Ten years ago, David Rolf helped lead the first successful $15 minimum wage campaigns in the country — in tiny SeaTac, Washington, and nearby Seattle. Almost ten years later, he looks back on the national movement these victories helped to fuel — and wrestles with what it will take for the next labor upsurge to win. 


It's been nearly a decade since the Fight for $15 began; how do you look back and assess its legacy? 

Let's start with the good news. Jurisdictions now covering something like a third of American workers are on a path to $15 or beyond with inflation-adjusted wages and, according to the Keystone Institute, the net annual increase in American working-class wages by the end of the phase [in of these minimum wage increases], just for the one-third of the country that's covered, is going to be $150 billion a year.

To put that in perspective, there's been a national income transfer of about $2.5 trillion a year every year since the 1970s upwards from the bottom ninety percent to the top one percent of income earners. The minimum wage increases to $15 alone put a significant dent in that reverse wealth transfer. That's the great news. The better news in some ways is the way it's transformed the lives of so many hundreds of thousands of workers. I was at a cafe in Seattle the other day. And the manager came up to me and just said, "You don't know me, but I want to thank you for what you did for my employees. The fact that people can actually pay their bills and can get to work on time without running out of gas or worrying about the bus has made a big difference for our business."

There's the sort of systemic critiques we all have of upward wealth transfers and income transfers and neoliberalism, and the imbalance of power between working class and the elite, but at a very real human scale, the number of people who used to be on food stamps, who can now think about getting out of debt and saving for the future is the most tangible, personal-scale result. 

The bad news is that we haven't seen an increase in the federal minimum wage since 2009. We still have tipped workers in all but six or seven states earning a sub-minimum wage. The country’s grade on minimum wages is ultimately “incomplete.”


National Employment Law Project, NELP, estimates that roughly forty percent of workers will have seen a pay increase as a result of these successful minimum wage campaigns that launched since the SeaTac and Seattle efforts. So this is real money going back into the pockets of working people. And it's a very significant gain for everyone who's affected. At the same time, one of the original demands for the movement was for $15 and a union, a demand that has largely gone unmet, even as successful minimum wage campaigns have succeeded. How should we make sense of that?

American labor law is broken. It's easier to refinance your home in your pajamas and borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars than it is to join a union in the United States. The firm by firm, workplace by workplace, enterprise bargaining system that the U.S. adopted in 1935 has failed in every country that's tried it. If you look at the countries that have enterprise-based or workplace-based collective bargaining, you see a story at least in the OECD countries, and the story is, the more you isolate collective bargaining coverage to the workplace level, the more you are consigning yourself to high levels of inequality, low levels of wages, high levels of inequality by race, by gender, by immigration status, by “skill level,” the more you are choosing to make your working class work two jobs or one-and-a-half jobs instead of one job. It's a broken system; it's a system optimized for weak unions. 

Organizing is hard. Organizing is made a whole lot harder by the fact that you have to do it with one worksite at a time, one company at a time. And the boss has all the advantages. We just saw this in the Amazon campaign. The company was not only able to campaign to the workers 24 hours a day, hang anti-union propaganda in the toilet stalls, use cell phones to surveil their employees. They were able to get the government to change the location of mailboxes and the timing of traffic lights to skew the results against the union. I mean, I can't think of a system among developed democracies that is more tilted against worker power. 

In Seattle, we were open to some form of worker organization that wasn't a capital U union. If that's what it needed, if there was some evolutionary step we were going to be able to take. The good news is we kind of got a kind of sectoral bargaining deal done. The bad news is that fast food workers still don't have a union, in Seattle or anywhere else.


You’ve talked about the need to think about long-term, large-scale organizing and innovation in the labor movement. Can you tell us a little bit about how your thinking has evolved since SeaTac and Seattle? What are the lessons learned from launching a campaign like that, what worked in terms of innovation approach, and what are some of the things organizers should be thinking about today given the very real challenges that we're up against, like at Amazon and other workplaces.

I wish I had an answer to this. I have more questions than I have answers probably. For me, the Holy Trinity is power, scale, and sustainability. I think about my mom's dad. He had an eighth grade education; he dropped out of school in eighth grade in Appalachia to help provide for his younger brothers and sisters when his mom died. He went to work in a saw mill. They paid you $1 a day, and if you got the wood cut too quickly during a ten-hour shift you’d get laid off and go home without pay for the day. It was before the Fair Labor Standards Act. That was a lesson in solidarity: everyone had to work just slow enough to make sure they got to work nine hours and one minute, so they could punch the clock and still get paid their dollar.

He ultimately went to work for General Motors, joined the United Auto Workers, went on strike three times, and his union negotiated a contract that included overtime, cost of living increases, health insurance, pension; even his will was written by a lawyer paid for by the General Motors legal services plan. There was literally a lawyer roaming around Midwest automobile plants, writing wills and doing family law and property transactions for workers paid for by the company. Thanks to bargaining with the union. That was what it looked like for a working-class person in the '50s, '60s, '70s if you happened to be lucky enough to be a union member. We've now seen the whole collective bargaining system of the private sector largely unravel. It mainly is in six states, six or eight metro areas where there's any meaningful private sector union density.

I wish I knew how to solve for the question of how to get a majority of workers back into organizations in the U.S., which is why I keep coming back to — we’ve got to figure out some sort of more central bargaining model. Congress is unlikely to be the first mover. And that means the kind of experimentation we've seen in cities and states around wages should now evolve into trying to figure out how cities and states can do labor law innovations and prototype new models of worker power. What was important about my grandfather's Automobile Workers Union, at the end of the day, was not the 400-page contract. It was not the lawyer in the parking lot, was not the pension. Those were details. What was really important is that the union had the power to tell the world's largest corporation at the time to say yes when it wanted to say no. It had the scale to touch millions of workers at a time, union and non-union, and it had a business model that allowed the union to stay independent of government or philanthropic support. So it could be an honest voice for workers.


Could you say more about what sectorial organizing would look like and how that could fundamentally transform the lives of working people? Because there is a scenario where we may be on the verge of passing a $15 an hour minimum wage. And once it does, is sectoral bargaining what we should be focusing on? 

I think sectoral bargaining, which requires sectoral organizing, is probably one of the three key linchpins to advance labor law regime. The worst part of the American system is that you've got this opt-in workplace-by-workplace scattershot approach to who gets to benefit from a union. And so if you're lucky enough to get hired in a workplace where someone in your great-grandfather's generation voted for the union, went on strike to get the union, then you get the benefits of the union.

If you're lucky enough to win a union organizing drive, which is exceedingly rare in the private sector, then you get the benefits of a union. Everywhere else it doesn't. Why did we decide that union membership had to be harder than getting into an Ivy league university? I mean, it's crazy. 

This is ultimately a win-win, but it's only a win-win if everyone does it together. But meanwhile, if you've got two hamburger places across the street from each other, one's union, one's not, the union wins big and doubles wages and creates benefits and pensions and work rules that protect workers. And it increases the price of a burger by $5 and the place across the street doesn't, then it creates big incentives for employers to fight unions, which is why things like $15 wages across the metropolitan area [matter]. No one drives to the next county for a hamburger and seventy percent of the economy is consumer-demand driven.

When you isolate union gains to single work sites for single employers, then you're creating a set of really perverse incentives that then compel companies that cooperate with unions in Germany, Finland, and Austria, to fight them in the U.S. I mean, Germany and Austria had been under right-wing governments for a long time. These are not social democratic regimes, yet they accept collective bargaining because it works to help create prosperity for super majorities of their citizens.

I think that the combination of sectoral bargaining with what's called the “Ghent model,” which is when worker organizations are the providers of benefits rather than governments or employers, and with co-determination, which helps collaboratively solve problems on the workplace floor, are probably the three most important labor law features that the United States lacks.


In my observation, large employers and sometimes city and state governments are willing to meet economic demands but fight much harder against demands that would shift relations of power. That's why Amazon can go out there and brag that they have a $15 an hour minimum wage and will use every dirty trick in the book to fight a unionization campaign. And why some municipalities and states will vote in favor of $15 an hour minimum wage, but will not make it easier to organize. Could you talk about the tension between meeting economic demands and changing relations of power?

Power is the end game. You see example after example all through the thread of U.S. history of sometimes ingenious efforts by capital to figure out how to make labor less free so that capital gets to harvest the bigger share of gains in the economy. In my book, I write about the fact that it was only like 12 years or something after the passage of the Wagner Act that we started to see these really interesting corporate organizational forms innovate, to try to shift the burden of employment away from the corporate center where profits could be harvested. Two interesting examples are franchising and temp labor.

