Seattle’s Minimum Wage Ordinance: What Does It Mean?

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On Monday, June 2, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed an ordinance raising the minimum wage in that city to $15 per hour for some workers starting in April of next year and with a phase-in that will take until 2025 for all workers. (See graph) The objective basis for this is the growing mood of discontent due to rising income inequality. As Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, himself, pointed out one eighth of Seattle’s population lives in poverty while the top 20% of Seattle’s households take in more income than the bottom 50%. This is typical across the United States. There were several factors involved in pushing the (mainly) Democratic city council to pass this:

On the one hand, there is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). They have a national strategy of campaigning to increase the minimum wage and have organized campaigns for this from the Seattle airport (Seatac) to San Francisco to New York City. They are doing this in place of serious organizing campaigns, which they have partially retreated from. As David Rolf, president of SEIU Local 775 in Seattle put it, “Even if workers want to form a union, it’s almost impossible to pull it off. So there’s not going to be a big resurgence of shop-by-shop bargaining…. We want to build enough strength with the wage movement, city by city, to bring the national brands to the bargaining table.” The reason the union leadership thinks that organizing on the job is “almost impossible” is that they feel bound by the labor laws and the National Labor Relations Board procedures, instead of considering returning to the methods of the 1930s (sit down strikes, mass pickets, open defiance, etc.).

The Democrats, themselves, often take up the issue of a minimum wage in order to embarrass the Republicans and win votes. From President Barack Obama to California Governor Gerry Brown, the Democrats are raising this issue in preparation for the national elections of 2016.

The Seattle City Council was under the pressure of the openly socialist city council member Kshama Sawant. Elected on a platform that emphasized the issue of a $15 per hour minimum wage, Sawant and her group – Socialist Alternative – started organizing to win this minimum wage shortly after she came into office (January, 2014). The fact of her election not only helped to open up the question of socialism a little bit, it also helped focus the demand for a specific figure – $15 – for Seattle’s minimum wage. (This author personally experienced both of these in his visits to Seattle.)

Kshama Sawant speaking to media.

Kshama Sawant speaking to media.

Sawant and Socialist Alternative at first hailed the passage of the minimum wage ordinance as a “historic victory” which was due to the “grass roots campaign” of 15 Now, which is controlled in Seattle by Socialist Alternative. (They later somewhat changed their tune about this measure, as can be seen in this article.) What is the reality? Was it such a “historic victory” and how much was a “grass roots” campaign responsible for it?

Look at the facts: As Mayor Murray explains, “businesses with fewer than 500 employees (get) seven years to reach $15 an hour, or five years if tips and health care are included in the calculations. Businesses with 500 employees or more have three years to reach $15 an hour, or four years if employees are enrolled in employer-paid health plans.” In fact, it is even worse than that. When looking at the graph, you can see that some employers will actually have until 2025 to reach 15/hour (plus the official inflation rate, about which more later).

pol_seattlechart20_315

Tips and health care benefits to be included as “total compensation”, a multi-year phase-in, training wages — these are the exact kinds of loopholes that Sawant had derided as having “more holes than Swiss cheese” back in March.

Historic Attacks on Minimum Wage
It’s more than just loopholes, though. In general, the minimum wage has been exactly that – a minimum wage for all workers. The mainstream of the capitalist class, realizing that they couldn’t eliminate the minimum wage, have over the years tried to weaken it by introducing exactly the kinds of loopholes that the Seattle ordinance carries, especially a sub-minimum wage for young workers. The fact that this ordinance carries all these loopholes helps open the door to further weakening the minimum wage elsewhere and also nationally.

There is another weakness of this ordinance – one that nobody is discussing. That is how it’s tied to the federal government’s Consumer Price Index (CPI). This is the official inflation rate, and the strategy is to tie any future raises in the minimum wage to this as a way of avoiding future battles around this issue. However, as this article explains, and as the graph below shows, there has been a long term strategy (ever since the Bill Clinton presidencies) to change how the CPI is figured in such a way as to reduce it. As the graph below shows, inflation by the old way of measuring it is running at about 9% vs. the new measurement of about 2%. This means that the minimum wage will be falling further and further behind real prices, but workers will see the cause less clearly.

The real rate of inflation vs. official statistics

The real rate of inflation vs. official statistics

Neither the union leaders nor Socialist Alternative has taken up this point.

“Grass Roots Campaign” Responsible?
Sawant and Socialist Alternative deserve some of the credit for helping to focus attention on a $15/hour minimum wage. (See this article for an example.) Are they, alone, responsible? Look at San Francisco. There, SEIU introduced a ballot initiative for a $15 per hour minimum wage back in April of this year. That initiative was actually stronger than the one that Socialist Alternative introduced in Seattle, and it put the San Francisco Board of Supervisors under pressure. On June 10, the Supervisors passed a measure to put a minimum wage ordinance on the ballot as a ballot measure. It would raise the minimum wage in steps to $15 per hour in 2018. If it passes the voters, it will be a stronger measure than what was passed in Seattle, since it doesn’t have the loopholes that the Seattle measure has. It was passed without a 15 Now “grassroots campaign”. Sure, what was happening in Seattle might have influenced this, but that was far from the main factor.

