How a Win for Unions Can Be a Win for Everyone

What labor movements in cities across the U.S. could learn from victories in Seattle.

Story by Jake Blumgart

Photography by Katrina Ohstrom

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Vanessa Patricelli moved to the Seattle area almost five years ago for a job at Harborview Medical Center, the only advanced trauma center in the state of Washington and the city’s provider of last resort. It’s a gargantuan, castle-like public hospital with a campus that sprawls across the surrounding blocks.

The scale of the place wasn’t the only thing that made an impression. Patricelli is a resident nurse, the same position she held at a hospital back home in Missouri. But in Seattle, she earned $10 more per hour. “Initially, whenever I got my job, I was like ‘you are going to pay me how much?’” she recalls, laughing. “I was like, ‘holy crap, this is pretty great.’ I didn’t realize it was because of the contract. Until I moved here I thought only railroad guys were union guys and that was about all I knew.”

That began to change when she learned that one of her fellow nurses was entering a race for a seat in the Washington House of Representatives and that a union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199 Northwest, was backing her. The union, which represents 1,600 employees at Harborview and 26,000 healthcare workers throughout Washington, was throwing a fundraiser and Patricelli decided to go. “I’d never paid attention to politics, but that’s cool she’s running, she’s a nurse, I’ll go check this thing out.” At the fundraiser, Patricelli got talking to a few organizers and union activists and when the next contract negotiations with the hospital came around, they asked her to join the negotiating team.

A first order of business at the negotiating table was break time. Nurses were working 12-hour shifts with no breaks beyond a single hurried meal, and sometimes that too was missed. Sitting with the rest of the union representatives, she listened, aghast, as management dismissed the issue. If nurses aren’t getting breaks during their 12-hour shifts, they just need to manage their time better, they said. Management didn’t seem to understand what it was like on the job. “That made me so mad,” Patricelli remembers.

The negotiations got heated and eventually, Patricelli organized her fellow shift workers to document their missed breaks due to overwork — 70 lunches and a couple hundred rest breaks in two weeks. She marched the group into the manager’s office to present their findings. The day before the nurses were scheduled to hit the streets to demand a fair break policy, the hospital decided to allow a pilot break program in Patricelli’s unit and one other. The pilot program allowed for a 45-minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks in their 12-hour days. It was a win for the nurses.

“If I had pulled a stunt like that in Missouri I have no doubt I would have been fired,” says Patricelli.

“There’s a safety in the strength and community that we have here. You have more rights here and you are safer in your position. And you can have a big mouth about things you would like to see changed.”

Patricelli’s union experience changed her political life outside the hospital’s thick brick walls

“When I lived in Missouri I voted in one presidential election, I tried to vote in another, and that was as politically active as I was,” she says. “Now I go to Olympia and I talk to my representatives, I go out and try to help people I support get elected.”

The American labor movement is in the midst of an evolve-or-die moment. Observers from across the political spectrum have written its obituary many times over the last several decades of domestic de-industrialization, anti-union politics and public sector privatization. Yet in Seattle, the movement is very much alive and in fact, thriving in a way that it never has in the past.

Vanessa Patricelli is a nurse and union representative at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center.

Seattle ranks as the nation’s second most heavily unionized city with 18.6 percent of the total regional workforce covered by union protections, coming in behind New York City, which has 22.4 percent. Jet City just about ties with the Bay Area, where 18 percent of workers across San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose are covered by a union, according to a 2014 analysis of U.S. Census data by researchers at Georgia State University and Trinity University. Not the most unionized, but certainly denser with card-carrying members than most places, Seattle is an interesting city in terms of the future of the movement. Organized labor there has won not only paid breaks for nurses, but also paid sick leave for all Seattle employees and a law protecting all workers from wage theft. Probably the biggest win of all is the $15 minimum hourly wage that Seattle employees began earning this month, 10 months after Mayor Ed Murray signed a wage increase into law and about two years after the SEIU began campaigning for the increase. Last November, San Francisco voted to raise its own minimum wage to the same $15 per hour. Los Angeles is now considering the same move.

