Sea-Tac airport workers and allies march in April 2012.
Abdinasir Mohamed expected to encounter poverty in America, but what he saw upon landing in New York City in 2008 seemed unreal.
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?’ ”
“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 he’d 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 she’d 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 became a close associate of mine as we worked together, along with many others, on this enormous challenge.
In that dining room conversation, Mohamed described to me his 2008 Harlem experience and the question that had lingered with him as he moved across country: Why? That experience and question gained renewed focus in his mind as he saw the injustice of the Harlem sidewalk scene replicated on an industrial scale—workers kicked to the curb by airport executives whose power and profits had soared to dazzling heights.
Mohamed brought his own deep history of human rights organizing to Seattle. He grew up in a politically active family in Kenya—his cousin had served in the cabinet of a reform Kenyan government. Mohamed had traveled throughout Africa for Oxfam, campaigning against the child-soldier practices of Ugandan rebels. In 1997 he moved to South Africa and joined up with the African National Congress Youth League, where he found himself advocating for mine workers and lobbying for civil rights throughout the region. Mohamed spent two months in jail in Zimbabwe after joining a protest there opposing President Robert Mugabe’s crackdown against the media and political rivals.
“There was general starvation in Zimbabwe in the streets then, so you can guess when you’re in detention, it’s much worse. I lost a lot of weight—that was the good part of it!” he recalled.
“There was general starvation in Zimbabwe in the streets then, so you can guess when you’re in detention, it’s much worse. I lost a lot of weight—that was the good part of it!”
After two years in New York City, Mohamed arrived in Seattle in 2010, where Bank of America snapped him up to be a teller at the bank’s New Holly branch in the heart of Seattle’s East African community. In addition to Somali and English, Mohamed also spoke Zulu, Swahili, and Oromo. These were huge assets for a bank trying to make inroads into the New Holly community of southeast Seattle. For Mohamed’s multilingual talents, Bank of America paid him $12.90 per hour, below the area poverty rate. There were health benefits, too, but they were minimal and too pricey to buy. The bank wouldn’t pay for a root canal when Mohamed needed one, forcing him to get a cheaper but more painful tooth extraction instead.
One afternoon, Mohamed finished his shift and walked out of the bank into a boisterous protest outside led by Working Washington, the SEIU offshoot. The protest was one of many public actions that Working Washington was staging in order to draw attention to corporate greed and income inequality. It looked familiar to the ANC veteran, and certainly less risky than confronting the Zimbabwean military. He joined in.
Within weeks, Working Washington hired Mohamed and assigned him to door-knock in the neighborhood, a precursor effort to the airport campaign. Working Washington was trying to get people to come out to rallies and public activities in the fight against income inequality, but the message wasn’t clicking with immigrant communities.
“It was difficult,” Mohamed recalled. Many of the people they sought out in the neighborhood had spent years in refugee camps before gaining admission to the United States. “They see themselves as the beneficiaries of the U.S. government. To them, there was no clear line between a corporation and the government. And so for them, going into the street and rallying, they thought that was kind of a betrayal.”
That was a perspective shared by Mohamed Sheikh Hassan, the director of Masjid al-Karim, more commonly known as the Orcas Mosque because of its location on Seattle’s Orcas Street. Hassan was one of the first community leaders Abdinasir Mohamed and other East African organizers reached out to after they were hired by Working Washington.
Hassan noted that, for new East African immigrants and refugees coming into the area, “where they come from, nobody ever gave them a chance to express their feelings and their needs and desires. These countries where they come from, the government is telling you what you can do, what you cannot do. There is a saying in our country, ‘If you want to live long, stay out of the government’s business.’ ”
Like Mohamed, Hassan had moved past caution and into a life of activism. He was in Seattle in September 2001, when the public backlash against immigrants surged after 9/11. Government agents raided Seattle’s East African money transfer businesses—vital pipelines for the community’s families back at home. And government agents also went after the community’s grocery stores, seizing merchandise and cutting them off from the food stamp program, effectively destroying the businesses. The entire community felt cowed, unfairly branded with the terrorist label, and helpless.
