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Kshama Sawant, a Seattle socialist who campaigned on a promise to lead the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage

Kshama Sawant, a Seattle socialist who campaigned on a promise to lead the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage

Kshama Sawant, of the Socialist Alternative party, becomes the first socialist member of Seattle's city council. Alastair Stephens looks at the huge significance of her victory

The election of Kshama Sawant as a member of Seattle City Council has made headlines throughout the world. Why would an upset it a local election in the state Washington on the US’s West Coast, in a city best known for a fictional character (Frazier Crane), caused such interest? Even locals have described their politics as  “so goddamn boring. With a few notable exceptions, our municipal elections amount to geriatric sausage-fests.” Maybe its because Kshama was an outsider, an immigrant woman who ran against the city’s Democratic party machine and unseated a 16 year incumbent, but mostly it was because she ran and was elected as a socialist.

And it is this last fact that is has caused such amazement. It is decades since someone running on a socialist platform has won an election in the United States. Is it just a flash in the pan? Is Kshama a one off? Or is this a sign that something is changing in the US?

Certainly ran a fantastic campaign that upset the applecart of Seattle politics. It was vibrant imaginative, and grassroots and shifted the whole political conversation to the left. Campaigning around issues such as raising the minimum wage to $15, unionising fast food and rent control she had the other candidates responding to her agenda. On 5 December four of the other eight city council members joined her at a rally to support the national fast food workers’ strikes and a $15 minimum wage in the city.

But she was not alone in making headlines in last November’s elections.

In Minneapolis, the largest city of the mid western state of Minnesota, Ty Moore, like Kshama, a member of the small Trotskyist group Socialist Alternative, came within 229 votes of being elected to the City Council.

Whilst Minneapolis and Seattle maybe big cities (both with a histories of radicalism), the third upset of November’s election was in the otherwise un-newsworthy county of Lorain, Ohio. Nestling on the shore of Lake Eerie the county’s largest town has just 64,000 inhabitants. The county also now has two dozen “independent labor” councillors.

Here the county’s main union body, the Labor Council, decided to put up its own slate candidates after of betrayals by the local Democratic party became too much to bear. Local Democratic council members had voted to repealed an agreement with unions on municipal contracts. Then the Mayor organised scabbing on a strike by Teamster union members, borrowing trucks from a neighbouring town to do so.

In a shock result all but two of the union candidates were elected. One teacher Joshua Thornesbury, even managed to unseat the president of the local Chamber of Commerce.

American Labor defeated

Workers certainly need their own voice in US politics. They have not only been subjected to a thirty-year neo-liberal assault on their wages and conditions but also seen most of the already weak welfare safety net cut away. The financial crash and the Great Recession then saw not a reversal of this process but its intensification as the country’s financial elite passed the cost of the crisis on to its already squeezed workforce.

Even the recovery has seen no respite as 95% of the proceeds of growth over the past few years has gone to the top 1%. They also now account for 20% of the nation’s total pretax income, doubling their 10 % share from the 1970s.

The US maybe the richest society on earth, but it’s also one of the most unequal.

The causes for this are not hard to find. The American workers’ movement was rolled back ever since the Second World War. Union density (the percentage of the work force in a union) peaked in 1954 at 35%. But its independence was broken in the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s when thousands were purged from the unions, and their jobs.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the assault redoubled as whole industries were wiped out and managements everywhere became even more aggressively anti union. Today just 7% of private sector employees are in a union.

There has been little to stand in the way of neo-liberalism and little nationwide resistance. The American ruling class has come to fear little apart from the occasional explosion of urban rioting, which they can, and do, put down using brute force. Even this they try and avoid, mainly by keeping 2.2 million people incarcerated in what Noam Chomsky has dubbed the “prison-industrial complex” and maintaining a whopping 2.9% of the population either in prison, on bail or parole. The figures amongst ethnic minorities are stratospheric.

America’s ruling class has created one of the most dysfunctional societies on earth in which ordinary people a brought up to admire obscene wealth and whilst blaming the exploited for the ills of society.

Two bosses parties

Central to this domination is the two-party system of the Republicans and Democrats. Unlike in Britain where the Conservatives are faced by Labour, a Social Democratic workers party (though less and less so as time goes on), the States both the main (and in real terms, only) parties are parties of the ruling class, or what Marxists sometimes refer to as “bourgeois parties”. Both exist to continue ruling class domination of society and the economy and to propagate different aspects of ruling class ideology.