Getting from there to here
What was the process in which this ordinance was passed in Seattle?

Sawant’s electoral victory and her and Socialist Alternative’s success in popularizing the slogan of 15 Now forced the (Democratic) mayor to do something. In this sort of situation, where big business is under pressure, they often put forward the Democrats to grant a few concessions, often with ticking time bombs that can undermine all the advances further on down the road, with the purpose of ensuring that no real confrontation between the classes, no independent movement of the working class develops.

The union leadership plays a key role in this process. Feeling bound to the employers like a fetus bound to the placenta by the umbilical cord, the entire union leadership from Rich Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, on down to local leaders, like David Rolf, are even more afraid of such an open, independent movement than are the bosses. After all, their entire careers are based on preventing this. So inside the unions, they are constantly arguing for the idea that the interests of the workers are tied in with those of the employers and that they are on the same team – the “team concept”. (See this pamphlet for more on this issue.) As the 19th century socialist Daniel DeLeon put it, they are the “labor lieutenants of capital”.

They also represent the Democratic Party – one of the two parities of big business – inside the unions. To do this, they have to help strengthen the “progressive” wing of the Democrats, so sometimes they will organize protests and other events, including even ballot initiatives.

This is exactly what they did in pushing through a $15 per hour minimum wage ballot initiative in the Seatac (Seattle/Tacoma) airport. That initiative passed last November, but it had a critical weakness: It excluded union workers, who make up about 40% of the airport work force. David Rolf – the key union leader in there – explained this by saying “we always want to offer an olive branch to employers of good conscience.” This is a perfect expression of the team concept in action.

Neither Sawant personally nor Socialist Alternative in general criticized this clause. In fact, this writer was told back in March by a Socialist Alternative leader that they would support such a clause in Seattle if it was necessary to win the support of the union leadership. Despite that, Sawant’s presence on the city council and the passage of the voter initiative at Seatac forced Seattle mayor Murray to do something. What he did was an absolute textbook example of the Democrats’ role.

In January, Murray appointed a mayor’s “Income Inequality Advisory Committee” to come up with a plan for a minimum wage increase. As he said, “Our goal was to increase income for low-wage workers without hurting local companies or sacrificing jobs. To get there, we pursued an intensely inclusive and collaborative approach that included… leaders from local businesses, labor organizations, non-profits and the city.” He appointed as co-chairs the ever-reliable David Rolf and Howard Wright, who represents Seattle’s restaurant and hotel industry.

Seattle Mayor Murray speaking with David Rolf (L) and Howard Wright (R) - They collaborated together.

Seattle Mayor Murray speaking with David Rolf (L) and Howard Wright (R) – They collaborated together.

Seattle’s big business organized a group called “One Seattle” to minimize the damage. In one article on their web site, they tout the “progressive” record of Seattle’s Chamber of Commerce, argue for all the loopholes that the City ended up passing, press to “finesse a fair package”, and say that “Mayor Murray and the City Council seem to be listening.” By passing a compromise measure, they say that corporate-minded union officials like Rolf “will be able to show that organized labor can still make things happen” (that is, he will save face), a “WTO moment” will be avoided, and “class warfare talk (will be relegated) to the ‘dustbin of history’ – thank you Leon Trotsky for the phrase.” This last was a clear swipe at Sawant and Socialist Alternative, and it shows that all their calculations are meant to avoid an open, independent struggle and to undercut Sawant.

Their best ally was David Rolf and the rest of the union leadership. Rolf commented after Mayor Murray first outlined his plan, “As co-chair of the Income Inequality Advisory Committee, I want to thank Mayor Murray for his leadership, and recognize Howard Wright, my co-chair, and all the committee members including my brothers and sisters from the labor movement and the business community.” His brothers and sisters in the business community! What more needs to be said?

Rolf is not unique. There was almost no support for 15 Now from any significant sector of the union leadership. Socialist Alternative explains this in a roundabout way: “If the big unions had backed the threat of a ballot initiative for a stronger $15, business could have been forced to concede much more,” they wrote after the fact.