Hassan met with other community leaders, several of whom were advocating moving out of the United States. “That’s an idea that comes from our culture,” he said. “We are a nomadic people. When there’s trouble here, we move out of that place, go to a different place. We cross borders.”
But Hassan argued to stay: “I said, ‘Listen, this is America. No matter where we go, the rules and police are going to be there. But we can stand up collectively and assert ourselves. We are not terrorists to begin with. There are good American people who are progressive and who are going to listen to us.’ ”
‘Listen, this is America. No matter where we go, the rules and police are going to be there. But we can stand up collectively and assert ourselves. We are not terrorists to begin with. There are good American people who are progressive and who are going to listen to us.’
Hassan met up with a young Indian activist, Pramila Jayapal, who had organized a new human rights group in the wake of 9/11. She assembled civil rights lawyers and activists to organize protests at the raided stores, drawing support from Seattle progressives outside the African community. At the “shop-ins,” allies from outside the African community came to the stores to buy products and show their support for the owners and regular store patrons.
Hassan recalled being shocked when he showed up at a protest in the spring of 2002 at one of the “shop-in” protests at Seattle’s Towfiq Hallal Meat & Deli. As groups of unmistakably non-Africans pored with curiosity over bags of rice, boxes of dates, bananas, and halva, and freezers full of goat and lamb meat, Hassan spotted elected officials, including U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott, standing there in solidarity with the African community. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, they are going to lose their jobs, they will end up in jail, they will be killed.’ Because that’s what we knew back in Somalia.”
Nobody went to jail that day. Instead, they garnered widespread TV and newspaper coverage. The store won back its food stamp eligibility. Gradually the pressure on the community eased. And Jayapal’s words were burnished into Hassan’s mind: “Mohamed, you are not alone. We are here with you.”
Sea-Tac food service and hotel workers and allies packed into an airport commission meeting to demand union rights for all airport workers.
A decade later, in 2011, the ANC veteran organizer Mohamed and the mosque leader Hassan were struggling to get their community activated. It was hard, even as the Occupy Movement burst onto the scene in mid-September 2011, spreading from New York City’s Zuccotti Park to hundreds of cities, including Seattle. The break they got came not from allies or the excitement of Occupy, but from a hostile employer.
On September 30, as activists were preparing to launch Occupy Seattle in downtown Westlake Park, a standoff took place fifteen miles to the south at the Sea-Tac Airport rental car facility. It was a Friday, the most important day of the Muslim week. The day-shift Somali shuttle drivers for Hertz took their customary morning break to pray, something they had done for years.
Praying five times a day is obligatory; it’s one of the five pillars of Islam. Ritual prayers last but a few minutes, hardly causing a blip in business operations. Hertz management had always accommodated the workers, treating prayer breaks the same as intermittent breaks for workers who smoked. But on this Friday, a manager told the workers to clock out before praying, something they had never had to do before.
Hertz shuttle driver Zainab Aweis recalled her manager, standing with arms extended to block workers trying to get into the prayer room, declaring, “If you guys pray, you go home.” Aweis asked if this was a new rule and the manager said yes. “I like the job,” Aweis replied. “But if I can’t pray, I don’t see the benefit.”
Aweis sidestepped the manager and went to pray, because while money mattered, faith was a fundamental part of her life. As Aweis and her coworkers prayed, Hertz managers “were laughing and clapping their hands, mocking us,” said fellow shuttle driver Maryan Muse. On top of the humiliation, Aweis, Muse, and their Muslim co-workers were immediately suspended. All through that weekend, like clockwork, Hertz managers warned and then suspended Muslim workers at each successive prayer time, until by Monday the suspensions stood at thirty-four.
As Aweis and her coworkers prayed, Hertz managers 'were laughing and clapping their hands, mocking us.'
Cetris Tucker, a representative of the Teamsters union who represented Hertz workers, recalled getting several phone calls that morning from Hertz employees. A former fifteen-year Hertz employee herself, Tucker knew the company and its general disregard for workers’ rights. Tucker conferred with Teamsters leadership.