The Republicans are and always have been, unashamedly the party of business and “enterprise”, inequality and a competitive (to be honest) Hobbesian, vision of society. Its core constituency then as now being white Protestants.

The Democrats though are more often seen as the party of minorities and the disadvantaged. A reputation few parties in the world so ill deserve as they do.

It is one of the many paradoxes of the American political system (which it is not only so rich in, but positively specialises in creating) that the first Black President, Barack Obama should be elected for the Democrats.

After all the Democrats came together in the 1830s as the party of those most fanatically devoted to existence of slavery and was afflicted by almost pathological racism.  Nearly destroyed by the South’s defeat in the Civil War, it was reborn as the old Plantocracy re-established their control of the South in  wave of terrorism against blacks and Republicans in which as many as 3,000 were murdered. It then presided over a system of laws, known to history as Jim Crow, which legally enforced discrimination and oppression of blacks.

The Democrats may have ruled the South as in effect a one party state, but association with the defeated Confederacy kept them out of power in much of the rest of the union for the rest of the century. Its base in the north for the most part being mainly Catholic immigrants who felt discriminated against by the white, Protestant establishment. These poor whites were encouraged to see blacks as competitors and so were susceptible to the racism, which had been a core message of the Democrats since the days of Andrew Jackson.

The Democrats came again to dominate US politics again following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the consequent Great Depression. The free market orthodoxy of which the Republicans had been the bearer suddenly collapsed as the economy ground to a standstill. It was massive state intervention of new Democratic President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which saved American capitalism from itself. It was on the success of the New Deal that the Democrats built a new coalition, one which perversely included on the one handed the Dixiecrats who ran the South, and on the other the new militant trade unions of the CIO and northern blacks.

It was an alliance that lasted a generation, until the Civil Rights movement tore it asunder. Under the pressure of mass action against segregation by blacks in the South the Democrat controlled Federal administrations of first John Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson, were forced to intervene. This action caused the defection of the Dixiecrats to the Republicans, the party originally created to oppose slavery and which had prosecuted the Civil War against the South a hundred years earlier.

Lesser Evilism

Both parties are funded enormously by big business and the major corporations. Unions foolishly give money to the democrats but are ten times more comes from corporations. The Democrats are no different from the Republicans in this way.

Money by itself is not the most significant factor. Both parties were created and exist to serve the interest of American capitalism.

The Democrats are not like the Labour Party in this country, which was at least created by working people to mitigate the effects of capitalism. In fact most Democratic politicians’ polices would put them to the right of the Tory party.

Again and again radicals and progressives in the United states have called for conditional support for the Democrats as the “Lesser Evil” As Hal Draper pointed out in his famous 1967 article you may vote for the lesser evil but you still get evil.

Both the Republicans and Democrats have consistently acted to prevent the emergence of even a moderate social democratic alternative to the country’s wild capitalism: the Republicans through virulent anti-communism and often violent repression, and the Democrats, the same!

But the Democrats have also been skilled at co-opting, absorbing and ultimately destroying progressive movements, which do spring up, most notably Populism in the 1870s, trade unionism in the interwar period and the 1960s upsurge of struggles. From the 1960s onwards the Democrats have absorbed and neutered the Black, Women’s and LGBT movements. It has delivered pressure little to any of those groups of people however.

[If you would like to find out more about the Democratic and Republican parties you should read the pamphlet The Politics of Lesser Evilism by Lance Selfa ]

How did they do it then? 1. Getting the message right

The Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee parties have also pretty much fixed the political system at almost every level to make as hard as possible the emergence of a “third party” which might challenge their duopoly.

Difficult but not impossible.

So how did Kshama and the others do it then?

In Kshama’s case persistence paid off. This is in fact her third race in two years. In 2012 she ran for the Washington State House of Representatives. Though she came nowhere near winning she surprised everyone by getting 20,000 votes or 29% of the vote against Frank Chopp the sitting Speaker. Then last summer she had to run again in the primaries for the city council. She managed to get over that hurdle with 35% of the vote and onto the ballot for the City Council Election in November.

Kshama has been widely credited with being a charismatic and approachable candidate who has eschewed the much of the usual rhetoric the left has used on the stump. Instead she crafted a message that was easily understandable and responded to issues for which she proposed real policies, and which built on and articulated in the electoral field the work of existing movements.