Franchising came from the sewing machine industry, but it was really scaled by Ray Kroc. And when he bought the McDonald's brothers hamburger stands in San Bernardino and then figured out a model where they could centralize the supply chain for efficiencies, centralize the production line for maximum capacity, but decentralize the employment relationship so that you consign the workers in those stores to a lifetime of poverty. And initially the country didn't mind because the people being employed were suburban teenagers in their first jobs making pocket cash. Fast forward, now the average fast food worker is like a 33 year old woman of color with a kid. 

Similarly, the temp industry, which rose up in the 1960s, would advertise to companies like, you don't have to worry about whether your assistant — or your “secretary” at the time — was going to ever call in sick or chip tooth or have a migraine because we got that covered with a replacement. Temp firms advertised that “we're going to make sure you have a new secretary right behind the last one” and the country accepted it as long as it was gendered work that was seen as supplementary income and not a family-supporting job. Fast forward and now you've got a huge percentage of the country working in these kind of temp or gig or “fissured” jobs. 

I always talk about the Holy Trinity of power, scale, sustainability, but the truth is, for organizers and organizations, if you get one, you can get the other two; it's hardest to break into the triangle. And, ultimately, power is the thing that matters the most. And, as you point out, it’s also the thing that companies are the least willing to part with. 


Another question is how we "electoralize" these issues, turning elections and candidate positions on something like a $15 an hour minimum wage into a referendum. Something that I think you did successfully in Seattle was get the two major candidates running for mayor to try to outdo one another in terms of who's better on the minimum wage. Today, almost a decade after the fact, nearly every major Democrat recognizes a $15 an hour minimum wage as a floor issue, not the ceiling that we should aim for. Can you tell us about how movements and campaigns can successfully move an issue from the margins to the mainstream, and how we can use electoral politics to do that?

That's largely what we did in SeaTac and Seattle. The SeaTac election was like organizing a nursing home for a union. Every organizer had twenty-five names. They went back to those same 25 people again and again, sat on their doorsteps til they came home, and no one got counted as a yes vote until they put a sign in their yard or their window. The election was highly polarized; we won by 77 votes.

At the same time, up in Seattle, the coalition developed a strategy to say, we're going to make this election about income inequality, and we're going to force every mayoral candidate to campaign on those terms. More than one candidate ended up supporting $15 or higher as a minimum wage; a pro $15 candidate won. By the time we were three weeks past the election, when we had a 15-mile march to symbolically carry the $15 wage fight from SeaTac to Seattle, a majority of the City Council greeted us with cookies and tea on the steps of City Hall as the sun was going down.

I think elections matter, but more, I think there is a fallacy in both political parties and various political coalitions — left, right, center — that it's really about last-minute persuasion, last-minute GOTV. What really matters is creating elections as pivot points around important issues. What doesn't work so well is when a faction within a party believes that the path to change is for the faction to seize the party, and then for the party to impose its will on a divided country. That really almost never happens. What normally happens is a new idea sweeps the land. Usually one party adopts that idea earlier than the other, but factions of both parties migrate to where the new center is. And that's commonly how change is created. So if one were to critique, sort of progressive economic organizing efforts at the current moment, too much of our efforts are aimed at bringing the left further left, and not nearly enough to bring along the center or even incentivizing the right to evolve. 


Tell us a little bit more about that because there's a real debate around where we should put our energies. Do we try to de-radicalize the right, or do we try to bring in the roughly half of voters who don't vote. It’s obviously not a binary, but —

It's not a binary. That's the thing. Using a microscopic example of our little SeaTac campaign. Now SeaTac votes reliably Democratic in national elections, but in their municipal elections, which are held in off years, the disproportionate share of votes come from older, white homeowners in a city that's majority immigrant and people of color. There was no path to win in SeaTac with only the existing electorate, so we had to expand the electorate. We increased the voter registration by twenty percent in that city. We registered thousands of mainly young, mainly of color, significantly immigrant working-class voters to change who held power in the electorate, and even so the math told us we had to appeal to older white-working class homeowners to cement a majority. And those audiences required different messages. When we talked to young immigrants and low-wage workers, we could say “either you or someone in your immediate family is likely to get a pay increase because you vote for this.” When we talked to older homeowners, we said, "Remember when the community used to have a grocery store instead of a Goodwill, remember when you used to have a video store instead of a pawn shop? That was because people had money to spend. That was because we all did better when we all did better. And if you want to get back to the place where you don't have to drive to the next town to buy your groceries, you better care about what your neighbors are earning." At the election tactical level, you'd have to go district by district, state by state, and figure out how to do the math, to say, what percentage of efforts have to go into expanding the electorate versus what percentage have to go to converting, to moving the center of the debate in a more progressive direction. 


