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In 1954, more than a third of U.S. workers were unionized. As of 2017, that number has slid to just 10.7 percent.
Many expect the U.S. Supreme Court to accelerate that trend with a ruling this year in a case known as Janus v. AFCSME, which could end the requirement that public-sector workers pay union dues or equivalent fees as a condition of employment.
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On Episode 69 of The Overcast, the Seattle Times weekly politics podcast, one of Washington state’s most prominent union leaders joins political reporter Jim Brunner to offer his take on the future of the labor movement. (The episode was recorded at the Seattle studios of public radio 88.5 FM KNKX with reporter Simone Alicea, as part an ongoing partnership.)
David Rolf is president of SEIU 775, which represents 45,000 home-healthcare and nursing home workers in Washington and Montana. The union has grown over the past couple decades into a politically potent force, helping push through policies like paid-sick leave and a $15 minimum wage — and becoming a top political sponsor for Democratic politicians.
Rolf also is know for his agitating about the need for traditional labor unions to evolve. In the interview, he says the Janus case is “one more step in the marching de-unionization of the United States.” For him, this is no accident, but the result of a decades withering assault on labor unions by “the organized business right.”
An effect of the union decline has been the “staggering” rise in income inequality, Rolf says. Since the 1970s, $2 trillion a year has flowed from the working class to the very wealthiest in the country. “God didn’t do that. Humans did that,” he says.
At the same time, Rolf says “the old broken down machinery” of traditional labor unions needs to dream up prototypes for how workers in the modern economy can find political power outside the old union structures.
Also discussed: a push by Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration to move SEIU’s members into a new contractual arrangement with a private vendor which could require union membership — an effort Republicans say is nothing more than a political gift and blatant end-run around the expected Janus ruling.
And Rolf gives a hint about what’s on SEIU’s agenda for new Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.
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