Socialist Alternative
But the very way that they put this, as well as the fact that it was only written afterwards, says a lot. Note, for instance, how they equate “the big unions” with the union leadership. Also, note that they make clear that the ballot initiative was intended as a way to pressure the Democrats, not to actually build an independent movement. That this was their intent all along was made clear during the “15 Now” conference on April 26 as well as in their timing and method of putting forward the ballot initiative. Why, for instance, did they wait until May to start the process, leaving themselves only a month or less to collect signatures? Why did they fail to really try to mobilize low wage workers – both union and non-union alike? For instance, there was the suggestion made both at the 15 Now conference and later to try to organize the low paid UFCW members (grocery clerks) to get their union to back 15 Now. This was ignored, and the only possible explanation is that the Socialist Alternative leadership did not want a conflict with the union leadership. Then there was the debate at the 15 Now conference over granting a union exclusion clause to the hotel industry. This was asked for by the UNITE/HERE union leadership because they did not want to fight the hotels for an increase in pay while at the same time keeping the health benefits – in other words, the team concept in practice again. The entire Socialist Alternative leadership campaigned for this exclusion clause. (See this report and this video.)

Union Leadership vs. the Membership
The gap between the union leadership and the membership has never been greater in the US. We can only expect that the leadership will act as they did in this struggle. For decades, union activists have worked to organize opposition caucuses inside different unions (including the UFCW). This has faced tough going because the great majority of members are pretty demoralized. However, with a high profile figure like Sawant, it might have been possible to break through this mood. Imagine if 15 Now (Socialist Alternative) had campaigned among grocery workers as advocated here. Imagine if they, with Sawant at the lead, had organized little mini-rallies inside low wage work places from the grocery stores to McDonalds to Starbucks. True, they would have antagonized almost every single union official in Seattle and beyond, but who cares? Who knows what might have come from this? It can’t be ruled out that they could have brought into activity a whole new layer of low wage workers.

Broader Program or Single Issue Campaign?
There is also the issue of program. The SA leadership ensured that 15 Now keep as its only issue the minimum wage. Doing this makes it difficult to directly appeal to other sectors of the working class, for instance the unemployed. At the 15 Now conference it was suggested that 15 Now take up the issue of unemployment. This was derailed by the SA leadership. It was also suggested that 15 Now raise the idea that the minimum wage be applied to prisoners, and that it be related to union rights for prisoners and to an end to solitary confinement (the use of which makes any union organizing in prison nearly impossible). At a time when mass incarceration is “the new Jim Crow”, when it is devastating the black communities in the US, socialists cannot ignore or minimize this issue. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the SA leadership did. If they hadn’t done this, there is the chance that it could have brought a whole new layer of the working class – and the most oppressed layers at that – into the movement. This includes both the prisoners and their families. Of course, it would have alienated the union leaders and their masters – the Democrats – but that should not scare us off.

After the fact, as we explain, the Socialist Alternative leadership mildly criticized the union leadership. Didn’t they know that this leadership would play this role? When Sawant ran against Richard Conlin the most anti-worker member on the city council, she could not even get the central labor council to endorse her. (Conlin had been the only city council member to oppose requiring Seattle’s major corporations to provide some form of health benefits, for instance.) She got all of 4% of her campaign donations through this union leadership. What else did they expect, given these facts and the historic role of the union leadership?

Despite this, the Socialist Alternative leadership operated in the hopes of winning the support of the representatives of the Democratic Party inside the workers’ movement – the union leadership. But they also have the competing pressure of their socialist traditions. This is why they veered back and forth. They waited for months to get a ballot initiative campaign under way and then they had to scramble to try to get enough signatures, only to (apparently) drop the entire initiative in the end. They first criticized the Democrats’ proposals as having “more holes than Swiss cheese”, then triumphed that what the City Council passed was a “historic victory” won by 15 Now’s “grassroots campaign”, and that the mayor’s proposal “shows leadership for the rest of the country,” only to turn around once again and criticize its weaknesses along with a mild criticism of the role of the union leadership. Their mistaken orientation towards the union leadership could be corrected were it not for the fact that they have shut themselves off from the rest of the socialist movement as well as workers in general. If this is any indication, then one can only guess that they have also clamped down on real rank-and-file discussion and decision-making within Socialist Alternative also.

Socialist Alternative made an important contribution to the workers movement and to the cause of socialism when they got Kshama Sawant elected. It is exactly for this reason that we raise these criticisms here – because so much more potentially could have been accomplished.

Conclusion
If Socialist Alternative had taken up the programmatic and organizational approach that is explained here, there is a chance they could have really developed the beginnings of an independent and far wider working class movement – one that included unemployed workers, prisoners and their families, low wage workers, etc. Had they succeeded, this would have wrung greater concessions from Corporate Seattle and the Democrats, but far more important is the movement itself that it might have gotten started. There’s no guarantee, but sometimes a relatively small group can be the instrument for a far movement far greater than itself.

Also, more could also have been accomplished if the Socialist Alternative leadership had really tried to build a real coalition – a real “united front” – through 15 Now, rather than trying to control things. The “15 Now” conference on April 26, for instance, was controlled by the SA leadership from start to finish. In other areas, they are trying to do the same. In Tacoma, for instance, things got so bad that the majority of 15 Now activists had to vote to ban the SA leadership from the group there!

