He's making the case for a better economy through better unions.

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ONE DAY when David Rolf was a kid growing up in Cincinnati, his grandfather, a man with an eighth-grade education who’d worked at a General Motors plant in Ohio and read little more than the Bible, Reader’s Digest and the United Auto Workers’ Solidarity newsletter, posed a simple but important question.

“Do you know why I have all this?” he said, looking around the house he’d bought with the income from his union job.

Rolf thought the answer was because the powerful UAW had fought to secure good wages for its members. But his grandfather added a twist.

“Because I walked a picket line three times,” he answered finally.

“What that taught me was that the union is the workers,” Rolf says.

The lesson seems obvious.

But Rolf, president of the Seattle-based Local 775 of the Service Employees International Union for health-care workers, and current international vice president of SEIU, knows that unions today don’t always act that way.

In fact if you listen to Rolf long enough, you might come away with the impression that the kind of unions that helped thrust his grandfather and millions of Americans into the middle class over the past century are past their prime.

A recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates as much: The percentage of American workers who belong to unions dropped to 11.3 percent in 2012, down from 11.8 percent the year before. That’s the lowest figure since the 1910s, by some accounts. Even in the union-baiting Reagan era, the figure was around 20 percent, almost double what it is today.

Union advocates place at least partial blame for the decline on “right-to-work” laws limiting unions’ ability to collect dues in historically union-heavy states like Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Many also point the finger at manufacturers that shift production to those states or send good-paying American jobs overseas to cheaper countries.

You can even blame the public’s waning affection for unions.

Recent polls by Pew and Gallup show that fewer than half of Americans view them favorably. And the numbers keep dropping.

But Rolf believes it’s time for the labor movement to hold up a mirror to itself.

“Our model is no longer accessible to most Americans,” Rolf says, sounding like an administrator of tough love. “It’s no longer wrong to say that unions aren’t very influential in people’s lives.”

He isn’t interested in turning back time to the labor movement’s glory years in the 1930s. Society, it seems, has moved on.

Rather, Rolf sees it as his mission to convince labor leaders who are stuck in their ways “to accept that innovation is your new religion.”

THE MAN WHO wants to breathe new life into unions looks like a gung-ho, young corporate executive.

Just a week after moving SEIU 775’s offices from Federal Way to Seattle, he sits in his large, bright corner office just off Second Avenue in the core of the city’s business district. The office is largely undecorated, but Rolf has thought to put up a picture of him and his wife on their wedding day in 2011.

He’s wearing a sober, gray pinstriped suit and pressed shirt, but in keeping with the city’s dressed-down aesthetic, he’s skipped the tie.

It’s no wonder Washington CEO magazine describes Rolf, who’s 43, as “not your father’s union leader.”

In conversation, too, Rolf is businesslike.

But while he’s guarded about personal matters, he comes alive when expounding on the bullet points bumping around in his head.

He has a forward-leaning intensity, as if he’s searching for just the right statistic or turn of phrase to make you understand why unions need to matter again.

He paints an ugly picture of our times — a period marked by the greatest inequality between rich and poor since the Jazz Age.

It took the better part of a century to secure worker rights, improve workplaces and build the foundations of the American middle class, he says, and that progress is crumbling before his eyes.

The economy has shifted from one dominated by bustling assembly lines to one dominated by service jobs and less-crowded workplaces, hardly the kind of environments that make organizing large numbers of workers easy.

Given the growth in service jobs, though, it’s perhaps not surprising that SEIU has bucked the trend and grown from 1 million service members nationwide more than a decade ago to 2.1 million today, bringing into the fold everyone from child-care workers, lab technicians and bus drivers to janitors at high-tech companies like Microsoft.

Local 775’s numbers in Washington state have doubled to about 43,000 since it started in 2001. But Rolf didn’t help turn SEIU 775 into one of the biggest and most powerful political forces in the state using just the PowerPoint factoids he lays out for journalists. He can “tell it like it is” as well as the most tough-talking union bosses, and isn’t afraid to use the union’s millions and clout to push statewide initiatives, bargain with the Legislature for workers’ pay and benefit increases and fight lawmakers the SEIU deems insufficiently union-friendly, even if that means targeting generally sympathetic Democrats.

If Rolf’s job is to stand up for the little guy, in this state, at least, he does so from a position of enviable stature.

Still, he has a tough challenge: Remain faithful to his role as a union leader with a specific set of interests while recognizing that addressing the challenges of the new economy requires new thinking — and building coalitions.

“He’s at the vanguard of re-imagining how you create an economy that doesn’t just work for 1 percent of the population,” says admirer Nick Hanauer, the Seattle venture capitalist. “He balances the power of people like me with that of workers.”

Hanauer’s praise is notable because while his politics lean left, he speaks from the perspective of an employer, and a 1 percenter at that, the sort of guy union organizers have in mind when they trash The Man.

But in Rolf he sees an intellectual ally.

“He’s one of the very rare labor leaders who have the courage to talk about and act on the very obvious problems that labor has,” Hanauer says.

Hanauer has two problems in mind. First is the lack of what he calls universality.

“If only one company in an industry or region is unionized, it’s at a disadvantage on the playing field of competitive companies,” Hanauer says, chiefly because its higher labor costs will force up the prices it charges, which in turn will drive customers to nonunion companies that can afford to offer lower prices.

The second problem, Hanauer says, is that unions have negotiated rules and constraints on operations that prevent employers from responding to circumstances in the workforce and in their workplaces.

