Seattle's Socialist City Council Member Wins Battle for $15/Hour Minimum Wage, Highest in the Nation

Posted June 4, 2014

MP3 Interview with Kshama Sawant, Seattle's socialist City Council member and leader of the $15 minimum wage movement, conducted by Scott Harris. Transcript compiled by Evan Beider.

15now

When Kshama Sawant was elected to Seattle’s City Council in November 2013, it was the first time a member of a socialist party had won a citywide election in nearly 100 years. The former software engineer originally from Mumbai, India, ran for office advocating increasing the city’s minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour, taxing the rich and reimposing a rent control ordinance. In her surprising victory, Sawant defeated Richard Conlin, a four-term Democratic council member and past president of the city council.

Growing up in India, Sawant had witnessed grinding poverty firsthand – and when she moved to the U.S., she was surprised to find that the wealthiest nation in the world had so many homeless people and inadequate social service programs to assist those in need. The inequality she found in America motivated her to pursue a new career studying economics in North Carolina, where she earned a doctorate degree. Sawant moved to Seattle in 2006 and became involved with Socialist Alternative, a political party originally formed under the name Labor Militant in 1986.

Sawant helped organize the local Occupy Wall Street movement when it spread to Seattle in the fall of 2011. In November 2012, she entered electoral politics for the first time, challenging incumbent Washington state Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, ultimately losing to him by a 70 to 29 percent margin. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Kshama Sawant in New York City just two days before the City Council unanimously voted to approve Seattle’s $15 an hour minimum wage, the highest in the nation. Here, she talks about the elements of her successful campaign and the lessons that can be learned from her experience by other progressive activists across the U.S.

KSHAMA SAWANT: Our electoral campaign itself was not something I decided to do on an individual basis. And I think that is an important lesson that I would like to share with everybody on the left who's looking to understanding how is it that we can build an important challenge to the Democrats and how we can build a mass movement that can win substantial reforms while calling for systemic change.

And that lesson is that we need to break from careerist politicians and that idea of politics – that sort of bourgeois politics where political campaigns are primarily in the service of enriching individual careers where the good of humanity, the fight for the working class is always sacrificed for the more expedient question of "well, I need to build links with this business or that business, I need to stay good with this or that wealthy person". And it's always rationalized on that basis. Just having well-meaning people who engage in Democratic party politics is not the answer because it's not good intentions of that kind – good intentions that are always rationalized away in the service of the existing status quo is not what we need. It's exactly what is harmful to us.

And so, what Socialist Alternative did in running our campaign, is show that what we need is an independent force for the working class that will challenge the Democrat party, that will propel movements forward and that will stand candidates in elections who are not driven by personal gain or their personal careers but are purely offering themselves as representatives of the interests of the working class.

We also want this campaign – and the success of my election campaign to serve as an inspiration to many young people all across the country – who will hopefully see this as the seed of something more to come and we don't want me to be the last working class candidate. We want this to be the beginning of something big.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Your success in Seattle, running as a socialist and using the $15 an hour campaign as kind of your banner, can that whole success be transplanted to other places around the country? Or is Seattle very special in terms of its culture, counter-culture, the youth culture, places like Berkeley, San Francisco, and Portland, the whole, sort of northwest coast maybe looked at as quite different from the rest of the country? Do you think what you’ve accomplished can work elsewhere?

KSHAMA SAWANT: Well, I have no doubt that there are many unique features in Seattle that you probably won’t find in, I don’t know, Houston, Texas or somewhere like that, you know. Obviously, there is a cultural distance between different places in the United States. Certainly, Seattle is decisively much more liberal and progressive. The struggle for gay rights has gained, you know, tremendous ascendency in Seattle and in Washington State. You know, Washington state in 2012 passed Referendum 74, which upheld marriage equality and we also passed a law that ended the criminalization of marijuana possession, and so there is no doubt that there are features unique to Seattle, but I would stay that about any place, you know, every place has unique features. New York City has its unique features that can’t be replicated in Seattle and, while those features certainly play a role, I would say that those are not the ones that drive political changes. They may play a role, but primarily what is driving political change is the same in any class system, in any system that relies on oppression and exploitation. The social conditions engineered by that system are also the engineers of the need for political activism.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What is it that you think can be learned by the rest of the country in terms of that $15 threshold? Do you think a critical mass was reached by what you accomplished in Seattle and can that campaign? Do you have indications there are cities around the country that are moving right now to pressure their own city officials to go for a $15 dollar minimum wage?

KSHAMA SAWANT: Yeah, we know that Chicago, for example, is making a headway for that kind of demand for $15 an hour, and, in fact, I would say that we’re seeing the impacts of that in many ways, both directly and indirectly. And so what people are seeing is that this is a genuine voice for working people. This is not a career politician, this is not somebody who can be corrupted, and it's not somebody who is running merely on good intentions, but on the basis of this political force, Socialist Alternative, which is, as an organization, rooted in the working class and committed to advancing the interests of the working class. That is what will ensure that we can build upon this success.

Find links to more information on the minimum wage campaign, the Socialist Alternative party and other related stories by visiting 15now.org and SocialistAlternative.org.

Related Links: