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Seattle Democrats: “Showing Leadership?”

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An article on yesterday’s al Jazeera web site reports on Seattle socialist city council member Kshama Sawant and the campaign for a $15 per hour minimum wage. It reports on a proposal by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray for a phased-in minimum wage of $15 per hour. The very fact of this article shows how her election has made a real dent in the corporate control over US politics. It’s an example of how Sawant’s election has not only made socialism more acceptable, it has helped focus attention on a specific number – 15 – for a minimum wage. These are definite steps forward.
But we have to see beyond this. The mayor’s proposal is exactly what Sawant denounced as having “more holes than Swiss cheese”at the March 15 rally for 15 Now in Seattle. And she was right; Democrat Murray’s proposal opens the door to all sorts of diversions – training wages, exceptions for exactly some of the low price leaders as far as low wages (franchises like McDonald’s), encourages businesses to hire and fire repeatedly, etc. Now, however, Sawant is saying this “shows leadership for the rest of the country.”
I guess it does in one way: It shows how to deflect the pressure for a real, significant raise now, which is exactly what the Democratic Party is so adept at. It’s called co-opting. How did Sawant and Socialist Alternative get to this point?
Sawant and Union Leadership
Sawant was elected in part due to the support of a layer of the union leadership. Not only that, but at the time she expressed no criticism of that leadership, which was partly why they supported her. The other part of the reason they supported her was to put pressure on the Democrats, who they had no intention whatsoever of breaking from. This union leadership was going to support whatever the “left” wing of the Democrats would put forward, while maybe putting pressure on them at the same time.  Which is exactly what they did by supporting Sawant but not breaking from the Democrats in general. As a result of this pressure, the mayor appointed an “Income Inequality Advisory Committee” to consider a higher minimum wage. Co-chairs of the committee are the corporate-minded union leader David Rolf of SEIU and a representative of the Chamber of Commerce. Again, he sought to co-opt Sawant by appointing her to this committee also. What went on behind the closed doors of this committee we don’t know, because Sawant never blew the whistle on that. But the other problem was that she and Socialist Alternative were fooled into “seeing the process through”.
David Rolf , SEIU leader, pumping up the Democrats. Is this the type we want to ally with?

David Rolf , SEIU leader, pumping up the Democrats. Is this the type we want to ally with?

Waited Too Long
They should have realized that this all was a typical maneuver of the Democrats when big business comes under pressure, and they should have filed for a ballot initiative immediately and started back in January gathering signatures. By waiting until now, they are stuck with their relatively small forces scrambling to get 20,000 signatures by June 15 – a huge task.
That leads to another question: Why is it that it’s basically just Socialist Alternative members who are out gathering signatures? How about the rest of the left? How about other low wage workers?
Control
As for the rest of the left: Socialist Alternative’s problem is that their leadership has been determined to completely control the 15 Now campaign themselves. For instance, there was a 15 Now conference in Seattle on April 15. The chairs were all Socialist Alternative members. The agenda was determined by Socialist Alternative. The speakers were decided by Socialist Alternative. If you are determined to control everything, then you will be stuck with these consequences. This includes those outside your organization being unwilling to get really involved.
Low Wage Workers
As for low wage workers: At that conference and since then, it has been suggested that 15 Now (really, Socialist Alternative) take up a campaign among union grocery clerks, many of whom earn less than $10 per hour. It was suggested that 15 Now (i.e., Socialist Alternative) help them organize to get their union to back 15 Now. This has been ignored. The reason is that while Socialist Alternative leaders may lack a clear perspective, they are not naive and they know that any such campaign would mean a complete break with the entire union leadership.
Instead of doing this, it was reported that at a UFCW member came to a 15 Now meeting and asked what she could do to help the campaign. She was told by the Socialist Alternative leadership that she could “ask” her union leaders to support the campaign. In other words, she was on her own.
It is sad to say so, but Socialist Alternative leadership has chosen to side with the union leadership over the membership. In doing so, they have allowed themselves to be maneuvered into the position of just playing the role of pressuring the Democrats instead of building an independent movement.
March 15 protest - Could this have become a true mass movement?

March 15 protest – Could this have become a true mass movement?

New Election Campaign
The al Jazeera article also reports that Socialist Alternative will be running a 15 Now leader – Jess Spears – for state assembly. It’s clear that nobody outside of Socialist Alternative will have any real input into this campaign, meaning it will have to be on the backs of the members. After a mad scramble to get the signatures, now Socialist Alternative members will be expected to take up another “pedal to the medal” campaign, leaving them no time to think and assess. When Sawant was elected, Socialist Alternative called for 200 independent left candidates to run in elections this June. They could have used the 15 Now campaign and Sawant’s position to really build a wider socialist/left coalition around the country. In practice, however, what this really means is simply seeking outside financial support for more Socialist Alternative candidates.
One final point: At the April 15 15 Now conference, it was repeated that winning a $15 per hour minimum wage would “transform the consciousness”. In other words, this campaign would immediately lead to the creation of a wider movement of, by and for workers. This was the justification for waging this single issue campaign. Now that claim has evidently been dropped. Since they are not using the issue to try to encourage layers of the working class to organize and fight for themselves (e.g. low wage grocery workers), all that is left is what could be called ballot box socialism – we’ll win this issue now (or some part of it), and then on to another issue (rent control maybe?) This more and more approaches the strategy of classical social democracy.
This web site enthusiastically advertised Sawant’s victory. The author of this article donated hundreds of dollars to Sawant’s campaign. We still think we were right to have done so, but seeing what is happening is disappointing. But what is more important is the fact that many other workers and young people will be similarly disappointed.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is no reason, for example, that just a few people in Seattle can’t take the 15 Now campaign directly to the low wage grocery workers and use this issue to help them organize to change their union. That, in itself, would be an important step forward.
working class one fist copy