In U.S. cities, the most politically active unions have long been the building trades, which tend to be monomaniacally pro-development — new buildings mean more construction jobs — and overwhelmingly white, despite the majority black and brown communities in which they are doing business. (In major cities like Chicago and Philadelphia this is still the case.) But the unions that have become increasingly active in cities since the 1990s are often based in the healthcare, education, service and public sectors — sectors where workers don’t look like your average union carpenter, or construction worker. They are less likely to be white, more likely to be women, more likely to be immigrants, and more likely to care about issues that are important to a typical progressive voter, such as wage requirements for all. The nurses of SEIU, for instance, threw their full support behind the Seattle minimum wage campaign and celebrated the raises for fast-food workers, home healthcare aides and so many others as their own victory. In fact, the SEIU is behind the national Fast Food Forward campaign, which has prompted thousands of non-union fast-food workers to protest low wages at McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants across the country. The demonstrations have begun to generate impact; on April 1st, McDonald’s announced that it would raise wages and offer new benefits to 90,000 employees in the 1,500 outlets the corporation owns and controls, or about 10 percent of the chain’s total U.S. employees. While SEIU remains steadfast that the McDonald’s concession is not enough when considered against the $1 billion the chain’s low wages cost taxpayers every year, the announcement indicates that the union’s investment is paying off.

Dozens of fast-food workers and their supporters protest workplace conditions in front of a McDonald’s in New York last month. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The move toward advocating for non-unionized workers as well as card-carrying members represents a distinct and important pivot toward a new future for the labor movement, one in which union muscle, working in new coalitions, is working for the good of the entire city.

“The general growing weakness of unions had led people who haven’t been involved in those kind of coalitions to realize that they need partners,” says Stephen Lerner, a longtime labor strategist and architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign, an SEIU initiative that, with the support of community allies, won higher wages and benefits for tens of thousands of low-wage workers in Sun Belt cities. “After the economic collapse of 2007-2008, people are looking for ways to address inequality, while the inability to move anything on a federal level has led folks to focus on cities and be increasingly creative about what they can try to do on the local level.”

Lerner argues that recent victories have roots in a shift in labor strategy that began in the 1990s when more progressive leaders took over the AFL-CIO leadership and began to fight for economic policies such as living wage ordinances, community benefit agreements, and urban-level labor standards like higher minimum wage and paid sick leave. These proposals set a baseline of workplace rights that had previously been the sole purview of state and federal government. They took unions outside of unionized workplaces.

Seattle isn’t the only city where labor-community coalitions are coming together for major impact. In Minneapolis, the Service Employees International Union allied with three community groups and successfully championed a state-level homeowners’ bill of rights to forestall foreclosures in the wake of the Great Recession and got the Minneapolis School District to end its relationship with Wells Fargo in favor of local banks. San Francisco unions and allied community groups have won paid sick leave and multiple other key equality-boosting protections. In Chicago, Chicago Federation of Labor and a coalition of community groups came together to demand the Chicago Transit Authority require companies bidding to manufacture the system’s next generation of rail cars include a plan for creating local jobs in their proposals. “Different groups in all those cities are trying to build community labor partnerships because the labor movement is still the greatest single source of progressive resources in the country,” says Roxana Tynan, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), an activist think tank that worked with groups in Chicago. “Everything is about power. Not in a cynical backroom kind of way, but you really need to build broad public support in order to win and one key component of that is building on existing progressive power. Much of which still rests with the labor movement.”

But stories like these, and like Patricelli’s, are rare as economic, political and occupational forces continue to shrink the labor movement. Union density in the U.S. private sector is a mere 6.6 percent in 2014, even lower than the movement’s last bottoming out in the 1920s. There are already plenty of urban areas where unions have little to no political strength, especially in the South and the Sun Belt. In cities like Charlotte, Atlanta, New Orleans and Phoenix, unions are simply not institutions that politicians and policymakers need be concerned with. In the context of organized labor’s continued decline, these urban laboratories of progressive economic policy may also be the last holdovers of the 20th-century union movement.

