Does Seattle’s labor movement have helpful lessons for Detroit?
by Nacazqualtia Tecetiliani
Last fall, Washington state residents approved by referendum a law that legalized the sale, use and possession of cannabis, in itself a radical and liberating event which gave people across the country reason to celebrate. As a Detroiter who spent some time in Seattle, I discovered much more to be desired than just the freedom to light up without fear of prosecution.
Historically, Detroit and Seattle have much in common. Centers of industry, both share origins as major shipping and logging regions, and both remain hubs of International commerce although Seattle reigns by sheer volume. Eventually growing in proportion into literal powerhouses of production in the 20th century, they converted raw goods such as lumber and ore on a massive scale into finished amenities and luxuries that characterized the modern age. Even today, Detroit is to auto, what Seattle is to aerospace. These two regions through their collective struggle also have accomplished much for civil rights, political and labor movements respectively, as a necessary reaction to concentrated capital and political power. While it’s easy to focus on the past achievements such as Seattle’s general strike in 1919, the Buick plant’s Flint sit down strike and the Ford plant’s “Battle of the Overpass” in 1937, which established the UAW, I’d like to fast forward to the Seattle/Washington areas headline making struggles of the past 15 years.
Due to the lack of results from the status quo political parties and bureaucratic union models, there has been a significant rise of genuinely grassroots activism and rank-and-file mobilization. The ’99 World Trade Organization, infamously dubbed the “Battle of Seattle” could be the first major indicator of the level of discontent with the current economic system along with the wealth inequality and disparity it creates. Some 40,000 protesters have been said to have participated; unionists, activists and radicals. We can also look at the Longshoremen’s Wildcat Strike of 2011, which shut down the port for days, where workers blocked trains, held security guards, dumped grain into the sound, the Port Militarization Resistance Movement, where activists blocked key ports transporting weapons of War overseas, and the more recent election of Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s first socialist City Council member in nearly 100 years as, further proof of the desire for progress.
In the past seven years, Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol) has emerged as one alternative model for organizing. Inspired by syndicalist principles of mutual aid, direct action and democratic decision making in the vein of Occupy, it manifested itself four years prior to the Zuccotti uprising. Local activists and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members banded together to support victims of housing discrimination, wage theft as well threats and intimidation towards immigrants in both instances.
When asked of how the SeaSol model of organizing could be applied to other socio-economic and political movements, one of the original organizers, Matt of the IWW, said this: “SeaSol is an example of the type of organizing that just about anyone can do, without paid organizers, that it doesn’t require a lot of money or experience, with a small group of dedicated volunteers can be easily measured by its successive results.” The problem with bureaucracy is when they say ‘trust us, we got this taken care of’ is that it takes the power from the people and when the people are engaged directly, they are more effective.”
On the political end of the spectrum, the election of Kshama Sawant to Seattle City Council on the Socialist ticket again shows the power of a populist platform. She’s actively pushed a message of wage inequality, of the 99% vs. the 1% and the necessity of a $15/hour living wage, and it’s had an impact. On May 1, Seattle passed the $15/hr living wage, although politicians successfully diminished the effort by a clause that phases this in over the course of 3-10 years with penalties for tip and healthcare deductions, which is more reason to have an organized grass roots.
Having this to say about the stalled efforts of the legislative processes, the Economics professor Sawant indicated she would seek to “build a coalition in the streets”, City of SeaTac recently passed its own citywide $15/hour living wage by referendum for all hospitality and transportation workers as well.
2013 was also a significant year in Washington State for International Association of Machinists who rejected Boeing’s new contract which would drastically reduce benefits, effectively creating two- tier wages, much like Detroit’s Auto Industry has. Unlike Detroit, IAM locals unanimously rejected the concessions, and when the top leaders went over the heads of its members, IAM locals moved to hold new elections to remove the top brass.
It’s apparent that not only the higher paid unionists reacting to the ever decreasing wages and quality of life, but also average folks not represented by unions have also begun to mobilize economically and politically. So why not Detroit?
We can look at the ballot initiative for $10.10 in Michigan, which was hijacked by the GOP-dominated state legislature, as more proof to have all political gains backed up by an organized workers movement. The referendum would make $10.10/hour the minimum wage, over the course of 3 years with subsequent increases linked to cost-of-living, and would have also raised tipped workers salaries. Michigan lawmakers recently passed a bill to raise it much less to $9.25 by 2018. The interference from the Republicans should be interpreted as an effort to take credit for contributing to quality of life, while ultimately reducing the wage at the same time as denying residents participation in the democratic process.
Could it be that Michigan’s labor movement has put too much trust in the contracts, the labor bureaucrats and politicians, that it forgot how to fight and has no one to remind them of the battles that gave Detroit its unions due to a generational absence of struggle? Certainly Detroit has the historical lessons of the past to look back on, but will it move beyond mere speculation and into action? The challenge is whether Michigan can rise to the occasion in the face of austerity measures, a contrived bankruptcy that puts pensioners below bondholders, privatization of schools and the outright takeover of cities through “Emergency” Financial Managers. In a city with a plethora of political, activist and labor organizations, a coalition, a popular resistance movement isn’t only possible, but sorely needed.
It’s been apparent that trusting a few with the concern of the many has not produced many results in the last 100 years. Only a concerned, organized and active populace, by its own efforts will create a world that benefits the masses, not a privileged elite. The power originates in the people, and only by our own efforts can we create such a world.
Photo: Seattle Solidarity Network