How immigrant workers are reviving the labor movement.

Author:Rosenblum, Jonathan
Position:Essay
 
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A refugee from war-torn Somalia, Mohamed knew destitution firsthand, and he certainly was aware that America was not all the bling-bling of Hollywood movies. But just two days after arriving in his new country, walking down a sidewalk in Harlem, Mohamed came upon a homeless person--"a white woman with blue eyes just begging there in the street asking, 'Can you spare me a dime?'"

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"I was like, Are you serious? I just came from Africa. Now I can see people who are begging in one of the biggest cities in the world.' "

We were sitting in my dining room as he recounted his abrupt introduction to poverty in America. Seven years had passed. Mohamed had moved west, to Seattle, and then in 2013 joined the Sea-Tac Airport workers organizing campaign--the first $15-an-hour wage ballot initiative in the country, a pitched political battle between labor and big business that inspired similar $15 fights around the country.

Mohamed told me hed given the woman five dollars, and she had told him her story. She had owned a house in the Bronx and held steady employment. But shed fallen ill and lost her job. Her benefits ran out. The bank foreclosed on her. So here she was on the street, pleading for spare change from other poor people.

Beyond the woman's abject poverty, what struck Mohamed was the precariousness of life in this new land. In Africa, at least it was warm. You could build a makeshift house on empty land and count on others to help you out. But here in the iconic American city? You were basically one slender paycheck away from being out on the cold streets. Listening to the woman, Mohamed said he sensed the utter loneliness and destitution of poverty in this new country. As an immigrant, he was beginning to grasp that for all the hope and opportunity the new land offered, there also was something very sick about America.

And Mohamed, like so many of us who have encountered stark injustice head-on, began to wonder why this was so.

After moving to Seattle, Mohamed got swept up in the 2011 Occupy movement and found himself drawn to an embryonic union-led campaign to improve poverty-wage jobs at the city's airport. Many of the jobs at Sea-Tac Airport were held by fellow Africans--his friends and neighbors. Fluent in multiple African languages, Mohamed was recruited to become a full-time community organizer for the union, tasked with bridging the cultural divide between unions and new immigrant communities.

I was director of the Sea-Tac Airport campaign for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and was brought on board at the same time as Mohamed, charged with leading the ambitious effort to organize and win good working conditions for thousands of baggage and cargo handlers, aircraft fuelers, cabin cleaners, passenger service workers, rental car and parking lot assistants, shuttle drivers, hotel and restaurant workers, and others who occupied the bottom rung of the airport economy. The positions were held largely by new immigrants who had flocked to the Pacific Northwest from all corners of the earth, escaping economic privation, wars, famine, and political repression.

From day one, it was clear to me that the campaign would require taking on the most powerful corporations in the region: Alaska Airlines, which dominated the airport; the Marriott and other national hotel chains; global airline contracting firms; and the airport concessions companies, all of whom profited richly from the airport's poverty-wage employment scheme. We would have to inspire and mobilize a diverse range of workers from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ukraine, Russia, Mexico, the Philippines, Iran, Iraq, and India whose shared culture was the constant scramble to pay $1,500 monthly apartment rents on minimum-wage paychecks. Mohamed...

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