The election of socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council was an important step forward for the workers’ movement and for socialism. It raised the hopes of workers and it helped put socialism on the agenda. However, every advance comes with new problems and potential pitfalls. In this case, Comrade Sawant and her organization, Socialist Alternative, are making some mistakes, which if not corrected have the potential to lead to serious disappointment for many. These mistakes include plans for a three-year “phase in” of the $15 per hour minimum wage for workers who work in businesses which employ less than 250 workers. It would also have such a phase in for workers at “non-profits”, which might even include hospitals. There is also evidently a plan to copy the minimum wage ordinance at Sea Tac airport, which excluded those workers who are working under a union contract.
We have taken up these issues in an Open Letter to Kshama Sawant, as well as in an article titled “The Minimum Wage, The Democrats, the Union Leadership and Kshama Sawant.” It would be immensely helpful to have an open and comradely discussion around these issues. That is especially true since no one group can build an opposition to the capitalist offensive alone nor does any one group have a monopoly on wisdom and insight.
It is not too late for Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative to engage in this discussion and toreconsider and strengthen the 15 Now campaign.
Low Wage Workers
It appears that Comrade Sawant and the 15 Now campaign are not focusing enough on the very layer on which she should be basing herself – low wage workers and the unemployed. To fully focus on this layer, Comrade Sawant has to reverse her proposal to exclude work places of under 250 workers – an exclusion that would even mean that workers at fast food places like McDonalds – a poster child for low wages – would not receive the immediate $15. After changing this proposal, Sawant could make regular “visits” to low wage work places – McDonalds, coffee bars, Walmart. These would involve touring the work place, even having small impromptu rallies inside the work place with Sawant and others giving short speeches explaining what she is trying to do and appealing to the workers to get involved.
A central target of such visits should be the major supermarkets, many of which are organized under the UFCW. There, workers are working under a contract that doesn’t expire for another two years. All workers in those supermarkets start at $9.42 per hour (!) and courtesy clerks top out at $9.52. Workers don’t get to the maximum wage until they have worked 7800 hours, which means that they would have to work almost four years… if they worked 40 hours per week every week in the year. (Many workers in the supermarkets don’t get a full 40 hour week.)
Comrade Sawant and Socialist Alternative should explain that this sort of contract – the norm in the UFCW – is a result of the team concept that the union leadership has put into practice and that the fight for 15 is linked with the fight for real, fighting unions, unions that don’t try to balance the interests of the employers with those of the workers.
The Fight for 15 should also be linked with a fight for an immediate $5.00 per hour raise for all workers – fifteen or five, whichever is greater. Yes, of course, this would mean “violating” the UFCW contract with the bosses. So what? The bosses violate the contract every day of the year, and when times are hard, they come back to the union and demand new concessions. So when times are good – like now – there is no reason whatsoever that workers should not demand the same – new concessions from the employers.
Through this, a campaign for major wage increases could be leveraged into the unions, starting with the UFCW, to build opposition caucuses within those unions.
Sawant and Socialist Alternative should also go to the fast food chains as well as Walmart and urge similar steps.
The most oppressed layers of the working class do not only face low wages, however. One sector that lives in constant insecurity is the undocumented workers, many of whom are Latin American. In Seattle, undocumented youth have taken such militant steps as physically blocking the deportation busses. In any struggle for higher wages, though, these undocumented workers will be used to break strikes unless they are won over in advance. Therefore, the Fifteen or Five Now struggle should make that direct link. Where these undocumented and immigrant youth are blocking the busses, Sawant should join them. If she gets arrested, so much the better for the movement.
In addition, there is the issue of unemployment. The official unemployment rate in the area was 5.5% in January. This does not include the many workers who are involuntarily working short hours or have given up even looking for work. These unemployed and short hour workers would also potentially be used against the higher paid workers if their needs are not taken up. This means linking up the demand for higher pay with a demand for full time jobs for all at union wages or the $15 per hour minimum, whichever is greater. (It is a disgrace, by the way, that union pay scale is often lower than what is being demanded for the minimum wage!)
Taking these steps would mean increased repression and police harassment. Black and Latino people of every city in the United States face this harassment as well as outright murder every day of the year. They also face mass incarceration. As the struggle heats up in Seattle, and as it faces this increased harassment, it should make the direct link with this issue that is rampant in the black and Latino communities.
“Free” Market vs. Socialism
Full employment at decent wages can not be achieved through the “free” market and private investment for profit – not by boosting small businesses or large businesses or non-profits either for that matter. A real start in that direction can only be achieved by public investment. In other words, a crash program to rebuild the infrastructure, rebuild the inner cities, build schools and parks, retrofit all buildings to make them energy efficient, etc. If there is one thing that has been proven it is that private investment will not take such steps, no matter how necessary they may be.
Where will the money come from? Seattle workers don’t need to look very far; they have the example of Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest people, and there are plenty of others like him in Seattle. To the threat that they would take their capital and run, the socialist response must be to put it under public ownership.
This is the real answer to all the complaints of Corporate Seattle, rather than the claim that increased wages will boost the economy by giving workers more spending power. That argument, which amounts to Keynesianism, might be true for a short time, but it also will cut into the bosses’ profits, thereby encouraging them to leave town. Socialists must not get into the trap of arguing how to make capitalism run better; we simply put forward the needs of workers and our position must be that if the system cannot afford those needs, then workers cannot afford the system. (Incidentally, that used to be the position of the Committee for a Workers International, the international grouping with which Socialist Alternative works.)
Break with Union Leadership
Taking such steps would also mean a sharp break from the union leadership. For one thing, they regard the union contracts like a fundamentalist Christian regards the bible – as a holy document whose every word must be obeyed to the letter. For another, the leadership of every single union in Seattle would be furious at Sawant and Socialist Alternative if they tried to help the more independent and militant minded union members organize to fight to change their unions.
This means that none of them would endorse a ballot initiative.
So what? It merely gives the 15 Now campaign a powerful issue to take to the rank and file and encourage them to fight for it inside their union.
In addition, there are simple organizational steps that follow. The first one is to remove the 15 Now office from the same (relatively inaccessible) office space as Socialist Alternative and put it in a store front or similarly accessible space in one of Seattle’s poorer communities. Along with this is the necessity of really building the action committees as committees of struggle that really start to take on a life of their own, that are more than groups of foot soldiers who carry out the policies of Socialist Alternative. These committees should try to hold street corner meetings where residents can speak up about the issues they face, whether it be police harassment or poverty or domestic violence. The committees could then start to take up all these issues.
We recognize that the resources of Socialist Alternative are very limited. This is exactly why these committees need to be opened up like this. In addition, all different political currents should be welcomed in.
Such steps would inevitably be “messy”. There would, for instance, be problems of people showing up drunk. But the building of any popular movement in the US today will inevitably have to deal with such issues. The Occupy movement, where comrade Sawant got her start in many ways, most definitely had to deal with these issues.
Will it Win?
Will this approach be able to mobilize enough workers and young people to overcome the propaganda (and the money) of the bosses? Will it be able to overcome the bosses’ representatives inside the unions – the union hierarchy? There is no guarantee. But the present course far from guarantees a victory either since the great majority of low wage workers will not immediately receive the $15 per hour minimum wage and higher paid workers won’t be directly affected at all, meaning that it will be difficult to involve this majority.
For decades, the union leadership along with their allies, the non-profiteers, have been able to control the movement, to keep it within respectable bounds. Maybe, with a somewhat prominent and charismatic leader like Kshama Sawant at its head, this direction will be able to pierce that barrier. Maybe it will set into action all the pent-up anger and frustration. There is no way of knowing in advance.
But even if it doesn’t, it will lay down a marker for the future. It’s far better to try and fail than not to try at all, especially since the “victory” the present 15 Now campaign promises is so extremely limited and is far from guaranteed anyway.
In short, 15 Now has a choice to make: Either base itself on the rank and file of the unions or on the union leadership. Either really try to organize a mass movement or simply stick to ballot-box socialism. Either play it safe and respectable, or be loud and rowdy and take risks.