This writer was one of the founding members of the predecessor to Socialist Alternative — Labor Militant. He is familiar with the traditions and the history of SA and their international links. One of the great strengths of their traditions used to be their ability to link the struggle for socialism to the day-to-day needs and the consciousness of ordinary workers without capitulating to the union leadership. It is difficult to imagine that there are not some members of Socialist Alternative who aren’t touched by those traditions and aren’t trying to build on them. It is our hope that this critique can contribute to any discussions around what went right and what should have been done in the Seattle $15 per hour minimum wage campaign so that socialists and the workers movement in general can move forward from here.

Added July 14

This writer was just talking with the the Seattle gov’t. offices. I was asking whether the 15 minimum wage ordinance would cover union workers – that is, whether those workers whose contract calls for less than $15 per hour will see an increase to this minimum, and if so whether this would affect the employer contributions to benefits. I was told that this is one of the “details” that is still being worked out. I was also given a web page where such questions were dealt with. When I tried to open that page I got a message “Access denied.”

We hope that 15 Now campaigners in Seattle are being kept fully aware of what is happening with these “details”.

About oaklandsocialist

This is the web site of the Oakland/East Bay Socialist Group. We are a small group of workers, youth and retirees in the Oakland/East Bay area and are affiliated with the Workers International Network (WIN). WIN is just that - an international network that doesn't pretend to be more than it is. We believe that socialists must participate in the struggles of workers around the world, and that an essential part of that struggle is discussing and learning from our experiences. Contact us at Oaklandsocialist@gmail.com.
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6 Responses to Seattle’s Minimum Wage Ordinance: What Does It Mean?

  1. Pingback: ► Which Way Forward? (new leaflet) – [WQ2.14.07.08] « The War for Quadrant Two

  2. We thank Ben for his comment, but we think he makes some critical mistakes.

    His most important mistake is not recognizing the difference between what he (or I) might think and what most workers think.

    For instance, he equates Sawant with Obama. But Sawant’s election increased the interest in socialism among workers in the area. It also increased the political involvement – even if only paying more attention – of workers and middle class people. It raised their consciousness. The election of Obama did not play that role at all.

    I also think it’s mistaken to equate the two as far as where they lie on the political spectrum. In other words, I don’t agree that Sawant is a capitalist politician. Just take a look at where her campaign donations came from. They did not come from big business. And in this country, money talks.

    Another important difference is that Sawant (and Socialist Alternative) have a record of helping build a movement in the streets. Sawant, for instance, was very active in Occupy Seattle and from what we are told she sided with the “left” wing of that movement. For all her weaknesses, she does continually say that what is needed is a mass movement and she and S.A. have organized rallies, protests, etc. Yes, there are a lot of weaknesses with what they’ve done, but compare this to any capitalist politician, even the most liberal – for instance Dennis Kucinich (now out of office) or Barbara Lee. The most these types will do is appear to give a speech when they feel the audience will help them.

    So, yes, we have a lot of criticisms of Sawant, but she is different from the capitalist politicians. Or, to put it another way, it is a mistake to see everything in black and white.

    That’s why I think it is right to place demands – or make “suggestions” – on Sawant and why that is very different from doing so regarding Obama. This web site has made clear our differences with Sawant and with her group, Socialist Alternative. But in no way could they be considered to be representatives of the capitalist class.

    We also disagree with the implied view of the unions and the union leadership. We think the classic view of that leadership as parasites on the body of the working class is accurate. This means that they have no independent life, no independent role apart from the working class and the organizations of the working class. It means that they are not capitalists in their social role. (They might have huge investments, but that’s secondary; they main role is as leaders of the unions.)

    So the main point is that there is nothing really stopping Sawant and Socialist Alternative from campaigning as we advocate – for instance going into the grocery stores and talking with the workers there. It’s totally different from advocating that representatives of the employers (corporate politicians, for example) do something like that. And whatever label we want to use – “socialist”, “social democrat”, etc. – there are many sincere people, workers and young people, who can see the sense of this but at the same time believe in what they think Sawant stands for. It is through making suggestions like the ones we have made that what she stands for will be clarified in the minds of many. If she does it, even part way, this will help to carry the movement forward. If she (and Socialist Alternative) refuse, it will help carry the movement forward.

  3. Ben Seattle says:

    Hi John,

    I am also glad to see that you have replied to my post.

    > His most important mistake is not recognizing
    > the difference between what he (or I) might think
    > and what most workers think

    This is untrue. Furthermore, this method of argument
    (ie: putting yourself in my mind and claiming to know
    what I do or do not recognize) is not useful. You do
    not support your argument with any quotes from my post.

    Second, your argument is irrelevant to my criticism
    that your post is promoting illusions concerning whether
    it will be possible to pressure Sawant and the SA to “do
    the right thing”.

