David Rolf expanded the number of home-care and nursing-home workers in his Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chapter twentyfold — to 44,000 — in the past decade. He was a leader in Seattle’s push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and has received national attention by calling for labor unions to innovate.
Executive Q&A: Toward a More Perfect Union
As president of Seattle-based SEIU 775, David Rolf represents more than 40,000 long-term-care workers in Washington and Montana.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
FAMILY: I grew up in a middle-class family in Cincinnati. My great-grandfather on my dad’s side was the president of a distillers’ union. My grandfather on my mom’s side was born into poverty in Appalachia and worked on farms and at timber mills. It was joining General Motors and becoming part of the UAW that moved him into the middle class.
INJUSTICE: I was brought up believing that people were fundamentally good and that if you worked hard, you would be treated fairly — which is either the most naïve or most dishonest thing you can teach a child.
EDUCATION: At college [Bard College in New York], I spent as much time on picket lines as I did in class. As a student government leader, I supported all the progressive causes, but the place I felt I could make an
authentic contribution was in the labor movement. I supported the janitors when they organized into the SEIU in 1989. Later, I did an internship at an SEIU local, and they ended up offering me a job.
ORGANIZING: I worked for a scrappy, heavily African-American local union in Atlanta, organizing public-sector employees like hospital orderlies and bus drivers. I always thought of unions not as talent agencies or negotiators but as social movement organizations that help ordinary people share in prosperity. I spent 20 years organizing some of the biggest union campaigns since the 1930s.
EPIPHANY: For decades, I thought that by being smarter and more strategic we could reverse the decades-long course of labor decline. But by early 2012, we had seen a generation of right-wing governors take office and repeal union rights. I began this quest to figure out how we could replace the model that we have with something that is stronger and more effective.
CHANGE: Unions grew because of the Great Depression, the large proportion of workers in factories, the unpleasant work conditions, and mobsters who were looking for new profit centers and promoted unions to loot their treasuries and extort employers. Factory owners decided that dealing with a union was better than waking up and not knowing if their factory was going to produce anything that day. But today, capital can be moved around the globe with a few keystrokes. You can source labor almost anywhere. The power of the industrial strike has been crushed. There is no Communist Party cranking out anti-capitalist organizers, and there is
no Mafia. Good riddance, but still. People today take more jobs before they are 25 than those in my grandfather’s generation had in their entire lives.
WAGE STAGNATION: Now we’ve suffered 40 years of wage stagnation. Who would have imagined in the 1970s that if women doubled their workforce participation, the take-home pay of the bottom 90 percent of households would not increase at all? Who would have imagined that we would create more wealth in 30 years than humans had created in their entire history and none of that wealth would go to the bottom 90 percent?
COMPETITION: If the unionization system is opt-in site by site, you create an incentive for employers to bust unions. Even a highly moral employer will say, “If I’m the only one with a union, I’m at a disadvantage.” If you employ janitors in Seattle, you’re fine because it’s 95 percent union here. [Landlords] aren’t competing based on the price of labor. But in the hotel sector in Seattle, only a tiny percentage is unionized. That tends to force wages down.
ALTERNATIVES: Germany has the world’s largest middle class by percentage of population. Its automobile workers make twice what ours do and they still produce twice as many autos as we do. Their unions set minimum standards by sector and by region. We could do the same for the fast-food sector or the maritime sector.
ORGANIZING BY TECHNOLOGY: In the old days, there were hiring halls where you would go to find construction workers. Now, you just get a message on your smartphone that tells you where to show up. One can imagine an app that helps workers engage in collaborative price setting and cut out the middleman, such as all these VC-backed platforms like Uber. Alternatively, Uber workers could meet and form an organization and collectively decide to turn off their apps until prices reached a certain point.
WIN-WIN: People characterize unions as “members first, pale, male, stale and possibly in jail.” But whether it’s protecting the bad teacher or the drunken guy on the assembly line, those were designed features of our collective-bargaining system. If you were going to design something for the 21st century, you would want a system that scales to touch millions of people so it doesn’t put individual firms at a disadvantage. Things like work councils and co-ownership also tend to promote efficiency and a win-win strategy.
DONALD TRUMP: American workers have been taking it on the chin for 40 years, so it’s not surprising that people are angry. Every time that happens, someone will offer a scapegoat to blame. The simplistic, populist appeal of someone like Trump doesn’t gain traction when people feel as if they’ve bought into the system in which they are working and voting.
$15 MINIMUM WAGE: The cities with the most restaurants per capita — Seattle and San Francisco — are the cities with the highest minimum wages. Phased-in increases, even relatively steep ones, give businesses time to change and adapt. I met with labor leaders in Europe and among them were McDonald’s workers making $20 an hour under their union contracts.
GLOBALIZATION: It explains why we only sew 5 percent of our clothes in this country — down from 95 percent in the 1960s. It doesn’t explain why the guy who puts fuel in jet aircraft makes a minimum wage today versus $60,000 and benefits in the 1970s.
EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.