By example, he talks about how hard it can be for a principal to fire a poor-performing teacher. In most states, because of teachers-union protections, it’s almost impossible to do so, he says.

“If these rules are structured to protect the least capable, the least competent, inevitably the whole suffers” as quality and performance decline, Hanauer says.

Rolf echoes this sentiment in conversations about the problems with unions.

Seventy-year-old rules forcing unions to protect bad workers (or get sued by said workers) promote internal tension among members in good standing and create an image problem in the public. “It dooms too many unions to becoming the de-facto defender of bad workers,” he says.

Like Rolf, Hanauer also has a pretty dark view of corporate America and the prospects for the American economy if unions remain weak.

“We’ve basically built a winner-take-all system where the people at the top get everything,” he says. “It’s unionization that facilitates the cycle of increased prosperity. When workers have more money (through collective bargaining), they can afford to buy more things from capitalists.”

THE AMERICAN economy wasn’t always so “screwed up,” to borrow Hanauer’s phrase. Rolf was born in 1969, a few months after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. He remembers that period as “a world where ordinary people did extraordinary things,” and he’s talking as much about people like his UAW-card-carrying grandfather and his mom, a unionized schoolteacher with a middle-class income, as space travelers.

His grandfather on his father’s side worked his way up from a third-shift job at a Procter & Gamble soap factory that put him through law school to a career as a lawyer and local politician.

In the 1970s, he says, it was normal to see young doctors and veteran factory workers living next door to each other.

“It wasn’t a big thing — it was just part of the landscape,” Rolf says.

His parents taught him to live by the Golden Rule, but they also told him something he now considers “either the most naive or dishonest thing you can tell a child”: That everyone is equal and you can be anything you want to be.

As Rolf got older, he learned that people were not born into the world on equal footing and that barriers to economic mobility stood in the way at every turn for many Americans.

“As a teenager and adult, I learned to be angry at injustice,” Rolf says.

During college, Rolf interned with an SEIU local and later was offered an entry-level job as an organizer at a struggling local in Atlanta. He was only 21 or 22 and still didn’t know what he wanted to do in life. Why not give organizing a try, he thought.

He wound up loving it, and the SEIU loved him back.

Rolf caught the attention of SEIU leaders early on, including then-President Andy Stern.

“The fact that there’s even a conversation going on in the labor movement can be specifically attributed to David’s work,” Stern says. “David’s kind of the canary in the coal mine.”

Union leaders tend to externalize their problems, Stern says: Employers don’t like us. Governments are out to get us. Old labor laws keep us from meeting the needs of members. “It’s like a catechism of our woes,” he laments.

“It’s not about tinkering with the current laws or doing electoral politics better. It’s a structural problem,” Stern argues. Moreover, he says, “this is not a union-only conversation anymore.”

Stern applauds Rolf for his willingness to engage other expert parties, such as business leaders, academics and people who’ve built other successful organizations.

And he says unions need to make better use of social-networking tools — especially to attract and recruit young workers, who already connect, share information, organize their lives and even engage in advocacy through blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

At SEIU 775, Rolf and his team set up a call center for members to ask questions and quickly get advice about workplace issues as well as union services, such as its continuing-education program for certified home-care aids. In many unions, getting a callback from a shop representative is “kind of like trying to get an appointment with your doctor. It’s hard to get in unless you have an emergency.”

“We need newer forms of representation that fit the workforce as we find it today,” says another Rolf supporter, Tom Kochan, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology management, work and employment research professor. “He’s really deeply driven around the issue of inequality and the degradation of work in the country, and deeply believes the country needs to come up with new instructions to help workers rebuild their voice in the new economy.”

Rolf says the future also may lie in organizing workers around sets of issues rather than relationships between unions and workplaces.

This strategy comes with its own political risks.

Take Working Washington, a nonprofit advocacy group made up of labor, neighborhood associations, immigrant and civil-rights activists, and religious leaders. It fights for fair wages and benefits, and yes, the right to form unions. Critics have accused Working Washington of being a Democratic political front for the SEIU, which has close ties to the group.

Rolf isn’t shy about showing his support for Working Washington, though.

He takes heat from both sides of the bargaining table.

When SEIU’s Stern sent Rolf to haggle with the Republican-dominated Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in an effort to organize home-care workers in 1998, Rolf took flack from other union leaders for offering to give up the future union’s right to strike, traditionally seen as the most important tool for securing concessions from employers.

If Rolf had suggested such a thing 20 years ago, Stern says, “he would have been burned at the stake.”

But in return for that offer, he won concessions such as additional training to improve workers’ skills and employability.

The board agreed to set up a home-care worker public authority and soon after, 74,000 L.A. County home-care workers voted to join the new local. It was the biggest union drive since autoworkers at Ford’s River Rouge plant joined the UAW 70 years earlier.

“David has an openness and a creativity with which he thinks about strategy and the future, and that’s very refreshing,” says another vanguard thinker on worker rights, Ai-Jen Poo, director of the New York-based Domestic Workers Alliance. The organization represents 2.5 million nannies, housekeepers and private eldercare givers nationwide.

Poo says Rolf is using his gift for bringing different stakeholders together in Washington state to improve working conditions for domestic caretakers and build bridges between patients, their families and the providers of care.

Rolf says there needs to be “a completely new and disruptive force” in society to push for the kind of changes that will revive the middle class.

“What we have are bold moral and economic choices to make,” he says.

But even his biggest fans are cautiously optimistic.

“There’s no easy answer,” Kochan says. “But until we face the reality that the current model is not working and will not work under current labor law or labor traditions, we won’t discover new models.”

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.