The Battle for Seattle

by Zach Cunnigham

Zach Cunningham

Zach Cunningham

The AFL-CIO’s 2013 convention came with a great deal of fanfare.  Unlike other conventions in the recent past, many felt a sense of revitalization surrounding this year’s proceedings as the federation moved to change strategy in a number of key ways.  Perhaps most indicative of this shift was the passage of Resolution 16.  Titled “Enduring Labor-Community Partnerships,” this resolution noted the “broad macroeconomic transformations” that have “[accelerated] deep divides and inequalities in our society.”  “Unions must work hand in hand with community partners and allies,” it continues, “to reverse these economic trends.”

In the run-up to the convention, Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times wrote that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka “believes that if unions are having a hard time increasing their ranks, they can at least restore their clout by building a broad coalition to advance a worker-friendly political and economic agenda.”  What’s currently happening in the Seattle area could serve as a testing ground for this theory.

These are certainly interesting times for the labor movement in Seattle.  As Paul Bigman recently wrote in Labor Notes, there have been a number of “dramatic actions by and on behalf of workers in the past few months.”  These actions included a victory for the “traditional” movement, as both the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Teamsters successfully fought a concessionary contract for many grocery workers in the area.  There have also been a number of victories for workers outside the channels of collective bargaining, such as the passage of a $15 minimum wage in SeaTac (a small airport community outside of Seattle) and the election of Socialist Kshama Sawant to Seattle’s city council.

On the surface, these victories seem to be a validation of sorts for the type of strategy Trumka envisions.  According to Bigman, labor “has particularly strong ties” with other progressive groups in Seattle, and these relationships have paid off tremendously.  Union and community groups worked together in the SeaTac minimum wage fight, and Kshama Sawant – a union member herself – benefited from a handful of labor endorsements and from her own Occupy activism on the way to victory over long-time Democratic incumbent Richard Conlin.  The grocery workers also engaged in extensive community outreach, getting “thousands of shoppers to sign cards pledging to boycott if there were a strike.”

The true strength of these partnerships, though, may be tested in another struggle currently taking place in the region.  Last month a group of union machinists in Washington State rejected a contract offer from Boeing.  The contract would have kept thousands of jobs in the area, but it also came with a poison pill.  By ratifying the contract, union members would have been voting to freeze their own pensions and accept only a miniscule raise.  This offer came from Boeing despite soaring profits and a series of large tax breaks from the state.  Bigman frames this “no” vote as a victory for workers (and I agree with him), but it certainly puts their jobs at risk.  The company will “pursue all options,” Greenhouse writes, when it comes to manufacturing the new plane.

Herein lies the issue with community-labor partnerships.  The end game for many of these coalitions is at the ballot box, as evidenced by the successful minimum wage fights in SeaTac and across the country, as well as in Sawant’s victory.  The SEIU is even considering a legislative end goal in what is arguably labor’s most visible campaign at present – the fast food strikes.

But an increased minimum wage and more labor-friendly politicians will be cold comfort to Boeing workers if the company decides to move production of its 777X airliner out of the Evergreen State.  It is hard to imagine these workers acquiring another job with the type of pay and benefits they have been able to wrest from Boeing through years of struggle.  If Boeing were to choose another site, it would stand as just another example of capital’s blatant disregard for workers in the pursuit of higher profits.  “This is how the middle class dies,” Timothy Egan wrote shortly after workers rejected the Boeing deal.  “Not with a bang, but a forced squeeze.”

Raising the floor for our lowest-paid workers is an absolute necessity, and continued victories in this area should be a priority for workers everywhere.  However, these victories are not enough by themselves.  For community-labor coalitions to reach their full potential, they must go beyond the political agenda that Trumka outlined prior to the AFL-CIO’s convention.  They must also be able to defend the gains that unionized workers have already won.  Grocery workers were able to do this in Seattle, but Boeing’s influence over politicians and the local economy is at an entirely different level.  Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if Boeing workers can harness the energy surrounding the other victories in the area and defeat the company in its current attempts at extortion.

Seattle’s workers and their allies have shown that they can stand up to capital at the ballot box.  The next test is whether they can also do it at the bargaining table.

Zach Cunningham is a  first-year Master’s student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.  In 2008 he worked as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Youngstown, Ohio, and after graduating from Indiana University in 2010 he taught high school in Arkansas and participated in the City University of New York’s Union Semester program.  He  blogs at I Hear Them All.

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