Magazine article The American Prospect

The Seeds of a New Labor Movement: SEIU's David Rolf-Virtuoso Organizer and Mastermind of Seattle's $15 Minimum Wage Campaign-Says Labor Needs Radically New Ways to Champion Worker Interests

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Seeds of a New Labor Movement: SEIU's David Rolf-Virtuoso Organizer and Mastermind of Seattle's $15 Minimum Wage Campaign-Says Labor Needs Radically New Ways to Champion Worker Interests

Article excerpt

If anyone has the right to be upbeat about the prospects of the American labor movement, it should be David Rolf, the president of a Seattle-based long-term care local of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Between 1995 and 1999, while still in his 20s, Rolf directed a campaign that unionized 74,000 home care workers in Los Angeles. It was the largest single unionization since the United Auto Workers organized Ford in 1941. SEIU then sent him to Seattle, where he has nearly quadrupled SEIU's Washington state membership. Last year, he led the initiative campaign that persuaded voters in SeaTac, the working-class Seattle suburb that is home to the city's airport, to raise the local minimum wage to $15--the highest in the nation. He also managed to make SEIU's campaign to organize fast-food workers and raise their pay to $15 the centerpiece of the mayoral race in Seattle proper. Prodded bythe fast-food workers, State Senator Ed Murray ran on the promise to raise the local minimum to that level. After Murray was elected mayor, he appointed Rolf to lead the labor delegation on the business-labor task force that would devise the plan for phasing in Seattle's new minimum. This summer, the city enacted the task force's recommendations. The $15 minimum wage is now law.

Over the past 15 years, no American unionist has organized as many workers, or won them raises as substantial, as Rolf. Which makes it all the more telling that Rolf believes the American labor movement, as we know it, is on its deathbed, and that labor should focus its remaining energies on bequeathing its resources to start-up projects that may find more effective ways to advance workers' interests than today's embattled unions can.

In early 2012, Rolf attended a national SEIU board meeting in New Orleans, where he heard a presentation from the head of the union's Louisiana local. The local had had 6,000 members a few years earlier, but it had shrunk to 1,200 after the chambers of commerce in cities with which it had had contracts got court injunctions forbidding any such contracts.

"Anti-union injunctions?" Rolf asks incredulously. "Getting a federal law forbidding such injunctions was the No. 1 demand of unions in the 1928 presidential election. Were we back in 1928? Before Norris-LaGuardia [the 1932 federal act that forbade such injunctions in the private sector; the Louisiana local was public sector]? Before the Wagner Act? Before the New Deal? This set me on a quest to figure out what had happened to labor--and what we should do now."

Leaders of the biggest local unions, Rolf realized, were clustered in a handful of regions where labor, though declining, had not yet disappeared. "If you're a union leader in Seattle or New York or L.A., you can think things are OK," Rolf says. "But there goes Wisconsin; there goes Indiana. If right-to-work passing in Michigan isn't Lenin's statue coming down in Red Square, I don't know what is."

Most labor leaders and activists concur that the union movement is in something close to mortal peril. With Rolf, they believe that the inadequacies of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), which union-busting employers are able to violate with impunity, have made it almost impossible to organize private-sector workers. Unable to grow, labor has also seen its ranks diminished by the offshoring of millions of jobs and the relegation of millions more to the ranks of contingent labor or ostensible self-employment. Today, the percentage of private-sector workers in unions has dropped to a bare 6.7 percent--roughly its level at the beginning of the 20th century, before the advent of a sizable middle class.

"The path to collective bargaining has been shut down in the United States," says Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and head of the AFL-CIO's Organizing Committee. Where Rolf differs from most of his colleagues is in his belief that collective bargaining--at least, as the nation has known it for the past 80 years-is not coming back. …

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