The fight for $15 is a fight for power: What corporations really stand to lose when minimum wage increases

Workplace justice campaigns over raising wages, benefits and stability are proxies for the real labor struggle

By Jonathan Rosenblum

Published March 11, 2017 4:00PM (EST)

 (Jonathan Lawson)
(Jonathan Lawson)

Excerpted from "Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement" by Jonathan Rosenblum  (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

In Washington state, you can place an initiative on the local ballot by getting 15 percent of registered voters to sign a petition. In a large city this is a high hurdle, but in a small community like SeaTac, which had only eleven thousand registered voters, it was relatively manageable.

Unconstrained by the compromises inherent in a labor-management negotiating process, we assembled a ballot initiative that was ambitious but would not overreach the sensibilities of SeaTac voters. In addition to consulting with key workplace leaders, I worked closely with campaign strategists from SEIU and our partner unions — the Teamsters; the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union; UNITE HERE — along with Puget Sound Sage, the community group, to assemble the elements of the initiative, which SEIU lawyers drafted into legal form. We started with the New York fast-food workers’ call for $15/hour minimum wage and built from there, adding elements to address particular issues that airport workers faced.

The SeaTac Good Jobs Initiative set the immediate wage floor for workers in and around the airport at $15/hour and added paid sick leave for all workers. We included low-wage workers both inside the airport property, and also outside the airport if their jobs were substantially airport dependent: parking lot attendants, hotel workers, and rental car workers.

To address the problem of rampant part-time employment, the initiative required employers to offer additional work hours to existing part-time staff before bringing on new hires. The full-time-hours provision solved two problems. First, it gave workers opportunities to work at one job only, without having to cobble together several part-time jobs. And second, without even mentioning the words “health care,” the provision netted health benefits for workers. The newly passed Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, required employers to provide health benefits to workers employed thirty hours a week or more. Many airport contractors purposely kept employee hours just below that threshold to escape the benefit requirement. The initiative would ban that practice. If a part-time worker wanted benefits and more work hours were available, she would be able to get the hours and the health care that came with them. It was an elegant solution.

To deal with the problem of workers losing their jobs when airlines changed contractors, we included a “worker retention” provision, which required that contractors newly brought on by the airlines hire existing workers first. This would solve the problem of precarious airline contract work and deny airlines the ability to break unions by swapping contractors.

We also included tip protection in the initiative. Nonunion hotel managements, especially, routinely kept part of the service charges and tips that customers paid. The initiative required that 100 percent of service charges and tips go to the workers providing the service.

Then there was the question of workers enforcing their rights under the initiative. Other cities that had adopted wage floors or paid sick leave typically created an administrative enforcement mechanism. If you thought you weren’t being paid properly, you could file a complaint with a city bureaucrat, who would have little power to investigate much less compel an employer to conform to the law, and who likely would be swamped with other responsibilities. These administrative enforcement provisions developed out of negotiation among unions, employers, and government officials. They were compromises, watered-down enforcement tools.

For the SeaTac initiative, we took a starkly different approach. We included the right of individual workers or unions to sue noncompliant employers in court. This private-right-of-action provision was a powerful hammer: an employer could be dragged before a judge, forced to turn over documents, testify, and even under some circumstances pay damages to workers. With a powerful enforcement tool, we could expect much greater employer respect for the initiative’s economic and workplace rights provisions. Of all the elements of the initiative, this was one that many businesses came to rail against the most.

Finally, there was the question of collective bargaining. No local initiative could require employers to recognize and bargain with a union — those rights, limited as they may be, are covered by federal law. Local governments are preempted from adopting regulations that conflict with federal law. But there was another way to nudge employers into a bargaining relationship. The SeaTac Good Jobs Initiative provided that employers who recognized a democratically formed union were free to negotiate exceptions to the initiative’s provisions with the union. For instance, union members and their employer could negotiate lower starting wages in exchange for improved health benefits, or an enforcement mechanism less onerous than private right of action. Of course, no group of workers would in their right minds negotiate less than the total compensation and benefits provided under the initiative. But the collective bargaining option gave workers bargaining power and offered employers — at least forward-looking ones — the reward of potential flexibility if they respected workers’ rights.

