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.
 

Coffee with Guppy: Seeking Authenticity with Tom Kundig

Coffee with Guppy: Seeking Authenticity with Tom Kundig

A chat with the celebrated Seattle architect.
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Tom Kundig is a principal and owner at Olson Kundig, the Seattle architecture firm and design practice founded on the idea that “buildings can serve as a bridge between nature, culture and people.”
 
Nancy: What does an architect do? 
Tom: An architect solves problems. We observe what’s going on culturally, both historically and currently, and try to make buildings that resolve a situation, whatever it might be. 
 
Did you always want to be an architect? 
Oh, no. My dad’s an architect, I grew up with architects around me and there was a certain culture about architecture that I didn’t particularly appreciate, but what I did appreciate were the artists in that environment. Eventually, against all sanity, I wound up in architecture and couldn’t be happier. 
 
How important is the budget when you take on a project? 
It’s critical because a budget gives context and, from my perspective, the tighter the budget (within reason), the better the building because it makes you edit. When the budget is loose, the building can become overindulged. 
 
Are you a different designer now than you were when you started out? 
Oh, yes. I understand a lot more about the human condition and I understand the technical drivers much more completely. Architecture is a profession of wisdom, and it’s rare when you see that wisdom in a young architect.
 
Do you have a favorite building in Seattle? 
It’s a toss-up between the Pike & Virginia Building, designed by Olson Walker in the late ’70s/early ’80s, and St. Ignatius Chapel on the Seattle University campus. 
 
Is there a building you wish you had designed? 
Nope. There are so many conspiring forces to make mediocre buildings that when a good building happens, no matter who did it, we should just stand back and applaud! 
 
 
Tom Kundig says his main driver is "to make as much as I can out of life."
 
Are there signature elements of a Tom Kundig design? 
My desire is for an authenticity, both in cultural function and in the way that the natural materials — whether brick, steel or wood — age and get better with time. 
 
In every project you’ve done, is there always at least one thing that you hate? 
Uh, yeah, on virtually every project, but I never admit it! (Laughs) 
 
What gets you excited about a project? 
A client who’s curious about the world because that person is going to engage and ask questions in a way that may take me out of the way I typically answer.
 
What has to be there in order for you to take on a client?  
Trust. If you hire me, then I’ve got to trust you as a client and you’ve got to trust me as your architect, that I’m going to be doing my best work working for you.
 
Have you ever had to walk away from a project? 
Yeah. It’s difficult but it’s not about me. It’s about the situation. I’m not the right architect for you, you’re not the right client for me and we are wasting our time.
 
When do you know if something you’ve made is good? 
When I’m drawing and things are happening and fitting together, it’s like listening to music inside my head. It flows.
 
Is there a Tom Kundig Life Statement? 
I put a quote in my first book: “Only common things happen when common sense prevails.” I don’t know who came up with it, but it always makes me smile and it’s kind of true. If you’re looking for adventure, or something new or something worth living for, you’re looking for the edge, whatever that might be. 
 
How do you balance your creative mind with your business mind? 
I think a creative mind is a business mind because business is creative. You’re dealing with a set of issues and you’re trying to find a pathway, trying to resolve the issues, into a success. 
 
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self, when you were just starting out?  
Be more secure about your abilities and less insecure about your existence so that you can do things with a well-placed confidence. 
 
What song would you like played at your funeral? 
(Laughs) I don’t know! I won’t be hearing it so I don’t really care. 
 
You’re stuck on a desert island and can have one book, one record, one food and one person
My wife, Jeannie. Beethoven’s Ninth. A hamburger. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
 
Who or what is your worst enemy? 
Noncritical thinking. People who don’t think about what they’re saying. 
 
Beatles or Rolling Stones?  
Beatles. I share a birthday with John Lennon and sympathy with his larger musical and political agendas.
 
What four guests would make for the perfect dinner party?
Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Feynman, Indira Gandhi, Muhammad Ali. 
 
Do you have a spiritual practice and if yes, how does that practice manifest? 
I was raised a Unitarian, so it is a very personal spiritual practice and certainly influenced by both Buddhist teachings and Jesuit friends. 
 
› For more on artists, entertainers and entrepreneurs, tune in Art Aone with Nancy Guppy on the Seattle Channel (seattlechannel.org/artzone).