Everyone recognized that taking on this issue would mean inviting the inevitable blowback from union members and others outside the union who wouldn’t understand or sympathize with the Muslim workers. But Tucker recalled that her local union leader, Tracey Thompson, was unequivocal: “This is bullshit. We’re not going to stand for this. We’re going to take them on. We’re going to do everything we can.”
The Teamsters announced plans to pursue all legal avenues—the union contract grievance procedure, federal unfair labor practice charges, and an anti-discrimination lawsuit—to get the workers back to work. And, notably, the union announced it would mobilize with the community.
A week after the mass suspensions began, more than fifty protesters marched into the Sea-Tac Airport parking garage to the Hertz rental counter with news media in tow. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders, along with union and community activists, prayed for justice at the counter while holding signs that read Respect Me, Respect My Religion, and Hertz Hurts My Faith.
“We had the imams there, the community members, and the unions—people from the Teamsters and other local unions,” recounted Mohamed. “And when they saw that, helping them to have their faith be recognized, that was the first step in getting a united community.”
As TV cameras zeroed in on the protesters, Thompson noted that Hertz “singled out this group of workers when they are engaging in prayer.” That made it illegal discrimination. But the violation went further, she said. If Hertz wanted to change its break policy, it had an obligation to negotiate with the union. The company’s unilateral action was an affront to all union workers, Thompson declared. Matters of faith and union were joined.
Taxi drivers unite with other Sea-Tac Airport workers and faith leaders to demand rights for airport workers on International Human Rights Day, December 2012.
For many East Africans, seeing the multifaith and union support at Hertz, and then hearing about the union’s commitment to fight the suspensions, was transformational. To Mohamed Sheikh Hassan it recalled the scene outside the Towfiq market nine years earlier. Seeing a broad community at the Hertz counter that included non-Muslims showed the Africans that “you are not alone”; it gave the Muslim workers a feeling of solidarity and power, the confidence that “you can make a change, that you can stand up, that everything’s possible collectively,” he said.
Abdinasir Mohamed and the other Working Washington organizers knew that the thirty-four suspended workers prayed at a number of different mosques in the area. The organizers assigned workers to reach out to each of the mosques, to spread the word of what happened at Hertz—and to tell the story of the community and union support the workers enjoyed.
At one meeting, a baggage handler stood up to speak; then a taxi operator; then others in turn. Many had been reluctant to talk with organizers at the airport, but here they were at their mosque—in their community—speaking out about the abject airport working conditions, gaining confidence as they found their voices, and beginning to ask organizers how they could get involved.
The mosque meetings provided the opening that the campaign needed. As more mosque meetings progressed over the weeks, the organizing became a central discussion point in the East African community. Imams frequently included airport organizing updates in the weekly Friday mosque announcements. And workers warmed up to organizers at the airport, saying, “I heard you were at the mosque,” or, “The imam told us about the union.”
While the workers were organizing within their own community, Hassan reached outside. Three days after the rally at Hertz, he went down to Seattle’s Westlake Park and told hundreds of Occupy protesters—a decidedly non-Muslim crowd—about what Hertz had done. In late April 2012, more than 800 airport workers, family members, and community supporters assembled on a sunny Saturday to celebrate the coming-out rally of the airport workers’ campaign. Sikh taxi drivers marched with Somali cabin cleaners, Ethiopian wheelchair attendants, Mexican and white fuelers, and African American skycaps, all carrying signs with a simple message: Make Every Airport Job a Good Job. Immigrant rights’ groups, ministers, and other unions turned out.
An imam gave the rally invocation. Elected officials joined in, including Congressman Adam Smith, who recalled his father’s airport career. “My father made more money, and got more benefits being a ramp serviceman in 1985 than the workers at Sea-Tac Airport do right now. And that is the problem,” he said.
It took more than a year for the Teamsters to reach a resolution with Hertz over prayer rights. In the meantime, many workers moved on to other jobs; others returned to work, their rights belatedly restored. But more important, Zainab Aweis, Maryan Muse, and the other Hertz workers had given us all a gift with their courageous stand: Their suspensions had obliged the people in their community and their union to reach across the broad cultural divide and join hands.
And on that embryonic foundation of trust, a powerful movement began to take shape.
Adapted from Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement by Jonathan Rosenblum (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.