    Third, if workers think this or that–are we supposed
    to reinforce their thinking when it is based on illusions
    that are widely promoted by the capitalist media?

    > he equates Sawant with Obama

    Again, this is untrue. It fails to deal at all with
    what I actually say in my post. I invite readers to
    read my criticism of John’s post here:

    (http, etc) warforquadranttwo.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/2014-07-08_which_way_forward.pdf

    Specifically, I challenge John: “If an activist like
    John wants to describe Sawant or the SA as ‘socialist’
    –that is his right–but then, if he wants to be taken
    seriously and be regarded as being accountable to
    the movement–he should also explain what (if any)
    distinction he believes exists between ‘socialism’
    and social democracy.”

    John has not replied to my challenge (other than his
    evasive reply above) and I believe that he is unlikely
    to do so.

    > I also think it’s mistaken to equate the two as
    > far as where they lie on the political spectrum.

    Again, this is untrue. It is not what I have ever said,
    and it evades what I did say: which is that your post is
    promoting the illusion that we can pressure Sawant to
    “do the right thing”.

    To the extent that we may the ability to force Sawant
    and the SA to “do the right thing” — we will do so
    by recognizing what they are: social democrats who,
    ultimately, are on a bourgeois leash.

    > We also disagree with the implied view of the unions and
    > the union leadership. We think the classic view of that
    > leadership as parasites on the body of the working class
    > is accurate. This means that they have no independent life,
    > no independent role apart from the working class and the
    > organizations of the working class. It means that they
    > are not capitalists in their social role.

    At least here you are dealing here with my political argument,
    rather than refuting arguments that I never made.

    In their political role, the trade union bureaucrats obey
    the will of their bourgeois masters. If they did not do
    so they would not be able to keep their comfortable jobs and,
    essentially, would be fired. In fact, you yourself, in your
    post, call the bureaucrats “the representatives of the
    Democratic Party inside the workers’ movement”.

    > So the main point is that there is nothing really stopping
    > Sawant and Socialist Alternative from campaigning as we
    > advocate

    So, at last you get the heart of the matter.

    If there is “nothing stopping” Sawant and the SA from doing
    as you would like them to do–then why aren’t they doing it?

    I believe that there is a reason. You claim to believe
    there is no reason. So how do you explain why Sawant and
    the SA refuse to do the right thing?

    Actually, you explain quite well in your post. You explain
    that Sawant and the SA do not want to upset their masters.
    You explain that this is what is stopping them:

    > the only possible explanation is that the Socialist
    > Alternative leadership did not want a conflict with
    > the union leadership

    So, you admit (in the body of your post) that there is a reason.
    And the reason involves what Sawant and the SA want (or do not
    want). This is the reason.

    So when you say (in your reply to me) that there is “nothing
    stopping” them–you mean nothing EXCEPT for their political
    ideology and motivation. But it is their political ideology
    and motivation that got them where they are–and keeps them
    where they are.

    The political ideology and motivation of Sawant and the SA
    is the political ideology and motivation of social democracy,
    which is based on doing what is possible within the limitations
    of what is *acceptable* to their bourgeois masters.

    > It’s totally different from advocating that representatives
    > of the employers (corporate politicians, for example) do
    > something like that.

    Totally different?

    Sure, it is different in some ways. No two rivers are the same
    either. There is always some difference. And social democratic
    politicians are not the same as the more mainstream corporate
    types (until they have had a few decades to evolve in that
    direction). But that misses the point.

    You think you can force Sawant to do the right thing?

    Go ahead and show us how to do it.

    Meanwhile I will tell activists the simple truth–that
    Sawant and the SA are social democrats and will continue
    to behave like social democrats–because that is what
    they are.

    And you can tell activists that Sawant and the SA can be
    pressured to do the right thing. And Sawant and the SA
    can tell the movement that the trade union bureaucrats can
    be pressured to so the right thing. And the trade union
    bureaucrats can argue that the Democratic Party can be
    pressured to do the right thing. And the Democratic Party
    can argue that the Republicans can be pressured to do the
    right thing. And the Republicans? Well at least they are
    being more honest in their arguments than you are in yours.

    In your post you criticize Sawant and the SA for misleading
    activists about the role of the trade union bureaucrats.
    As they always do, the bureaucrats engaged in their usual
    treachery in the $15 struggle, and you criticize the SA
    for pretending that this would not happen.

    > Didn’t they know that this leadership would play
    > this role?

    You are a hypocrite if you fail to apply this same standard
    to yourself. At some point activists may ask you:

    > Didn’t John know that Sawant and the SA would play this role?

    In fact I am asking you that question right now. Didn’t
    you know John? Where you really surprised that social
    democrats acted like social democrats?

