Dear Kshama Sawant:
Congratulations on having been elected as the first openly socialist representative in many decades. Your victory has given some people hope and has made the issue of socialism more prominent.
This victory has placed you in an important position, presenting opportunities and also presenting serious risks. As fellow socialists, we want to see an expansion of the movement you have begun. For this reason we are writing with the following concerns.
When you spoke at the rally on March 15, you proposed that a $15 per hour ballot initiative would include a three year “phase in” for workers at non-profits and small businesses. Was this simply a negotiating ploy or do you seriously intend to put forward this concession? This was not clear and therefore could be confusing to your supporters. One of the main attacks on the minimum wage in recent decades has been to try to exempt certain categories of workers, but this attack has met with only limited success. By including this “phase-in” we think you may be opening the door to even further exemptions around the country in the future.
Union Contract Exclusion
Even more serious, however, is our concern about a possible union exemption. As you know, the $15 per hour minimum wage at Sea-Tac excludes those workers who are working under a union contract and getting less than this amount; they will continue to get less than the $15 until their union contract expires. To our knowledge, you did not criticize this, and therefore we are concerned that you will consider putting the same exception in any ballot initiative you propose. The fact that you are working closely with different layers of the union leadership heightens this concern. We hope we are wrong about this, but we have reason to suspect that that is not ruled out right now.
Union workers currently making less than the $15 per hour would feel that being in a union is not only pointless, but that it is actually harmful. Not only that, but such an exception would reinforce the team concept approach of the union leadership. They would go around to the nonunion employers in town offering to sign them up for any amount they could blow the $15 per hour. They would also be advertising to “their” employers that they are saving money by having a union contract.
We think that around these measures you have to part ways with the union leadership. What is the meaning of being a socialist otherwise? In any case, whether such steps are correct or not, we think maximum discussion among those involved is necessary, and from the reaction of those we met there we are not sure this is happening. We also think that steps like the union exception should be presented for what it is: A concession to the union leadership without which it is felt the measure cannot pass. This is open to debate, but at the very least it has to be openly presented. And we should also not forget the level of anger and distrust that exists within the union membership. If we ally ourselves too closely to the leadership, we are liable to be cut off from any movement from below, a movement that has to and will take place.
At the March 15 rally, the question of unemployment was hardly mentioned, if it was mentioned at all. An unemployed worker or young person will tend to ask, “What good does a $15 per hour minimum wage do me; I don’t even have a job.” That is why we think some demands around unemployment should be raised along with the $15 per hour minimum wage demand. In relation to broadening the issues, we also think it should be made clear that $15 per hour is only a start, that even that amount is not enough.
We would like to suggest that maybe there are some related issues that could possibly be raised more. These include mass incarceration of black and Latino people as well as police brutality, the struggle of immigrants – especially the radical steps being taken by immigrant youth, etc.
This will inevitably lead directly to the question of whether all of this can be resolved under capitalism, which then opens up the question of socialism. Unfortunately, neither you nor Phil Locker nor anybody else ever raised the issue of socialism, or even mentioned the word, at the March 15 event. We understand that every victory of the working class advances the consciousness, but if this is accomplished at the expense of compromises in principle, or without open discussion within the movement, then we are taking a dangerous path.
We are concerned that maybe there is too much focus on debating with and negotiating with business leaders, other politicians, union leaders and not enough getting out into the streets, especially in the poorest neighborhoods on Seattle. We wonder, for instance, whether it wouldn’t be better to have opened up the 15 Now office in a store front in South Seattle rather than in an office that is all but inaccessible.
We know that holding political office is not easy. Several of us have served as elected union officers, and while it is different in some ways, we understand the pressures that are brought to bear. For that reason, we think it is vitally important that you open the 15 Now campaign more than you have.
There are many other points to be raised, but we think these are some of the most important. We raise them in the spirit of comradeship and because just as your success is a step forward for the workers’ movement in general, so any mistakes, if persisted in, can be a set-back of similar proportions. We look forward to a friendly dialog and collaboration in the future.
Comrade Sawant, you have repeatedly said that your victory has to be repeated throughout the United States. We agree. For that to happen, we need a genuine collaboration amongst socialists and in the wider working class movement. And for that we need a genuine dialogue. In that spirit, we look forward to hearing back from you and carrying a discussion forward.
John Reimann, former Recording Secretary and expelled member, Carpenters Local 713
Cheryl Zuur, former President, AFSCME Local 444
Sonja E. former branch secretary, Voran, Germany