labor What Does a Moral Economy Look Like for the 99%?
Sea-Tac Airport rally in April 2012., Jonathan Lawson
What inspired you to write Beyond $15?
I didn’t start out planning to write a book.
I’m a union organizer, and organizing is part teaching—bringing forward the lessons of previous struggles into present fights. When in 2014 I began scribbling down notes that eventually morphed into Beyond $15, I saw myself not as a professional author but as a union organizer engaged in an extension of my work.
From 2011-2014, I was fortunate to have been the campaign director of a broad coalition fighting for worker justice at Sea-Tac Airport, outside Seattle. It was a tremendous, inspirational, often chaotic fusion of immigrant workers from more than a dozen different countries, faith leaders, community activists, and union organizers who made history by taking on corporate giants and winning the first $15 minimum wage initiative in the country. By union standards, it was a highly unconventional campaign, forcing us to think differently about how to struggle for power and a voice in today’s economy.
When I finally got a chance to reflect in 2014, after we had won at the ballot but were awaiting a court ruling, I realized that if no one stopped to recount the Sea-Tac experience, then what we learned in this campaign—along with the moving stories of workers and grassroots activists—wouldn’t become part of the movement’s DNA. We’d all move on to the next battle and the lessons would disappear into the ether of history.
So I quit my union campaign director position and went back to meet people—the airport workers, imams and ministers, small business owners, neighborhood activists, union organizers—whom I had worked with over the preceding three years. In the rush of campaign work it’s hard to really get to know someone, particularly if their culture or experience is vastly different from your own. But sitting in a café, in a church or mosque, or in a living room, with no pressing business to tend to, we got to talk and unpack experiences, emotions, and perspectives. I learned what people gleaned from the campaign, how faith and life stories informed their activism, and how they thought we best could build a labor movement that fights for justice for all workers.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
We can beat Trump and his generals and billionaires, but to do so we will have to build a new kind of labor movement, based on social movement unionism. A new labor movement must articulate a bold vision of a moral economy, a stark counterpoint to our current capitalist system. It must embrace and engage all workers—the 99 percent—and not just a section of the working class. It must cultivate the ideas, creativity, and leadership of ordinary workers—something most unions don’t do a good job of today.
One of the most vital insights I took away from Sea-Tac was the essential role of faith and spirituality in constructing this new labor movement. I don’t mean having faith leaders show up on the campaign trail to bolster political or economic demands (the sort of utilitarian “rent-a-collar” approach that is common in movement circles today), but rather political and economic demands that are made on the basis of a moral foundation.
It will take wrenching change to transform today’s labor movement. It requires us to think about the labor movement as a moral force in society, not just an economic actor. One of the key lessons from Sea-Tac is that the elements of this new social movement union are everywhere around us, embedded in the daily struggles of working people. Our job, as people concerned about social justice, is to learn from these struggles, replicate the successes, and combine them in ever more ambitious efforts as we build a labor movement of the 99 percent.
By nature, these efforts will claim new strategies and disrupt norms and conventions, making it uncomfortable not just for politicians and corporate executives that we need to take on, but also for allies within the movement who are accustomed to doing things a certain way and think we can’t or mustn’t do too much to disrupt the system.
Some of this experimentation will take place within existing unions. More will take place outside of traditional unions, in immigrant rights movements, Black Lives Matter, environmental justice campaigns, workers organizing in the informal or gig economies, the Moral Mondays movement inspired by Rev. William Barber, and so on. It’s all part of the messy, dynamic, creative re-imagining of the labor movement.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
In the draft manuscript, I included a full chapter on the protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle. The mass uprising against the WTO was a formative moment for many of us activists in Seattle. The lessons we learned—about the tactics and methods of mass protest, about dealing with raw emotions amid street chaos, police batons, and tear gas, and most of all, about the recognition that when we fight, we can win—shaped so many of us. For me, there’s a lot about the WTO that explains the Seattle labor movement and why we were successful in Sea-Tac.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
So much recounting of social justice movements is done from the viewpoint of institutions and leaders, probably because it’s those leaders and the people close to them who have the time and platform to do the telling. Those are important views, but I think they also are incomplete because they don’t explain what moves ordinary people to action.
We’ve been inspired by the speeches and writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but his words alone don’t fully reveal to us what those young people were thinking when they sat down at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960, or why Birmingham children were willing to step in front of fire hoses and police dogs, or what it was like to be a SNCC organizer going into an unfamiliar community.
I’ve read Taylor Branch’s trilogy on Dr. King and regularly go back and re-read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail for inspiration and direction, but I don’t think I truly understood the full richness of the Civil Rights Movement until I picked up Charles Payne’s book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, about the farmers, workers, and clergy of rural Mississippi and the organizing they did far away from the spotlight. These grassroots stories are usually given only cursory attention—if any attention at all—yet they contain vital lessons for all of us.
When I set out to write Beyond $15, I resolved that since I was privileged to have a publishing platform, I would put workers, clergy, and grassroots activists where they belong—at the center of the narrative.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
I thought about a few audiences, starting with workers, faith and social justice activists, students, union members, and the like who are trying to make sense of how to engage in today’s economic and political reality. The upsurge in political activism as a result of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has brought millions of people into new or renewed political activism. But many of them are struggling with questions about where and how to invest their energy. I hope my book provides some clarity for them and a path forward—an understanding that our fight encompasses all of us against the 1 percent.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?
An effective organizer agitates people in two ways: by forcing them to confront stark injustice and then challenging them to do something about it. A good organizer raises people’s expectations of their capabilities and what they deserve out of life.
I hope my book agitates people about capitalism. I show how corporate and political elites deliberately destroyed tens of thousands of good airport jobs so they could maximize profits. People should be pissed off about that, and it helps explain why the growing divide in our country is not an accident or misfortune, but rather a deliberate design of the 1 percent.
Beyond $15 shows how airport workers and community allies—including some of the most marginalized people in our society today—refused to accept the status quo, took on a formidable powerful foe, and through creativity and perseverance, managed to win.
The book challenges readers to imagine a new kind of labor movement, a movement of the 99 percent, and their responsibility to help build it.
What alternative title would you give the book?
I originally was fond of the title, From the Ashes of the Old, a line from Ralph Chaplin’s 1915 union anthem, “Solidarity Forever:” “We shall bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” It aligned with the argument in the final chapter of my book that we can assemble a new labor movement from the wreckage of our present circumstances.
But unfortunately—or perhaps, fortunately—labor scholar and activist Stanley Aronowitz had already used the title in an excellent book he wrote in 2000 about the demise and (hoped for) revival of the labor movement.
So I moved on, shedding the somewhat nostalgic title for one that was more forward-looking. A better choice!
How do you feel about the cover?
The cover photograph was taken by my union colleague, Jonathan Lawson, at the first big rally of Sea-Tac Airport workers and allies in April 2012. He snapped the picture as the rally left the airport and began marching a mile to the headquarters of Alaska Airlines.
I think the photo does a great job of embodying the energy of the budding movement—clergy and workers from a diversity of backgrounds and faiths. To me, the picture reinforces a key argument of the book: this is a moral fight.
For nine months leading up to the rally, organizers had been meeting people at the airport and in the community, coaxing them to take on an improbable battle against Alaska Airlines, the Port of Seattle, and the airport corporate establishment. The April rally was our first big campaign test.
Would people turn out? They did–850 of them. And the boisterous march, the chants in different languages, the flags of many nations, and the auspicious April sunshine all boosted the community’s confidence and set us on a course to make history.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
One thing I’ve learned through the process of writing Beyond $15, which included reading a lot of other authors, is that the most evocative prose reveals a bit of the writer’s soul. Now that I have written a book, I can better appreciate the years of exploration, painstaking research, and thoughtful discernment that go into the process. It’s highly personalized, and it feels wrong to suggest that I would “wish” to superimpose my name on someone else’s most intimate expressions.
What’s your next book?
I’m inspired by the potential of radical political action that expresses itself as a moral movement, but no, I don’t have a next book in mind. However, permit me to fantasize about a couple of books that someone ought to write:
- “Shifra and Puah Kick Pharaoh’s Ass: The True Story of Exodus I—the account of the first recorded act of civil disobedience in history, as told from the perspective of the midwives for a change.
- “Chicken Run II: Vengeance at the Tyson Factory Farm”—a sequel to the 2000 stop-motion animated film about chickens who organize, go on strike, and escape a cruel, murderous farmer. In the to-be-written sequel, the escaping chickens go on to liberate their kin at Tyson and then turn their ire on the corporate CEO. Lots of blood and gore in the final scenes; may not be suitable for young children and corporate agricultural executives.