    > It is through making suggestions like the ones we have
    > made that what she stands for will be clarified in the
    > minds of many. If she does it, even part way, this will
    > help to carry the movement forward. If she (and Socialist
    > Alternative) refuse, it will help carry the movement
    > forward.

    Your tactic (ie: in the paragraph above) reveals that you
    appear to actually *agree* with my assessment that Sawant and
    the SA are social democrats. There are circumstances where
    this tactic is useful–where it is useful to offer a deal
    to the social democrats that will represent a win for the
    movement whether they accept the deal (ie: the movement wins
    because the social democrats have been pressured to do the
    right thing) or refuse the deal (ie: the movement wins because
    the treacherous nature of the social democrats is exposed).

    But even in these circumstances, it is not useful to refuse
    to tell activists what we really think about social democrats
    and how they work.

    And if we refuse to tell activists the truth–if we instead
    deliberately equate social democracy (and the politics of
    being on a bourgeois leash) with the (supposed) goal of
    our movement–we are feeding activists shit.

    Do what you want, John. You are a good man. Too good to
    engage in this kind of nonsense. Like you said in your
    other post, activists of our generation are nearing the
    end of the road. But it is never too late to smell the
    coffee.

    • Just a couple of points in reply:

      We do not pretend to know Ben’s state of mind, or anybody else’s. But what he writes does not seem to take into account how workers will look at the matter.

      Second: Ben objects to our saying that he has equated Sawant with Obama. By objecting, he is admitting in effect that there is something basically different between the two. But in his first piece he suggests that we imagine making the same demands on Obama that we might make on Sawant. It’s hard to see how this does not mean equating the two.

      As for social democracy: It is not a capitalist trend; it is a trend (and the dominant one for decades) within the workers’ movement. To call it a capitalist trend is just one step removed from the disastrous policy of the Communists in Germany in the period when Hitler was campaigning for power. There, the Communists considered the Social Democrats (who were the other major workers’ political party) to be “social fascists”, in other words they were some sort of capitalist party. The result was a gigantic division in the working class, which was what enabled Hitler to take power. We don’t think Ben is like the leaders of the Communist Party of that time, but his view is wrong in our opinion.

      The fact of the matter is that there are thousands of young people and workers who are looking to Sawant to make a change. And they are looking at her in a way different from how people ever looked at Obama; they are looking at her as being against “the system.” As opposed to Obama, and the rest of his type (on down to the other Seattle City Council members), Sawant is not part of a corporate-controlled political party. She has no direct ties with any significant sector of the capitalist class. It’s true that she and Socialist Alternative seem to be always trying to keep a link with the union leadership, but the union leadership is not part of the capitalist class (much as some of them might wish they were). Sure, there may be one or two capitalists who support some of what Sawant says and does, but that doesn’t prove anything.

      Let’s not forget that she was very active in Occupy Seattle and was on the left wing of that movement. Which way she turns is not predetermined.

      • Ben Seattle says:

        Hi John,

        I am glad that you replied.

        From your post of July 13:

        > We do not pretend to know Ben’s state of mind, or anybody
        > else’s. But what he writes does not seem to take into
        > account how workers will look at the matter.

        I write, first and foremost, for other activists. This is not to say that it is not important to write for workers. Rather, it is an issue of taking care not to substitute my own work for what must be the work of our movement. There is a lot of confusion in the movement concerning the most important questions–such as how we can build a pole which is independent of social democracy. These are the questions on which I focus.

        I have seen many “practical” activists who regard the work to create clarity on fundamental questions as basically a waste of time. That is not my attitude.

        From your post of July 8:

        > he [Ben] equates Sawant with Obama.

        > it’s mistaken to equate the two as far as where
        > they lie on the political spectrum.

        > So, yes, we have a lot of criticisms of Sawant, but she
        > is different from the capitalist politicians. Or, to put
        > it another way, it is a mistake to see everything in black
        > and white.

        From your post of July 13:

        > Ben objects to our saying that he has equated Sawant
        > with Obama. By objecting, he is admitting in effect that
        > there is something basically different between the two.
        > But in his first piece he suggests that we imagine making
        > the same demands on Obama that we might make on Sawant.
        > It’s hard to see how this does not mean equating the two.

        Just because it is hard for you to see or understand something, John, that does not mean it is hard for everyone else. (And, by the way, wouldn’t it be simpler and be more natural to identify yourself as “I” rather than “we”?)

        Sawant is not the same as Obama. I did not say she was. Nor did I imply that she was. I did say, however, that she and Socialist Alternative have something in common with Obama. But that is not the same thing as saying that they are identical.

        Your accusation that I (supposedly) place Sawant and Obama on the same spot on the political spectrum–would be true only if the political spectrum had only two spots: the bourgeois spot and the revolutionary spot. You lecture me not to “see everything in black and white”. Maybe you should take your own advice?