Strike City

Seattle has pretty much always been a union town. In the 19th century, its relative isolation — hundreds of miles away from other urban centers — gave workers an advantage in their struggles with employers. After World War I, 65,000 workers participated in one of America’s only general strikes: Everyone from hotel maids to violinists to garbage collectors struck in support of shipyard workers’ demands for better pay. After the huge labor upsurge of the 1930s and 1940s, tens of thousands of well-paid union jobs could be had on the docks or with Boeing.

Up through the 1970s, Seattle remained a blue-collar town with a strong base of jobs in the maritime and aerospace industries. But the decade of Reaganomics brought a series of successful attacks on private sector unions. Jet City membership plummeted to 21.6 percent of workers in 1989, down from a 55 percent high in the 1950s. The downtown hotels broke their master contract with the labor union and membership fell from 50 percent of the industry workforce to 20 percent. Similar losses befell other industries, especially port truck drivers. But despite these losses, Seattle’s labor movement did not suffer the existential defeats suffered by counterparts in localities like Detroit, where deindustrialization and middle-class flight fractured the city’s labor movement. Instead of ending the decade in defeat, major strikes swept Seattle in 1989. The Machinists walked out of Boeing for 48 days, 1199 struck Group Health for 38 days, and 10,000 UFCW members shut down many of the city’s grocery stores for 81 days. They all won. This fact alone set the city apart from the rest of the nation, where strikes in the 1980s almost inevitably ended in defeat.

“I could tell those strikes were strong events and workers were feeling strong,” says Steve Williamson, who had, at that time, just arrived in the city from Denver, where he had participated in a defeated bricklayers strike. Today, he is the community affairs director for UFCW and the former head of the King County Labor Council. “In many ways Seattle in 1989 reminded me of Pittsburgh growing up,” he recalls. “It was an alive union town. But the labor unions in 1989 were not as nearly engaged in local politics as they are today.”

There is a reason for that, says Seattle City Council Member Nick Licata, who has worked closely with the unions since he got involved in local politics in 1975. “Unions were much more concerned with bread-and-butter issues, they weren’t so concerned with broader social justice issues,” says Licata. “They weren’t as involved in alliances with community-based organizations, or with the growth of progressive think tanks.”

A photo from the Seattle Labor Temple Archives

The national Democratic Party’s rightward shift is partially responsible for the union movement’s go-local moment. Before Bill Clinton’s presidency, organized labor pinned its hopes for labor law reform or redistributive policy to Democrats in Washington. But during the 1990s, it became clear that the national Democratic Party was no longer a reliable ally. If the union wanted to make serious change, a new strategy was needed. That realization dovetailed with the staid AFL-CIO’s election of longtime SEIU leader John Sweeney, who won power as a reformist apart from the traditions of the conservative building trades and the dying industrial unions. He pushed local unions to change their ways, build alliances with progressive groups, promote women and people of color and, most of all, organize new members.

Sweeney also championed the Union Cities initiative (launched in Seattle) that encouraged the labor movement to build power in localities by reaching out to community allies and growing their own ranks again. The program’s results were mixed — organized labor’s membership continued to decline — but organizations like LAANE were born of the effort, establishing an institutional strength for more aggressive local efforts at the city and regional levels. In Seattle, the movement’s new orientation was most famously manifest in labor’s participation in the 1999 Battle of Seattle, which shut down the World Trade Organization’s annual meeting.

“We Can’t Expect Elected Folks to Carry All the Water”

As the 1990s progressed, and the new economy of low-paid service sector work came to Seattle, the unions that were trying to organize the new industries, which also happened to be those who backed Sweeney most vigorously, faced the near impossibility of workplace organizing under moribund New Deal labor laws. (A 2009 study showed that, among other illegal tactics, over a third of employers facing union campaigns respond by summarily firing activist workers — in direct violation of the National Labor Relations Act.) “To address union avoidance campaigns we’ve had to turn to the political process,” says David Freiboth, president of the King County Labor Council. “The right to organize is not protected nationally so we’ve turned more and more to non-NLRB organizing. The legislative path is a variation on that.”