As Anh Tran her campaign assistant puts it “Our main campaign demand was the $15 an hour minimum wage for all workers. We wanted affordable housing to be built and rent controlled. We talked about a millionaire’s tax in order to fund mass transit and education. We also talked about police brutality a lot, because there have been some recent extrajudicial killings and racist beatings by the Seattle Police Department”

Kshama herself was unafraid to identify as a socialist during he election campaign and freely talked about socialism but she also emphasized that  “we have to fight for major reforms under capitalism” and that these are something real and attainable as she told Salon

Ty Moore also has a realistic appreciation of where the US left is and how it can advance, at least in electoral terms. He told Jacobin Mag “There isn’t a conscious socialist majority, but there is a majority who want living wage jobs, affordable housing, taxes on the rich to fund schools, and good transit. There is a majority who recognizes that big business has deeply corrupted our political system, and wants some kind of alternative that puts people over profit. Our campaigns tapped into that.”

How did they do it then? 2. Building on Movements

The successes of both Kshama and Ty and can be traced back to activism, their own consistent participation in mass action and in the movements which have built he basis of a real electoral challenge. Though these campaigns have been numerous and diverse it is occupy which sands out as being of central importance.

Occupy in the US has been much longer-lived, more widespread and had more mobilising power than practically anywhere else than elsewhere. In part this can be put down the the absence of other forces articulating anger and a desire for resistance at a national level, a role that for instance has been provided in Britain to a degree by the trade unions, and in a less direct, i.e. electoral, fashion by the Labour Party.

In the States Occupy has been credited with “changing the conversation

As such a “catch-all” movement of anti-corporate and antiestablishment anger it has also acted as a vector for generalisation finding uniting issues and bringing together forces. One expression of this has been the movement against foreclosures on mortgages. It was after all the sub-prime mortgage crisis that sparked the financial melt down in the first place, and which has seen the one of the most egregious aspects of the Great Recession as society’s poorer members were evicted in order to repair the balance sheets of gangster like bankers. Occupy Homes MN (Minnesota) has been one of the most prominent forces in this movement.

Kshama was heavily involved in Occupy Seattle, which among other things made head lines around the world when it was brutally attacked by police who in doing so pepper-sprayed in the face the 84 year-old activist Dorli Rainey.

Activity in Occupy was important in winning over local trade unions “Some union people knew candidate Sawant from her work in Occupy, which had substantial labor involvement in Seattle. Her vigorous push for $15 brought her endorsements from a half dozen locals, mostly public employees. A large Electrical Workers (IBEW) local and an AFSCME state employees local gave money. Some labor leaders publicly supported her campaign; far more backed her quietly and helped build support within their ranks.”

She did not let running for office blunt her activism though and in august, in the middle of the campaign, she was arrested whilst protesting an eviction in the city, along with three others including the irrepressible, and by then 86-year-old Dorli Rainey,

Again Anh Tran explains the genesis of Kshama’s campaign in Occupy thus:

'When the Occupy movement was winding down [2012], we wanted to continue the spirit of the movement somehow, so we wanted to take Occupy to the election - it was a presidential election year and all eyes were focused on the elections. We thought, “Why not occupy the elections?”

We brought the message of Occupy to the Washington State House of Representatives race…

There were a bunch of immediate needs in Seattle that we wanted to address as well. The burgeoning fast-food struggle nationwide was very vibrant in Seattle, so we have played a very critical part in that in terms of raising the demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage.'

The fact that the election campaign came out of the growth and activity of other movements meant that there was an active base of new people, people rooted in campaigns and movements, ready to be involved, the lead given by Kshama and comrades was clearly crucial, but it soon spread far beyond them. “Our campaign was initiated by Socialist Alternative, yes, but over time it wasn’t really our campaign anymore. It was the campaign of whoever came to work on it or supported” it.

Being an activist based grass-roots campaign also meant it could do the most effective form of persuasion, face to face in a way that the establishment parties have lost the ability to do, knocking for instance n 16,000 doors. As all advertisers know the best sort of advertising is face to ace peer to peer, and approach that the anthropologist Jenny B. White has described with reference to Turkey’s AK Parti “vernacular politics”.