By early May union organizers, community supporters, and workers were knocking on the doors of SeaTac voters, collecting signatures to qualify the SeaTac Good Jobs Initiative for the November 2013 ballot. Within three weeks the campaign had collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. But before turning in the petitions to city hall, we wanted to exercise our power directly to see if there was any possibility that Alaska Airlines might change course and decide to negotiate.

The 2012 Alaska shareholders meeting had marked the first direct confrontation between the company and the airport workers and allies. Speaker after speaker had challenged new Alaska CEO Brad Tilden. They had been direct, but polite and within the rules of the meeting. We decided in 2013 to double down on pressure inside the meeting. In the months leading up to the 2013 shareholders meeting, groups of faith leaders, workers, and other community supporters bought individual shares of Alaska Airlines stock and met extensively to plan a series of disruptions inside the shareholders meeting. As long as Alaska executives denied workers their rights, we would not abide business as usual. We intended to occupy the company’s meeting, take it over. To accomplish that we needed to break the rules.

When Alaska Airlines shareholders began filing into the auditorium at the Port of Seattle’s waterfront conference center on May 21, 80 of the 220 people in the room were workers or allies — company shareholders or proxies committed to bring righteous chaos into the meeting. There were even workers and organizers from LAX, another major Alaska Airlines airport.

The auditorium was full by 1:55 p.m., five minutes before the start of the meeting, when Reverend Helmiere rose out of his seat and led a group of twelve clergy to the front of the room. They stood in a row in front of the shareholders, holding hands. “I’ve been asked by some shareholders to say a prayer,” Helmiere began, over the murmurs of the crowd. At six feet seven inches tall, Helmiere, wearing a starched white clerical collar and black suit, commanded attention. Heads bowed in silence. People clasped their hands in prayerful pose. A hush fell over the auditorium. Off on the side of the room, an Alaska executive admonished a shareholder to quiet down. “Shh— they’re doing the prayer now,” he said, oblivious to the imminent act of corporate apostasy.

Reverend Helmiere had practiced his prayer over and over again, memorizing it. His prayer was an idea cooked up by the faith leaders in our delegation, a daring assault on the conventions of the meeting. The words would be a clarion call to justice, spoken by an irreproachable messenger. Helmiere felt electric. But now, standing in front of the silent auditorium, his memory suddenly failed him. The prayer was written down just in case words eluded him, and the paper was in his shirt pocket. But he was holding hands with the other clergy. He dared not break the symbolic bonds and read from a piece of paper. That would seem crass.

“I closed my eyes,” Helmiere later recalled to me. “My first prayer was silent, and it was, ‘Oh God, please help me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say and everyone’s waiting for me to say something.’ So I just started, I opened my mouth, and I felt like the Spirit prayed through me.”

“God of Mercy, God of Justice, God who transforms our hearts,” he began. “We give thanks for the privileges and powers that we have been given.” Drawn in, the crowd now was respectfully silent as Helmiere veered the prayer sharply: “God, we ask that you give our leaders the wisdom to do right by their workers, do right by their community, to make our company a business beacon and an ethical beacon as well. Guard us from the gravity of greed, save us from the snares of selfishness. And help us to live your eternal truth: that we belong to you, and to one another.”

The ministers returned to their seats and sat down. Corporate executives sat stunned for a moment, perhaps still not quite comprehending how their meeting, the annual showcase of the company’s finesse and success, had just been hijacked, and in the most unexpected of ways. This was not a rough group of uncouth workers and organizers — something they expected — but a delegation of clergy come to challenge their moral bearings.

And it was just an introduction to their troubles. A few minutes into the meeting, the company’s executives introduced each of the nominees for the board of directors. Eleven nominees for eleven positions. It was entirely pro forma. The meeting chair, General Counsel Keith Loveless, called for people to mark their paper ballots.

“Mr. Chair!” shouted a shareholder, rising out of his seat. “I rise to urge my fellow shareholders to support all of these directors.” The speaker was plainly out of order. Yet Loveless let him continue; why should he silence this friendly voice?

But the speaker wasn’t a shill for the company—he was Will Layng, an SEIU organizer from Portland, Oregon. “These shareholders have done a great job of keeping profits and share value high,” Layng continued, “by keeping worker wages down. I say we support them!”

A smattering of boos rose from the crowd at Layng’s last words — not even all of our allies realized he was playing a role. Kaeley Pruitt-Hamm, a Quaker activist, rose to challenge our straw man. “I disagree!” she shouted. “We should be treating our workers fairly — respect them and their right to form unions.” Applause broke out.

“I love our workers!” she cried, and at that cue, eighty people in the room stood up, held up large pink hearts, and chanted, “We love workers, yes we do! We love workers, how about you?” And at the last word, eighty index fingers pointed directly at CEO Brad Tilden, seated in the front row.

Then, just as quickly as the disturbance had erupted, everyone sat down and handed the meeting back to Loveless. As with the opening prayer, the pink hearts and pointed fingers action grew out of the creativity of community supporters, who had determined to confront corporate greed with expressions of love. The tone of protest must have been surprising to Alaska executives, as was its scale.

Next up was the advisory vote on executive compensation, another pro forma item given who controlled the shares. As Loveless read the resolution, a worker stood up and shouted, “We need a union!”

Before Loveless could react, the worker sat down, and another worker in a different part of the room popped up and shouted “Better pay!”

“Health benefits!” yelled a third.

“Safety at LAX!” roared another.

Alex Hoopes jumped up: “Brad, if they can give you a raise, why not us?”

A dozen workers, scattered throughout the auditorium, took their turns in this pop-up action, with the final one leading a chant that everyone joined in on: “What do we want?” “Union!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”

Then everyone sat down, silent.

Loveless had one more business item — a shareholder-introduced resolution limiting executive golden parachutes — before he could hand the meeting over to CEO Brad Tilden, something he must have been quite eager to do by this point. But as Loveless recited the resolution, Carol Harris stood up for another intervention.

Harris was a hospital worker, a local union vice president, and a passionate and devoted leader in her evangelical African American church. She had immersed herself in the airport campaign a year prior after meeting with workers and learning about their mistreatment and unsafe conditions. “First I had to get over the shock that this was really happening, because being on the outside looking in, you think that the airport workers are being treated real well,” she recalled. Harris had grown up outside New Orleans, in a segregated town on the west bank of the Mississippi. Her mom cleaned the houses of white folks and Harris grew up thinking it was normal for black people to enter houses through the back door. The idea of flying in airplanes seemed as fantastical as walking into a white person’s house through the front door.

“We could never afford to fly in an airplane,” she said. Airports held a distant and romantic aura of splendor and adventure. “Anyone who worked there—oh my god, they’ve got to be doing really well,” she thought. So when Harris started hearing about the poverty conditions of Sea-Tac workers, “it was just like, ‘Really? Are you serious?’” She thought, “We’ve got to do something. And when I realized other faith leaders were helping, and knowing there’s power in numbers, then I decided I want my number to be counted. I want to be there.”

Harris was asked by a community organizer if she would sing at the shareholders meeting. It would take complete self-assurance to stand up in an auditorium full of shareholders and belt out a tune. At first she demurred—singing wasn’t her strong suit, even though she sang plenty in church. But as she reflected on the airport workers she had met and the risks they had taken, Harris concluded that singing at the meeting was to be her contribution to the struggle. As Loveless recited the last resolution, Harris stood up, her sense of righteousness sweeping aside any trepidation. “Solid as a rock!” she belted out in her most boisterous church voice, and eighty people responded, “Solid as a rock!”

“Rooted as a tree!” Harris sang, and the rest of us repeated her words. “We are here, standing tall, for airport workers!” she sang, her voice reverberating through the auditorium.

On the repeat verse, the other faith leaders began clapping. Harris waved her arms in the air to put a flourish on each righteous line. Alaska executives sat in their chairs, stone faced. Loveless gripped the sides of the podium, helpless. This was no longer a corporate business meeting, but a revival service.

Harris finished leading the insurrectionary chorale and sat down. We were flush with success.

“If there’s another disruption,” Lawless announced, “we’ll end the meeting early.” I doubted that. The company would be hard-pressed to shut down their own CEO, who was up next. In any event, we were done launching our surprise actions. And to my surprise, the company was making no move to evict us. Perhaps they calculated that there were too many of us, and it was easier to endure the discomfort of our presence than to restore meeting order through a show of force.