In Seattle, a constellation of progressive unions — grocery store workers, nurses, home healthcare aides, hotel workers and disparate groups organized under the Teamsters — forged alliances with community groups, environmental advocates and clergy. Together, this coalition erected infrastructure to help promote progressive economic policies, including an organization that would become Puget Sound Sage — an activist think tank explicitly based on LAANE’s model.

Council Member Kshama Sawant and Rebecca Saldaña, executive director of Puget Sound Sage

“We can’t expect elected folks to carry all the water,” says LAANE’s Tynan, explaining all the careful — and very expensive — groundwork that is needed to successfully fight a policy campaign. “It doesn’t work that way. We have to bring them fully baked campaigns with smart policy ideas, a broad array of support, thoughtful research, good legal support, a decent communications strategy. … We look to both build the relationships inside City Hall, so that we have champions we can work closely with to move legislation, while we are also doing the organizing on the outside to provide the public support and momentum.”

The new coalition tactics came to fruition in Seattle in 2011 when community groups and service sector unions — SEIU, Unite Here, the Teamsters and UFCW — began pushing for an anti-wage theft ordinance and paid sick leave. The campaign accomplished two things for the unions: They forged a reputation as advocates for the city’s working class, and won ground that they had been unable to secure via collective bargaining and mass strikes.

When employers at the Sea-Tac airport refused to allow low-wage workers to organize with SEIU in 2013, the union backed an initiative to raise the tiny city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. The Sea-Tac campaign, and its unprecedented levels of spending, won nationwide attention and was sped along by a socialist candidate for City Council, Kshama Sawant, who ran on Socialist Alternative ticket and took up the $15 banner enthusiastically and made it an issue in the Seattle elections, which included a contentious mayoral campaign. Both mayoral candidates courted organized labor, with State Senator Ed Murray (and his 95 percent lifetime rating from the state labor council) snagging the building trades unions and incumbent Mike McGinn mostly winning the endorsements of the service sector unions that had been pushing the citywide labor standards. (Unite Here called McGinn “the most progressive mayor in America” in their endorsement.)

The president of SEIU Local 775, David Rolf, withheld his well-funded union’s endorsement until late in the game. (They were also the primary movers behind the Sea-Tac initiative and the fast-food strikes that punctuated the mayoral campaign.) Then in late September, Murray announced that a $15 minimum wage would be a centerpiece of his campaign, and Rolf rewarded him with 775’s endorsement. When Ed Murray won, he appointed Freiboth and Rolf to the advisory council across the table from representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and the owner of the Space Needle. Sawant also accepted a place on the committee while pushing a more radical alternative that kept the poles of the debate well to the left of the usual American policy debates.

The $15 minimum wage was born at SeaTac airport, following a dispute over unionizing airport workers.

On April 1st, Seattle’s new minimum wage went into effect, boosting similar campaigns throughout the country. While unionized workers aren’t the largest beneficiaries of the wage hike, there are rewards for the unions. It put them in the headlines as a force concerned with the broader interests of the working class and, also, raised the wage floor for workers in unions where collective bargaining had not achieved similarly elevated wage standards.

“In [the $15] minimum wage and paid sick leave there was a small element of that that would help union members,” says Freiboth. “Most people might think that those wouldn’t help those who are organized. But because of deunionization of the private sector conditions for union employees, particularly new hires or low-skilled workers, haven’t kept up. [Collective] bargaining is very, very tough.”

Rolf sees the $15 victory as a rearguard action, the only avenue left open to a shrinking movement. “Today most remaining unions don’t have the strength to strike, really, they can’t cripple the economy in the same way unions could throughout the 20th century,” he says. “What they have is political strength. But absent the threat of a credible strike threat … As Scott Walker is finding out, you can extinguish that model if you cut off all the funding.”

A Catalytic Moment

Seattle’s unions are doing everything that a local labor movement can be expected to do: engaging with the community, fighting for public policies that serve the broader good and playing a savvy political game. None of that is stopping the slow bleed of member loss. The number of Seattle-area union members in 1986, the first year regional datasets are available, is roughly the same as the number today — even though the number of jobs grew by well over 660,000.