As Ty Moore said of his own campaign in Minneapolis:

'Running a viable campaign as a socialist isn’t just a matter of audacity, clever tactics, and the right program (though those are all crucial). You need to have built up some kind of base in advance. Over the last ten years, Socialist Alternative in Minneapolis dug roots into working-class communities and built important relationships with other serious activists. Our work in the anti-war movement, where we had led some big student walkouts against military recruitment; education justice campaigns, where we played a big role saving North High from closure; most recently, Occupy Homes, where SA was widely recognized as part of the leadership — all that groundwork was the basis of this election campaign.'

Ty Moore has been particularly prominent in Occupy Homes MN a movement to organize direct action against the foreclosure of people’s mortgages and eviction by police doing the banks dirty work. In Minnesota this also involves the putting of evicted peoples belongings into a dumpster. The campaign of action in which volunteers have put themselves between enforcement agents and people’s homes has both highlighted the issue in the media and started to have an impact. Unions have been strongly involved in this.

The story in Lorain County seems to have been similar.

'The Lorain central labor council is a wide federation, including unions both in and out of the AFL-CIO. A local immigrant rights organization is slated to affiliate, and a student-labor group at nearby Oberlin College will be brought on board, too. Over the years the council has often fought alongside community forces—including defeating a Walmart coming in, working against racist attacks, and working for minority hiring.

The success of the Independent Labor candidates was based not so much on having the correct program but on the links built up by the county Labor Council over time. It was the overturning of an agreement that the local unions fought for guaranteeing the employment of local and ethnic minority workers, and having union rights, on city contracts, which was among the reasons that the Labor Council choose to break with the Democrats. The electoral challenge might have been mounted by local unions but even then they found that just mobilizing their base wasn’t enough. As Joshua Thornsberry, one of the successful candidates says is you've got to get coalitions to work together that may not traditionally work together. Like I said, we started pretty small with a heavy union base, and that wasn't going to get the job done. We weren't going to defeat the good old boys in a single-party city with just union households. So we had to reach out to Republican households, we had to reach out to independent households, and these are groups of people that traditionally don't work together.'

Going both ways along Main Street

So the success (even in loosing) of electoral campaigns in Seattle, Minneapolis and Lorain county seems to be put down to long term and embedded work in communities and unions, building new alliances and reaching out to people outside of the traditional union movement and left.

Such work and the building of alliances don’t just work to the electoral advantage of the left. They build the movement in unions and the community as well.

Lynne Dodson, secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, told Labor Notes that unions are recognizing the need to work with community allies,

'Seattle labor has particularly strong ties with environmental groups, economic justice organizations, communities of color, the LGBT community, and immigrant rights groups, including a day labor organization affiliated to the state labor council… The WTO protests forged unusual alliances that remain to this day. Washington’s union density is also the fourth-highest in the nation'.

Such campaigns uniting unions and communities have worked to build workers confidence in the workplace. Mary Ann Schroeder, a 20-year Safeway worker told Labor Notes

'In past contract fights, many workers were uncomfortable with actions in front of the store, worrying it would just bring management down on them….But this year, they got thousands of shoppers to sign cards pledging to boycott if there were a strike.'

And across the nation unions and community activists are finding new ways to work together for effective action in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis, largest city in Minnesota, and its adjacent “twin” St Paul, the State Capital) a “Week of Action” in February March 2012 brought together unions, community groups, faith organizations, and campaigners in coordinated action against the states biggest employers.  One those in the firing line were Target Stores whose headquarters is in the state. It is a virulently anti-union employer notorious for the anti-union videos it forces new employees to watch. The cleaners at Target in the state have no union and are officially employed by cleaning contractors but they still walked out for 24 hours. It was the first time any Target workers struck.

Javier Morillo President of the Local 26 Service Employees International Union (SEIU) told Labor Notes

'The power of that [walkout] in the Latino immigrant community is enormous,” Morillo said. Seventy-five percent of Local 26’s janitors are Latino and another 15 percent are immigrants from East African nations.” His union branch Local has continuously lost members due to action by Immigration Authorities and has had to rebuild itself. Building in and with the community has help do this "We have to think of new ways of organizing ourselves according to how the economy is structured.'

In Pittsburgh, a former centre of the Steel and other heavy industry heavily hit by de-industrialization and now part of what is referred to as the “rust-belt”, the a United Steel Worker Union Local has launch a community union. It is intended to bring together “union and non-union workers together to fight side by side on social justice issues and to seed workplace organizing committees

Similar initiatives are being launched across the country.As Dave Freiboth, head of Seattle’s county labor council added, “We may be ahead of some areas, but we’re not unique “This kind of change is coming nationally.”

Building an alternative

The victory of Kshama Sawant, the victories of the Lorain County councilors and the near victory of fellow More Moore in Minneapolis are all the more important because they are such small victories in a way. None of the victors are charismatic demagogues; they are ordinary people winning (or not as the case maybe as the case maybe) local government elections. There victories have not been achieved by media blitzes or novelty news interest but through the building of alliances and a mass base through persistent activism.

The tide may not have turned but there are positive sign that a change of direction by parts of the union movement and community based campaigning is reaping rewards.

The conditions certainly exist for a sea change as dramatic as that of the 1930s. Then the workers movement and left went from being on its arse in the depths of the depression to dramatically rebuilding itself a whirlwind of activity in the latter half of that decade. Even then though there antecedents in the great Teamster Strike of 1934 in (again) Minneapolis and other disputes.

The 1930s was also a time when the opportunity for a third, Labor party to emerge to challenge the Democrats as the party of change and to represent ordinary working people. In some states this happened. Minnesota was run mostly run between the wars by a Farmer-Labor Party. It also elected representatives to Congress.

These have not been the only such people voted for by Americans in the past. A generation before millions had voted for the Socialist Party and its presidential candidate, former trade union leader, fighter for the oppressed and campaigner Eugene Debs one of the greatest figures in the history of socialism.

The Minnesota Farmer Labor Party merged with the state Democratic party in 1941, to then subsequently launch the political careers of such stunning mediocrities as Hubert Humphreys and Walter Mondale. The state is now represented in Congress by grand dame of the Partiers, Michelle Bachman who mixes economic lunacy with continued fear of the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately all the most of the great progressive movements since have been sucked into the Democratic Party and destroyed. In the 1930s the charge was led by the Communist Party seeking the wrong sort of allies in the Democratic party machine. In the 1960s it was a new left whose politics were still to be shaped by the legacy of Stalinism to in reality do anything much different in effect.

Having an effective electoral strategy can only be one aspect of rebuilding the workers movement in the US, and one that has to be contingent on circumstances and the ebb and flow of the struggle, both politically and in the workplace.  As Jason Netek observes, unfortunately

“some socialist groupings have made a fetish out of participating in elections, local and national, in attempts to realize their ambitions of becoming the party of the American working class all by themselves. Others have made a fetish out of not engaging in any kind of electoral work for lack of a viable mass workers party or else as a permanent boycott of the objectively pro-capitalist electoral system in the United States.”

It was the rejection of this logic and these ossified attitudes that Kshama campaign represented, and why it enjoyed such success. As Ahn Tran says

'We usually don’t run campaigns, its not what Socialist Alternative has traditionally done, but we felt that there was an unprecedented opening that existed for third-party politics to be built and for the ideas of socialism to spread on a mass scale, beyond small study groups or whatever we’re all used to.'

But the ice seems to be breaking in the union movement, at least from the bottom up. After all it this is not the 1930s and Obama is not Roosevelt. Roosevelt delivered the New Deal. Obama has brought forth a botched health care reform and the continuation of neoliberal (business as usual). For better or worse this is as good as it gets form the Democrats. And to many it still feels like worse.

The decision of The Chicago Teachers Union to establish its own Independent Political Organization to back progressive candidates is the latest snub to the Democrats by a union body. It was this union which won its 2012 September strike. This victory had been based on meticulous organizing and community support. The city’s Mayor and Democratic establishment had their revenge though. Eight months later whilst dishing out the pork to corporate interests they forced through the brutal closure of fifty public (state) schools. And the Mayor of Chicago? Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of Staff and right-hand man.

It is such shifts in attitude, which has made possible local union backing for socialists at the polls.

As Ty Moore said of his union backing

'The SEIU State Council endorsement stands out as among the most incredible aspects of the campaign. I don’t think there is an equally significant labor institution that has backed an independent socialist candidate in a very long time. Their endorsement doesn’t signify a generalized break from the Democratic Party, but I think it does reflect deepening debate over labor’s traditional political strategy and a growing openness to experiment. '

The Democrats seem incapable of offering anything other than more neo-liberalism. There are different roads the movement can take, but for the moment some have at least started out on the on the right one.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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