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.
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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.

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.
 

Executive Q+A: Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Executive Q+A: Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

He wants the city's strong-mayor system to have a more robust organizational structure.
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Under Ed Murray, Seattle has become recognized nationally for promoting progressive policies like the $15 minimum wage, but he also sees the need for more centralization in the mayor’s office to implement better controls over the city’s large bureaucracy.
 
EARLY YEARS: My father was a logger. Two of my uncles died in logging accidents. Later, Dad worked for Bethlehem Steel. He went to business school and ended up on the business side of the Port Blakely Companies and finally worked at the state Department of Natural Resources. As a large Catholic family, we sometimes struggled financially. I had paper routes, washed dishes and even picked blueberries — a job I hated — for clothes and to pay for dental work. In college, I worked full time so I could get insurance.
 
POLITICS: I’ve wanted to be in politics since I was 5, when John F. Kennedy was running for president. There was so much excitement. We stayed up later [on election night] and in the morning, we ran into my parents’ room and jumped on the bed to find out who was elected. There is this natural interest in politics among the Irish in America. I have cousins who’ve been elected mayor in the New Jersey and New York areas.
 
DRIVE: When you grow up where food doesn’t come easy, it’s almost a double fear that you will end up destitute. When you have opportunities like I’ve had in life, you absolutely want to spend every moment making it work. I’m driven and I look for people who are driven. At times, I’ve had to dial back the way I drive others. 
 
MAYOR’S OFFICE: This city has a strong-mayor system. Unlike in Boston or New York, I don’t have to [get city council approval] to raise the minimum wage or do a [child care] program. But we have a fairly small mayor’s office compared to other large cities. I’m responsible for 14,000 city employees in 28 different departments, including Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities, but I have little ability to do independent oversight. We don’t have the controls that the governor’s office has with the Office of Financial Management. For the day-to-day administration, we need another level of centralization so, for example, we can build projects on time and on budget. We’re looking at ways to use statistics to measure performance. How do we monitor construction in real time to catch problems early?
 
BIG CITY: In my first two years in office, Seattle went from the 20th to the 18th largest city [in the United States]. That [growth] creates challenges. I’ve brought in some of the most innovative people in the country to work in the mayor’s office, to be directors of departments to take us to that next level. I focused on folks who’ve come from big cities because we don’t have a lot of depth when it comes to big cities.
 
PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENT: The fact that we have been able to pass five ballot measures in two years to really catch this city up on transportation, parks and bus service. Maybe our pre-K [early learning] program will be, in the end, the most significant. If we get this right, we will radically change the outcome for those young people.
 
BUSINESS REGULATION: I worry about the impacts on the smallest businesses in the city. In a city that is rapidly changing, their situation is the most precarious. We need to do a better job on how we engage and assist them. That’s why I brought in Brian Surratt as director of the Office of Economic Development. But many of the things we have done, we have done with with business. Business was there on pre-K and transportation. If we don’t have a transit system that works, business doesn’t work. Even on minimum wage, business is not happy, but we created a model of phasing it in that has become a model around the country. With the housing levy, developers for the first time agreed with low-income-housing advocates to accept a requirement to build or pay for affordable housing in exchange for increased density in our urban villages. This has been a collaborative process. I do worry at times that some on the council don’t understand that most businesses operate on the margin. I do worry that there could be a piling-on effect without understanding the full implications of that. But business needs to do a better job of articulating what they want and not simply what they are against.
 
BUDGET: We have to be really sensitive to levy fatigue because we have a really regressive tax system that leaves us few choices other than property taxes. Having said that, the housing levy did pass by 70 percent. That was the fifth levy I had sent out in two years. I do need to add that Seattle’s tax burden is less than some of our suburban cities. Still, there are real risks here. On every budget speech I give, I remind the council that a lot of increased revenue we have received is off of construction that will ultimately slow down. We are keeping a high reserve to prepare for worse times.  
 
HOMELESSNESS: The first year I was in office was the last year of the 10-year plan to end homelessness. The city identified and built every unit it said it needed to end homelessness and yet the problem is worse. We need to be innovative about finding new ways to deal with homelessness. But the myth that Seattle can solve this problem hurts the homeless. Seattleites are pointing at each other for a problem that only the nation and state can help us solve. We’ve stepped up big time, but there is this issue of income inequality, and the massive heroin epidemic in this country while the government is retreating from its responsibilities. We are number 47 in what we spend on mental illness in this state. What disappoints me is the folks in Seattle don’t realize that towns up and down the West Coast all have homeless crises. That’s an area I have to own a failure — not being able to create a dialogue to create a bigger movement.
 
TAKE 5: GET TO KNOW ED MURRAY
 
HERO: “When I was 13 or 14 and Wes Uhlman was elected mayor at 34, I read an article in the Seattle P-I that showed a picture of him on the balcony of the old City Hall. That’s when I wanted to be mayor.
 
FAVORITE VACATION: Visiting the Washington coast with his husband, Michael Shiosaki.
 
A LIFE IN POLITICS: Murray once confided to reporter Joel Connelly: “In 18 years, I have never been on a vacation where we haven’t been interrupted by some legislative crisis or some controversy in the media.”
 
TRUTH TELLER. “The biggest myth is that we have a large tax burden. We are the 18th-largest city [in the country], but in terms of tax burden, we are something like the 50th.”
 
GO, PILOTS. Murray was born in Aberdeen in 1955 and grew up in West Seattle and Lacey. He has a sociology degree from the University of Portland.
 
EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.