As longtime labor journalist Harold Meyerson recently wrote, it is now “easier to raise wages for 100,000 than to unionize 4,000.” He was referring to the original unionization campaign at Sea-Tac airport that culminated in Seattle’s $15 minimum wage. That story had a happy ending, but if the labor movement cannot grow, will such radical progressive policy victories be possible in the future?

Seattle Labor Temple first opened in 1942 as home to the local Federation of Labor.

“Just because in Seattle we are progressive and we have a $15 minimum wage and still have unions, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we couldn’t share the future of Cincinnati or Madison if we don’t do something different,” says Rolf. “We could be more unsentimental about the death of traditional unions if there was a single rich democracy in the world that had ever built or sustained a robust middle class without a powerful workers movement.”

The problem for urban progressives is that the political victories recently won in Seattle are, in large part, dependent upon unions. There are, quite simply, no other political actors with the resources and longevity to win significant policy battles. Activist upsurges like Occupy Wall Street are good at riveting the public’s attention and changing the terms of debate, but the tents come down eventually. Community groups often have a dedicated membership, but rarely have the money to make politically influential donations or mount a citywide get-out-the-vote effort. Likewise, people who work in low-wage jobs like fast-food service are not taken seriously as a political force without the kind of major organizing effort that is all but impossible to pull off without some kind of budget. Unions have the resources to spend on lobbyists, door-knocking campaigns, actions and candidates. SEIU and the Teamsters spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the campaign to win the $15 minimum wage ballot measure in SeaTac — a city with 12,000 registered voters that’s home to the airport. The SEIU PAC spent $5.2 million on the 2014 federal elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the 2012 elections, which included the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the union spent $19.6 million, most of it on opposition to Romney and other Republican candidates.

A litany of major studies and books in recent years — the latest from a couple of International Monetary Fund economists — have traced the sharp rise in inequality to the decline of unions. Having a left-leaning political culture matters too, but international political scientist Vincent Mahler recently found that victorious leftist parties were much less strongly associated with income redistribution than the presence of a strong union movement. That’s because organized labor’s contribution to equitable economic outcomes doesn’t only stem from the wage and benefit premium they provide their members.

“Political weight can drive things like a minimum wage increase or certain other kinds of policies that advantage the incumbent labor movement,” says Richard Yeselson, a former union strategist who recently penned an essay called “Fortress Unionism,” about organized labor’s death spiral. “But [that] doesn’t yet mean increasing union density, it doesn’t mean making the labor movement bigger, which would mean making it more powerful. In that sense, nothing really worked.”

Signs at Seattle Labor Temple, a headquarters of labor activity

But Rolf and many other labor experts do not expect the answer to come from them on high. In 1997, labor economist Richard Freeman published the definitive account of union growth: It comes in spurts. He chronicles six since the Civil War, the last ending over 40 years ago, but otherwise membership is defined by slowly waning strength. That’s because political life is generally ruled by the rich, while those of modest income rarely disrupt the status quo. Research suggests that a resurgence will not be orchestrated by labor leaders or politicians, but by mass unrest of the kind that shook the nation during World War I, the Great Depression, or the 1960s. “Bottom-up employee-driven bursts of union activity rather than particular laws, are necessary for any resurgence of union density,” Freeman concludes. The union as an institution preserves the ebbing power of the searing moment of disruption but cannot succeed in single-handedly replicating it.

Meanwhile, Patricelli is not focused on questions of political economy. Her attention is focused on her job and the upcoming round of contract negotiations, in which she hopes to expand the break practices she champions to the rest of the hospital. Patricelli hopes to see her union, and the rest of the area’s labor movement, continue to push for bigger political goals, alongside the incremental workplace gains. Like other healthcare unions, 1199 will continue to help get people signed up for the new forms of health insurance available under Obamacare, while pushing to expand the law and preserve it from political attacks. She also hopes to see some action to ease conditions for the undocumented.

“The political views of my family by and large have been kind of polar opposites of the views I have advocated for,” she says. “Healthcare reform, Medicaid expansion, that kind of thing. We were all raised very much to expect that we were going to have to figure it out for ourselves and not have any kind of assistance. But … all my family in Missouri [tells me] you should move back and do this stuff here.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Jake Blumgart is a senior staff writer at Governing.

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