        What Sawant and the SA, as social democrats, have in common with Obama is that they, so to speak, “play for the other team”. But there are also (obviously) big differences between them.

        Social democrats:

        (1) have something in common with mainstream bourgeois politicians
        (2) have significant differences with mainstream bourgeois politicians.

        What social democrats have _in common_ with bourgeois politicians is that their actions (ie: the types of things for which they struggle and the methods they use) are *restricted* to what is *acceptable* to the ruling class.

        Where social democrats are _different_ than bourgeois politicians is:

        (a) their radical rhetoric,
        (b) their participation in the mass movements and
        (c) their willingness (sometimes, in some circumstances)
        to mobilize the masses to fight for partial demands.

        So we can see, from the above, that social democrats have characteristics of both:

        (1) bourgeois politicians and
        (2) revolutionary working class activists.

        Quite a bit of history (hundreds, thousands of examples) help us understand that, for social democrats:

        (a) it is their *radical appearance* and (occasional) willingness to engage in mass struggle–which is a relatively superficial characteristic, while

        (b) it is their *striving to be acceptable* to the ruling bourgeoisie–which is deeper and more fundamental.

        So both the (a) superficial and (b) fundamental characteristics of social democrats are real. We must recognize both. If we fail to understand both the superficial and fundamental characteristics–we will get stuck in the black-and-white thinking (which you warned about) that will prevent us from understanding this complex phenomenon. And we must understand what social democracy is in order to build a pole in the movement which is *independent* of social democracy.

        > As for social democracy: It is not a capitalist trend;
        > it is a trend (and the dominant one for decades) within
        > the workers’ movement. To call it a capitalist trend is
        > just one step removed from the disastrous policy of the
        > Communists in Germany in the period when Hitler was
        > campaigning for power. There, the Communists considered
        > the Social Democrats (who were the other major workers’
        > political party) to be “social fascists”, in other words
        > they were some sort of capitalist party. The result was
        > a gigantic division in the working class, which was what
        > enabled Hitler to take power.

        For readers who are not familiar with John’s argument (which I call the fascist bogeyman argument) related to Hitler coming to power in Germany in the early 1930’s–this argument has a rich and lengthy history of being used to justify capitulation to social democracy. (More recently, this argument was used by the RCP in 2004 to justify their “world can’t wait” campaign. The RCP argued that–if we didn’t line up with Democratic Party liberals to impeach Bush–then Christian fascists would take power in a military coup and cut off our balls: “you can’t imagine what they will do to you!”, etc.)

        There are no shortcuts here. We need to understand what social democracy is.

        Historically, social democratic parties were not capitalist parties (at least initially) but they were parties on a capitalist leash. If this seems confusing–then you are beginning to understand how this works–because it is designed to be confusing to the working class–and this confusion is *fundamental* to the mission of social democracy.

        Put another way–social democracy (in a fundamental way) is designed to be a giant Trojan horse inside the workers’ movement. It is controlled (sometimes loosely) by the capitalists–but is designed to have the *appearance* of being *independent* of capitalist control.

        Many may accuse me to being overly simplistic when I express things this way. This explanation has been called a “conspiracy theory”, “science fiction”, “simplistic, black and white thinking” and so forth. But this is simply they way that class society works under bourgeois rule–where *political deception* is not one bit less of a weapon than naked force by the police–in keeping the working class disorganized and passive.

        The necessary tactics of working class activists toward social democracy were worked out nearly a hundred years ago–and involve placing the social democratic leadership in a position where they will be forced to either:

        (a) “do the right thing” and mobilize the masses under
        their influence for struggles for partial demands
        (and in this way help the movement) -or-
        (b) expose their true (and treacherous) nature

        But I am not going to go into the tactics to use to deal with social democracy in this post (which is already too long). Rather I will respond to the important points which John has raised:

        > The result was a gigantic division in the working
        > class, which was what enabled Hitler to take power.

        Without going into the many complexities of the problems of the Communist Party of Germany in the early 1930’s, it is important to understand that this division in the worker’s movement was real. But it is also important to understand that this division (which exists in the workers’ movement essentially everywhere) can only be overcome when revolutionary activists overcome the influence of social democracy on a conscious basis. In other words–activists must understand what social democracy is–and oppose its influence on a correct basis. There will be, in this process, various kinds of temporary alliances with sections of social democrats–but there will never be any real need to hide or disguise or help conceal the nature of social democracy and its lengthy history of treachery.

        > We don’t think Ben is like the leaders of
        > the Communist Party of that time,

        Good.

        > but his view is wrong in our opinion.

        But which views of mine are wrong? The views I have actually expressed–or the nonsensical views (like saying that Sawant = Obama) which I am accused of saying?

        > The fact of the matter is that there are thousands
        > of young people and workers who are looking to Sawant
        > to make a change. And they are looking at her in a
        > way different from how people ever looked at Obama;
        > they are looking at her as being against “the system.”