Brad Tilden took the stage. His voice quavered a bit as he welcomed the shareholders. Was he going to face more upheaval? It would be natural for him to assume that we would interrupt him during this part of the meeting, the presentation on spectacular profits, growth plans, and shareholder value. But this was an afternoon of surprises for the company, and the last surprise in our arsenal was letting Tilden run through his presentation uninterrupted. We wanted to listen for any hints of compromise.

Tilden gave an upbeat report on the company’s prosperity — a record $306 million in annual profits. And he announced several strategic route expansions, tempered by warnings of growing competition from Southwest and Delta Airlines. Regarding the airline’s contractors, he maintained, Alaska recognized there were problems but had no influence over contractor labor relations. As for the initiative, he noted that Washington State already had the highest minimum wage in the country. Raising it to $15/hour in the airport would represent a 63 percent increase, jeopardizing company profits, he asserted.

And the CEO warned: “I’ve watched the movie of airline after airline after airline not honor the requirement to make a profit, and what they do is they file for bankruptcy. And hundreds of thousands of people lose jobs, pensions get cut. So one of the things we believe in our core is we have to run this business successfully. We absolutely have to do that — the market matters.”

In essence Tilden was asserting that fair pay and union rights were not issues to be judged by fairness and morality. Rather, they should be determined within the ebb and flow of the capitalist marketplace: “The fares we charge our customers — if Southwest can offer a low fare, we’ve got to be prepared to offer a low fare. In terms of when we compete for labor in the market, we need to be somewhere close to market. When we buy airplanes from Boeing, we need to be close to market. When we buy fuel from Arco or whomever, we need to be close to the market. You can have strategies to nudge you a little bit on some of those things, but if your goal is to provide market returns to your investors, you can’t get too far out of whack on those things. So the market does matter,” he said.

We had gone into the shareholders meeting with the goal of fusing a moral call for justice to a confrontational demonstration of our power — combining the two core strengths of the campaign. Without a doubt we had shaken company executives. But the question was whether we had disturbed them enough. Tilden’s ringing defense of the company and the iron laws of the market gave us the answer. There would be no settlement, no avoiding the initiative battle.

Workers, clergy, and other supporters filed out of the auditorium feeling a mixture of pride and frustration. “It’s like they hear you but they don’t listen,” recalled Alex Hoopes. And yet, he thought, “Things like this, you have to keep doing it.”

From purely an economic perspective, Tilden’s rejection of negotiations was illogical. His decision to resist union recognition and to invite the initiative battle ended up costing the company more money in the long run. Why didn’t he agree to negotiate?

The answer is that debates around money, profitability, income inequality, and “the market” were merely proxy terms for the real issue at stake: power. By yielding to the union’s demand for recognition and negotiations, Tilden would be ceding power to workers and their organizations. The company would have to negotiate with workers; it would no longer be able to unilaterally impose whatever it wanted. It would be a throwback to before 2005. Alaska and the other airlines — fierce competitors for customers but loyal compatriots when it came to class interests — had toiled mightily for decades realigning the balance of power in the industry. They had wrenched power from workers through deregulation and bankruptcy maneuvers, tough bargaining, and contracting out. And Alaska was not about to begin backpedaling now, even when the alternative was a costly voter initiative.

Money was secondary. For $10 million — just 3 percent of the company’s net profit of $306 million — Tilden could have paid all of his contract workers $15/hour. Ostensibly, the campaign in the ensuing months would be about $15/hour wages, paid sick leave, and workplace rights, but in truth these issues merely were surrogates for the fight over the balance of power at Sea-Tac.

Two weeks after the shareholders meeting, with colorful balloons and media cameras in tow, airport workers and community supporters paraded into SeaTac City Hall and delivered boxes of signed petitions for the SeaTac Good Jobs Initiative. A marching brass band escorted the delegation; wheelchair attendant Assadollah Valibeigi kept time on a drum as the parade circled city hall and then ducked inside to present the petitions to the city clerk.

We were headed to the ballot and an epic battle for power in the twenty-first-century economy.

Jonathan Rosenblum

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