What is your overall assessment in terms of the progress that we have made, or the challenges that you see that you think we should be wrestling with?

I think the question of how to change movement energy into institutional power is in some ways the most important challenge. And I wish I could say I was more of an optimist than I am. We have broken labor laws; unions are by design weak and inaccessible. If you look at the non-union progressive movement, it's mainly philanthropically funded. So I worry a lot that we have one set of institutions called unions that have a certain legal status, a certain level of statutory authority, a business model that allows them to bargain over certain things at certain times, and collect revenue as a result of that. But that is so internally focused. And it’s by design; it's not because labor leaders are bad people or making dumb decisions. It's because the structure of the laws and their institutions require them to be internally-facing organizations. Meanwhile, you've got other, more nimble, less institutionalized progressive economic justice organizations that are fundamentally dependent on five program officers of five foundations saying yes to what they want to do and operating within the constraints of 501C3 and C4 tax law, and disproportionately funding things that are electorally focused only in election years, only in swing states and districts. So the attention to long-term institution building, I think is really lacking.

I'm very worried about the fate of a democratic market economy where a super majority of people no longer can see themselves in the picture and don't have any institution they're affiliated with that can help them channel their insecurity, their instability, sometimes their anger into a hopeful agenda that will ultimately benefit everyone. I don't think that's just bad for the labor movement or bad for the progressive movement, I think it's bad for markets. I think it's bad for democracy. I worry deeply that there are more Americans who believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows than belong to any organization that wields power on behalf of working-class Americans.


Do you have any final thoughts on the Fight for $15 that you want to share with us? 

We sometimes have this romance with powerlessness on the left that says, let us figure out the least offensive thing we can do, bargain against ourselves, and maybe we can squeak it through. I mean, I've done that in my career. Sometimes, because you felt like you had to: how do we claim some victory that'll improve people's lives on the margins and hopefully not be completely overwhelmed by opposition?

We went the other direction with the Fight for $15. At the beginning, we couldn't find any progressive economists to agree with us. Had we negotiated against ourselves or tried to create the muddy middle, it wouldn’t have been inspiring to anybody. People were willing to go on strike for $15 because, if they won it, it was going to be transformational. No one's going to go on strike for another 25 cents; that wouldn't have been smart. So I think that one big lesson is: aim big, inspire people, don't negotiate against yourself. Number two, coalitions matter. The first cities [to pass the $15 minimum wage] have in common that labor holds significant institutional power at the municipal government level. So we didn't have to show up in someone's house with a picket sign in order to get a seat at the table. We had a seat at the table. And I think that's why building long-term institutions matters so much.


When institutions or organizations have to rely on philanthropic funding — those foundations are oftentimes very hesitant to fund bold demands because they don't want to lose, or the organization wants to be able to claim victory at the end of a campaign or funding cycle to keep the funding coming. And if you don't have your own institutions that draw on your own resources, I think in some ways it can be more challenging to put those demands out there.

I think you're spot on about that. And how would I put it? I mean, not to be impolite to any wonderful philanthropists out there or wonderful organizations that are trying to live hand to mouth from philanthropy. But at the end of the day, working people need their own institutions and independence from government and philanthropy, as the source of revenue is a key part of what allows us to make bold demands and do things that make powerful people uncomfortable.

It seems counterintuitive to me that the beneficiaries of forty years of neoliberalism are going to ultimately be the revolutionaries that undo it. And so if you haven't figured out how to build an organization that has independence and legitimacy away from funding sources that are misaligned with your mission, in the long run it's hard for me to see how that model succeeds. Ultimately, it's about power. To solve for the problems that humanity needs us to solve in the 21st century, we have to solve for complexity. Complexity requires cooperation, cooperation requires trust, trust requires the subjective experience of justice, and ultimately experiencing justice depends on the exercise of power. So if whatever we're working on doesn't lead to power, and if whatever funding sources or other compromises we make impede our path to power, we're probably not going to win.


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