        True.

        But–at least in these posts–I am not addressing these thousands of young people. My entire readership, frankly, is probably about a half dozen activists. Writing something that would be meaningful to these thousands would be complex. What I am doing now is much simpler. In a certain sense, I believe we need to learn to crawl before we can walk.

        But I do know that, when we have the ability to write for these thousands–it will not be necessary to *reinforce* illusions which they may have. The idea is (unfortunately) widespread in the movement that we must reinforce illusions in order to avoid losing the ears of the masses. This idea (let’s be honest) serves social democracy.

        In the meantime, let’s not pretend that we are talking to thousands when we are talking to a small number of activists and attempting to sort out the most basic questions, such as (so to speak) “which way is up?”

        > Sawant is not part of a corporate-controlled
        > political party. She has no direct ties with
        > any significant sector of the capitalist class.
        > It’s true that she and Socialist Alternative
        > seem to be always trying to keep a link with
        > the union leadership, but the union leadership
        > is not part of the capitalist class (much as
        > some of them might wish they were).

        During the Occupy movement, there were some debates about the police by a section of naive activists: “Weren’t the police part of the 99 percent?” and “The police were not part of the capitalist class.” That is how some argued. Eventually, it became clear to one and all that the police *served* the ruling one percent. That was their job. Ditto for the trade union bureaucrats.

        Your own article, John, makes clear that when the bureaucrats say “jump”, Sawant and the SA will only ask “how high?” And you also make clear that the bureaucrats are the representatives (ie: flunkies) of the Democratic Party. So why try to confuse matters now by saying that they are “not part of the capitalist class”? This may be true, but it is also irrelevant–just like it was irrelevant when some social democrats argued that the police were “not part of the capitalist class”.

        As far as the SA being (or not being) corporate-controlled: that is a matter of opinion. If you are arguing that the SA is genuinely independent–then you are full of shit. You should know better.

        Few people would know Sawant’s name today–if she had not been backed, to the hilt, by a section of the bureaucrats, and the Stranger, and various big-wigs in the Democratic Party. As far as having wider and more open capitalist support–that can come with time–as long as the SA remains obedient.

        > Let’s not forget that she was very active
        > in Occupy Seattle and was on the left wing
        > of that movement.

        Yeah, the bourgeoisie made several attempts (remember the “99 percent spring” and similar things) to co-opt the energy of the movement after the encampments had been forcibly dispersed. But those attempts had little credibility. But the SA had always made clear that it was ready, willing and able to “play ball” if the offer was good enough.

        > Which way she turns is not predetermined.

        Well, that’s your view. You also believe (on the basis of the 25 thousand word article you suggested I read) that the Labor Party in Britain (ie: the party of “Bush’s poodle” who sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq) might turn out to be for the working class.

        We don’t need to peddle illusions. We can work instead to build something that is real.

  4. AF says:

    >I don’t agree that Sawant is a capitalist politician. Just take a look at where her campaign >donations came from. They did not come from big business. And in this country, money talks.

    I just want to write briefly to what John is saying, which I think is that he does not think that Sawant is supported by a section of our ruling class. But, a careful look at the two big capitalists who orbit her campaign suggests otherwise:

    The first and most obvious capitalist who supports Sawant and the $15 increase is Nick Hanauer. Many might recognize the name Hanauer from the article distributed by the SA campaign organizers “The Capitalist’s Case for a $15 Minimum Wage, and his more recent article, “The Pitchforks are coming.. for us Plutocrats,” but most know Hanauer for his lucrative business ventures and his cameo appearance in Robert Reich’s “Inequality for all.” According to the Stranger, Hanauer says that Sawant’s victory “is awesome”, and that he was a leading backer of the Seatac $15 initiative. Again, Hanauer states according to the Stranger, “I don’t know Sawant, but if her politics are anchored on the idea that we all are better off when we all are better off, she will be a highly constructive force on the council.”

    The second is David Holmes Black who owns Black Press, which owns Sound Publishing, which owns The Stranger, The Seattle Weekly, The Everett Herald, and the Portland Mercury among a dozen other local “community” newspapers. Sound Publishing alone has 500-100 employees on payroll. Black effectively owns 150 publications.

    So maybe we should throw out some hard numbers, since the Stranger has given Sawant a substantial amount of very large puff pieces—essentially free advertisement, how much is that worth?

    According to the Seattle Stranger Media kit a full page print is $2,800, a three-quarter print is $2,256, a half-page is $1,416. Since cover advertisements are typically not “for sale”, maybe we should substitute a cover-wrap for a cover page advertisement. In which case, a five inch cover wrap comes to $4,320.

    Now take into consideration that these puff pieces not only included large color graphics, but an article written by a salaried staff writer–how much is that worth!?

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