past event
Workforce Development

Democracy at Work: Citizen Action and the Fight for $15

Audio (MP3)

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About the Event

National attention is increasingly focused on growing inequality, stagnating wages, rising unrest, and economic insecurity and immobility. From Occupy Wall Street to the Fight for $15, workers and their families have raised their voices for change in recent years, calling on society to uphold its values, including equal opportunity to succeed through work. How can these voices to be translated into changes in policies and practices? Can exercises of democratic rights – to free speech and association – provide a means for workers and their families to attain fair wages, reasonable hours, and safe working conditions? David Rolf, one of the nation’s most successful labor organizers in recent years, discusses his book The Fight for $15: The Right Wage for a Working America. He is joined by local labor leaders who share their experiences in today’s workplace and their efforts to engage their co-workers, advocating for better working conditions and revitalizing the democratic process.


Enjoy a selection of video clips from this event.

Featured Speakers


David Rolf @DavidMRolf
President, SEIU 775 @SEIU775
Author, The Fight for $15: The Right Wage for a Working America

David Rolf is the president of SEIU 775, the fastest growing union in the Northwest representing home care and nursing home workers in Washington state and Montana, and founder and co-chair of The Workers Lab. From 1995-1999 he led the successful organization of 75,000 home care aides in Los Angeles, the largest union organizing campaign since the 1940’s. He led the historic campaigns to win a $15 living wage ordinance in Seatac in 2013 and for a citywide $15 minimum wage in Seattle in 2014. Since founding SEIU 775 in 2002, he has led its growth from 1600 to 43,000 members through new organizing, helped double the pay of its low-wage members, and bargained contracts that have created health, dental, vision, mileage, PTO, and other benefits for a previously minimum-wage, invisible workforce excluded from most labor and employment law protections. He was also founder and chair of the SEIU 775 Health Benefits Trust, which provides health benefits to tens of thousands of home care aides in Washington State and Montana. Rolf also serves as an international vice president of the Service Employees International Union. Rolf was born and raised in Cincinnati Ohio, graduated from Bard College, and lives in Seattle with his wife Kylie.

Tanika Aden
Home Care Worker and Board Member of SEIU 775 @SEIU775

Tanika Aden is a homecare worker and executive board member of SEIU 775. Like many caregivers, she did not plan to be a homecare worker, but when one of her family members became ill and unable to find affordable quality care options, Aden rolled up her sleeves and took on the responsibility. That was eight years ago this fall. In the beginning, she had strong reservations about unions based on past experiences, but her curiosity was stronger than her suspicion. In a fateful move, Aden attended her union’s annual caregivers convention, and signed up to volunteer for her first non-union agency campaign. The campaign exposed her to some of the most impoverished workers she had ever seen. At the doors, she met workers that were fighting tooth and nail to improve their working conditions, but without a union they had little traction. Since then, Aden has continued to fight for others, inspired by the changes her and other workers have accomplished in the last eight years. She knows that her work has had an impact, having witnessed standardized trainings in her industry, doubling of wages, and increased health and retirement benefits. This will be her first time in DC.

Ridwan Axmed Geele
Airport Worker

Ridwan Axmed Geele started working for Interline at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 2013, moving heavy luggage bins between different airlines. He had moved to Seattle to follow his family, even though he enjoyed his job in technology quality control at a large warehouse in Dallas, Texas. As a university graduate who had spent years studying human rights and public administration in Somalia, Geele became quickly interested in the bourgeoning Fight for $15. When an organizer invited him to volunteer to get out the vote for Proposition One in Seatac, Geele immediately began to mobilize his family, friends, and community. He felt he had made a real difference when the vote count came in and the proposition had passed by a tight margin. Although he works multiple jobs, Geele has not stopped organizing to improve the lives of workers in various forms. He hosts weekly organizing committee meetings to welcome new airport staff and introduce them to the movement. He has been on the doors to make sure his community votes for candidates who support labor this electoral cycle. When he returns home, Geele will prepare for the next strike, pressuring Air Serve to fulfill back pay for all the months it denied workers higher wages after Proposition One went into effect.

Crystal Thompson @LaGuerita206
Fast Food Worker and Member of Working Washington @workingwa

Crystal Thompson started working with Domino’s Pizza in 2009, rejoining the workforce after having taken some time as a stay at home mother. However after some years, Thompson noticed that despite how high the rent crept up, her wages remained stagnant. Then, after attending a meeting about the minimum wage, Thompson decided she had to take a stand for herself, her family, and other workers. She went on strike for the first time and participated in boycotts. Thompson may have believed the Fight for $15 was an impossible goal, but she never acted that way. She met with legislators and members of her city council to share what it was like to live on her wages, and what a raise would mean for her and her peers. When she faced push back, she marched with airport workers from Seatac to Seattle in a symbolic fifteen mile march to emphasize workers’ determination. Thompson will never forget the watch party as the votes for Proposition One came in and the city finally won $15 through a minimum wage phase-in. Today she continues to fight for the dignity of workers, most recently by organizing for safe and regular scheduling. Javier and Alexander, her children, will both be in attendance at the event.



Maureen Conway @conway_maureen
Vice President for Policy Programs, The Aspen Institute @AspenInstitute
Executive Director, Economic Opportunities Program @AspenWorkforce

Maureen Conway is Vice President for Policy Programs at the Aspen Institute and as Executive Director of the Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program (EOP). Ms. Conway founded EOP’s Workforce Strategies Initiative(AspenWSI) and has headed up workforce research at the Aspen Institute since 1999. She leads a team of researchers and consultants in a variety of initiatives to identify and advance strategies that help low-income Americans gain ground in today’s labor market. A featured speaker at numerous national and regional conferences, she is a nationally recognized expert in sectoral, or industry-specific, workforce development and has been quoted in a variety of news media including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Journal, and National Public Radio’s Market Place. Under her leadership, EOP’s Workforce Strategies Initiative has investigated the outcomes of sectoral workforce development, provided innovation seed grants to leading programs in order to illuminate promising practices and explored key operating features of programs in specific industry sectors. Maureen is the author of numerous publications including research reports, case studies and policy briefs, including co-editing, together with Robert P. Giloth, the book Connecting People to Work: Workforce Intermediaries and Sector Strategies, a collection that brings perspectives from philanthropy, policy, research, and practice, together to chart how sector-based workforce development has evolved and the implications for the future. Recently, Maureen led the creation of the Working in America and Reinventing Low Wage Work speaker series at the Aspen Institute, bringing together voices from business, worker advocacy, media, academia and others to discuss the challenges experienced by many in today’s labor markets and new ideas for addressing these challenges. In addition, her current work includes multi-year evaluations of several promising innovations in workforce development and a new project exploring an emerging practice of work that strives to create economic stability as a platform for economic mobility by engaging in strategies that seek to improve job quality while also helping workers improve their job skills. Ms. Conway’s previous experience includes consulting for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris and work for the U.S. Peace Corps, where she advised on the design, management, and evaluation of the organization’s economic development programs in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Maureen has an M.B.A. from Columbia University, a Masters in Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, and a B.A. in economics and mathematics from Holy Cross College.


Related Resources

Raise the Minimum: New Strategies for Raising Wages and Labor Standards by Mikka MacDonald, The Aspen Institute


This event is part of the Working in America series, an ongoing discussion series hosted by the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program that highlights an array of critical issues affecting low- and moderate-income workers in the United States and ideas for improving and expanding economic opportunities for working people. For more information, visit




Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #talkgoodjobs.

Event information
Mon Sep 19, 2016
12:00pm - 1:30pm GMT+0000
The Aspen Institute
One Dupont Circle NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC