Kshama Sawant was first elected to the Seattle City Council in 2013 with over 90,000 votes, running as a proud Socialist Alternative member back before “Bernie” and “AOC” were household names. Kshama used her 2013 election campaign to advocate strongly for the $15 an hour minimum wage when no prominent elected officials were talking about it despite ongoing fast-food worker strikes. Kshama’s election victory, and the united movement of labor, workers, and socialists made Seattle the first major city to win the $15 minimum wage.
The $15 movement in Seattle overcame fierce opposition from the corporate establishment, but after the victory in Seattle, $15 legislation spread like wildfire across the country. Kshama’s 2013 election was also the first big breakthrough for socialists at the ballot box, giving confidence to other left activists that they could defeat corporate power and the political establishment; this was reinforced through Sawant’s re-election in 2015.
To win gains for workers, young people and the oppressed, elections are not enough though. Political office must be used by socialists to build movements and increase working-class consciousness to change society, and Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative in Seattle have been a shining example of how this can be done.
Countless victories many previously thought unwinnable have been won in Seattle over the past five years. Working-class activists have gained confidence, a voice in City Hall, and an invaluable organizing resource with Ksahma in office. Landmark renters’ rights laws, the establishment of Indigenous People’s Day, blocking the building of a monumental police bunker – these are only a handful of examples.
Right now, Kshama’s re-election campaign is fighting for universal rent control and taxing big business to fund a major expansion of quality social housing. If we can win a massive housing justice victory in Seattle – just like with the $15 movement – this could open the floodgates for struggles and legislation in cities across the country where working people face a deep housing crisis.
Housing crisis and powerful enemies
While the Seattle area is home to two of the five-richest billionaires in the world, homeless tent encampments can be found in nearly every neighborhood – except where police brutally tore them down. The for-profit housing market has failed this city, and working-class people are being pushed out by eviction, rising rents, and the most regressive tax system in the country. Seattle leads the country in construction cranes per capita, and big developers are trying to transform the city into a playground for the rich. They know that Kshama’s bold call for universal rent control and taxes on the wealthy to fund quality social housing is a big obstacle in their way.
Big business is trying to buy this election. They have put over a million dollars into two corporate PACs to try to unseat Kshama. This money will be spent on endless pieces of mail and professional doorknockers reaching Seattle voters’ doors attempting to hide the true intentions of the billionaires and developers behind “progressive” rhetoric. But their aim is clear: they want “anybody but Kshama.”
Big business in Seattle is emboldened right now. Their agenda had been pushed back on many fronts through Sawant’s office, the growth of the socialist left, increased labor struggles and key victories on $15 and renters’ rights. However, in the last two years, the billionaire class reasserted themselves with the “Amazon Tax” defeat and the mayoral election.
Last year, Kshama and Socialist Alternative helped lead a big campaign to tax Amazon and big business and use the funding to build quality social housing. Initially, when the campaign proposed this tax, the organized pressure from renters and working people meant City Council unanimously passed the tax. Then, the richest man in the world – Jeff Bezos – used his economic bullying and corporate lobbying get his way. The Amazon Tax was eventually repealed with a vast majority of City Councilmembers flip-flopping. Bezos was aided in orchestrating this betrayal by Mayor Jenny Durkan who was elected in 2017 with a $350,000 PAC contribution from Amazon.
In 2017, Socialist Alternative had actively supported the independent left People’s Party candidate, Nikkita Oliver, for mayor. Unfortunately, a section of labor leaders actively backed Durkan and then opposed the fight to tax Amazon and big business. These dynamics – an emboldened establishment and a divided labor movement – led to Socialist Alternative understanding early on that this re-election campaign would be a difficult battle. The debate in Seattle’s unions is of national importance and contains key lessons about the way forward for the labor movement.
Seattle’s labor movement
With record levels of inequality, for the labor movement to grow and thrive we need to fight against the big corporations that want to attack our rights, wages, and benefits. This can be best accomplished by adopting bold demands and a fighting strategy, building rank-and-file democracy in the unions, and not limiting ourselves to what’s acceptable to big business.
An upsurge in labor struggle has taken place in recent years with teachers at the forefront, and polls show that favorable views of unions have increased dramatically due to this, especially among young people. Reflecting this mood, Kshama is proud to be endorsed by 13 union locals in Seattle so far, representing over 80,000 workers in Washington State.
Unfortunately, some more “pragmatic” labor leaders think we can build our influence by “building consensus” with CEOs and the political establishment rather than understanding that these forces stand in the way of improving the lives of working people. These union leaders, many without democratic process in the ranks of their unions, voted against endorsing Kshama at the MLK County Labor Council.
In the wake of the labor council vote to not endorse Kshama Sawant, Monty Anderson of the King County Construction Trades Council said: “Where we had to break ties is where she started messing with the new police station, the head [Amazon] tax, got in-between the teamsters and UPS. We feel a local politician should not be messing with that. We feel like a local politician should be facilitating business in the city, and she was doing the opposite.”
We need to reject this kind of business unionism and base ourselves on a fighting strategy to win rent control, a Green New Deal for working people, greater police accountability, and more.
It’s unfortunate that, intentionally or not, a section of labor leaders have made a decision in this election that will effectively further embolden Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce, rather than stand with the interests of working people and people of color. Winning this election and cohering a labor left in Seattle would have national implications for strengthening a fighting labor movement.
More and more self-identified socialists are being elected to office and running campaigns across the country. This has sparked debate on the left about a key question: How can socialists effectively use elected office under a capitalist system? Some argue we should lower our socialist profile only run on Democratic Party ballot lines, yet Kshama’s victories are an example of the possibilities for popularizing socialist ideas, running independent campaigns and building movements to win victories. Keeping this seat of struggle for working people in Seattle can be a beacon for the left nationally in the debate about how to change society.
Socialist Alternative’s strategy is based on the recognition that the billionaire class will trample on our rights, living standards and planet in pursuit of profit. Only the strength of working people organized and united can change the world. Elections are one tool we can use in this struggle, but just as with a strike or a community campaign, we need to give everything we have in this fight to win!
By Bryan Koulouris