in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision this summer. Now, government workers who do not wish to join a union cannot be compelled to pay for union activities, including collective bargaining.

Citing that ruling, the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based conservative think tank, filed a federal class-action lawsuit against SEIU 775 to force it to halt mandatory dues deductions from caregiver paychecks. The union recently agreed to halt those deductions for workers who had not explicitly authorized them.

Maxford Nelsen, labor policy director with the Freedom Foundation, described the organization Rolf built as “fundamentally a political operation to begin with.”

He asserted SEIU 775 has provided members with fewer services than traditional unions while the state collected dues that, until the Janus decision, home caregivers represented by the union had few options but to pay.

“That creates an incredible revenue stream that David Rolf has been able to use to advance his own political agenda,” Nelsen said.

Democrats in the state Legislature this year pushed through a bill requested by Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration that revamps the state’s contracting process for home health-care workers in a way that could preserve SEIU 775’s dues payments and end workers’ ability to opt out.

Rolf said despite threats from conservative groups and courts, SEIU 775 membership remains solid, with 80 percent of members affirmatively authorizing dues, a number he said is rising.

Rolf said while some view the outlook for unions as negative, they have faced struggles throughout history, listing off examples dating to 1894, when President Grover Cleveland called out the military to suppress a railway-workers strike.

“There has never been a moment when workers haven’t been under assault every time they try to act collectively and exert power,” he said.