The Seattle Times: The Next $15: Seattle's latest labor movement is about scheduling - and power

Originally published by The Seattle Times, Bethany Jean Clement
June 21, 2016

Photo by Alan Berner/The Seattle Times

James was on a three-hour break between shifts. He didn’t want to give his last name or the name of the restaurant where he works, as he was concerned about his continued employment there. He’d just worked 10 hours; now he had this three-hour break, and then he’d have, he estimated, four or five hours back on.

In the restaurant industry, James said, this was “very common.” He looked tired and — not to be unkind — greasy; he smelled like a man who’d just worked a 10-hour restaurant shift, equal parts old food and human effort.

“Life’s a pisser,” James said. “I’m used to it.” But he used his break to support the new movement for secure scheduling in Seattle, at an event put on byWorking Washington — the people who led the way for the city’s $15 minimum wage — and the blog Seattlish. It was a Secure Scheduling Storytelling Slam: an activist version of The Moth–style live storytelling.

From the stage, Seattlish host Hanna Brooks Olsen gave James a shout-out for being the hardest-working attendee at that moment, earning him an empathetically loud round of pity-applause from the crowd of around 75. “Eat a lot of tiny food,” she urged him, referring to the spread of catered snacks at Pioneer Square’s Impact Hub.

While secure scheduling isn’t as instantly inflammatory as $15, it’s the movement’s “second half,” Working Washington spokesperson Sage Wilson says. “$15 was about making sure you got a living wage for every hour you work, and secure scheduling is about making sure you know when you’re going to work.”The $10 ticket price also included attendees’ first beer or glass of wine, plus the possibility of winning more via “Scheduling Bingo,” with squares to be marked off as things were mentioned: “2 weeks’ notice,” “Clopen,” “Without a break,” “Cover my shift,” “Luckily there’s coffee.”

The organization hopes to see legislation introduced this summer requiring larger food-service and retail employers in Seattle to provide workers’ schedules two weeks in advance; to give workers 11 hours between shifts (ending the practice of “clopenings” — working until close, then having to open without adequate time to get home and rest); and to allow workers a chance to work more (rather than maintaining a “ginormous army of ultra-part-timers desperate for additional hours,” Wilson explains).

“The minimum wage was about money,” Wilson says. “This is about power.” As my colleague Janet I. Tu recently reported, local large employers seem to be accepting that the balance of power is going to shift when it comes to scheduling; they’re trying to bargain about how much — say, one week’s advance notice for workers instead of two.

The stories told at the Secure Scheduling Story Slam were funnier than those about powerlessness tend to be. Brooks Olsen talked about being the first person in her family to graduate from college — “Not to brag!” — but having to work a shift waiting tables at a diner instead of walking in her graduation ceremony. “One of my regulars was kind enough to bring me a balloon that day,” she deadpanned, “so that was the extent of my graduation party.” She also worked on-call six days a week for four-hour shifts bussing tables, “a special kind of hell.”

Paul Constant, a fellow at Nick Hanauer’s progressive think tank, Civic Ventures, told a harrowing clopening tale of working two and a half days straight running the cafe of an understaffed Borders in Boston, trying to sleep under the conference-room table while the night shift stocked shelves, blasting Chris Gaines (that’s Garth Brooks’ rock ‘n’ roll alter ego). He went without showering, and by the time he ended up, improbably enough, making a latte for the president of Ireland, “I stank,” he said. The president of Ireland said it was the best latte she’d ever had, then backed away slowly.

Less funny: retail worker Holly West’s poem about being a new grad, about not being able to get enough hours “working within a system meant to break me down, exploit, oppress, silence me,” about watching her immigrant mother get up at 4 a.m. to work in a juice factory, about how easy it might be to contemplate selling drugs or one’s body to get money for utilities and rent, “one time… just once.” Meanwhile, she’s trying to save up to go to law school.

Judges for the event included Seattle City Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Lisa Herbold, as well as M. Lorena González’s community relations liaison, Brianna Thomas. They weren’t very judgmental, just holding up emoji signs — smiley-face with hearts for eyes, laughing until crying, The Scream — along with the audience as they felt moved to do so. There were no winners.

After the storytelling, Herbold talked about her experience waiting tables at a diner in college, including clopenings and sometimes having to choose work over class — a choice complicated by the fact that she was also a single parent at 19. “I get it,” she said, simply.

Between his two restaurant shifts, James shared his hope for the movement: “For everyone, fair schedules — reasonable schedules — instead of my average 16 to 18 hours a day.” Then he headed back to work.