7 replies »

  1. It’s unclear what the problem here with Sawant is? “15 now, no exceptions” was not going to get through the city council and past the mayor’s veto by the end of the struggle and so some form of compromise was inevitable — more than that, obligatory — for revolutionaries. They mayor’s bill commanded majority support while Sawant’s stance had only 41% support after 6 months of campaigning for “15 now, no exceptions.” “The pressure for a real, significant raise now” wasn’t ‘deflected’ by the Democratic Party or Sawant or the union leaders in the sense that the movement came to naught — Seattle remains the only place in the country where the fight for $15/hr has won! Some acknowledgement of that is in order and if you reject Sawant’s compromise, the onus is on you to show that 1) it was a bad, rotten, unnecessary, treacherous compromise and 2) what the strategic alternative to #1 was.

  2. The comments of “RDS” (whoever he or she is) are not only inaccurate, they are somewhat disingenuous. He or she claims that Seattle is the only city in the country that has passed a $15/hr minimum wage. This is simply false. Not only has San Francisco passed such an ordinance, it is stronger than that passed in Seattle. But the main thrust of RDS’s comments are aimed at distracting attention away from the criticisms of Socialist Alternative’s role in Seattle, since nobody ever claimed that compromises aren’t sometimes necessary. (In fact, the call for a $15/hr minimum wage, in itself, is a compromise since even that is nowhere near adequate.) The main points raised in the article are:

    1) Sawant’s statement on the proposal mutes her criticism of the exact measures that she had so sharply criticized previously. (Unfortunately, this was just the first step down the road that led to her present support for individual Democrats like Larry Gossett.) When working class leaders are forced to accept compromises, they should not dress it up as something different, nor should they say that liberal Democrats are “showing leadership” for the rest of the country.

    2) Sawant and Socialist Alternative waited far too long to even start the ballot initiative process. This enormously added to the pressure to accept the compromise. We don’t know exactly what the thinking was, but we find it hard not to think it was connected with the fact that Sawant commented before she even took office that she would “try to work with” the other city council members.

    3) Not only that, but she and Socialist Alternative have really acted as the left representatives of the union bureaucracy, defending and covering up for that bureaucracy’s “team concept” approach. This was especially clear at last year’s 15 Now conference, where Sawant and S.A. defended the position of the hotel workers’ union bureaucracy that hotel workers could all make at least $15 per hour or they could keep their health benefits, but not both. That’s the team concept in action, and the irony is that only some 10% of union hotel workers make less than $15 per hour! (See this video of some of that debate: https://oaklandsocialist.com/2014/05/03/15-now-conference-debate-about-union-exclusion-clause/) The Socialist Alternative leadership followed this up by refusing to even consider the idea of campaigning among low wage union workers such as grocery courtesy clerks to get their union to support 15 Now. (See this article, for instance: https://oaklandsocialist.com/2014/05/03/open-letter-to-socialist-alternative-for-campaign-in-ufcw/)

    4) Socialist Alternative weakened the entire 15 Now campaign by insisting on controlling it as much as they could. For instance, they and they alone determined the agenda for last year’s 15 Now conference, speakers at the conference, etc.

    For a more in-depth analysis of the final outcome of the 15 Now campaign in Seattle see: https://oaklandsocialist.com/2014/06/13/seattles-minimum-wage-ordinance-what-does-it-mean/

    • So because I hadn’t heard about the SF ordnance I must there be “somewhat disingenuous”? Good luck trying to win people over your position — no matter how right you might be — with bad-faith assumptions about whoever is guilty of disagreeing with you. In any case:

      1. “Sawant’s statement on the proposal mutes her criticism of the exact measures that she had so sharply criticized previously.” Obviously, because she reversed her position after it became abundantly clear that “15 now, no exceptions” had zero chance of passing over the mayor’s bill. Hard to build support for a bill you previously opposed and not change one’s rhetoric.

      2. So Sawant should have ruled out working with other council members before hand? Why is working with other council members (or pledging to work with them) a sin given that she has to do that in some form as part of a legislative body?

      3. You speak of “the position of the hotel workers’ union bureaucracy that hotel workers could all make at least $15 per hour or they could keep their health benefits, but not both.” The real question here is: what was management’s position? Or is the objection mainly/only because union leaders wanted an exception for the contracts they are responsible for negotiating? Taking a stand against what union leaders want without even looking at what management stands for (or the overall sociopolitical context) makes no sense.

      4. I wouldn’t know. Is there anything stopping a non-Socialist Alternative group from appropriating the name 15Now and launching activities and organizing in various locations throughout the country?

      Last point: why should I or anyone care if the leaders of Socialist Alternative were right or wrong about this or that prediction? Is the purpose of blog entries like this to advance the interests of workers and oppressed people or “expose” Socialist Alternative and its leadership? If it’s the former, surely there needs to be some acknowledgement that what happened in Seattle was a massive step forward, a win, a victory, something that has been lacking from the socialist left’s list of accomplishments in this country for upwards of three or four decades. Instead, the bulk of the assessment is negative, focusing on all the terrible, terrible things Socialist Alternative did during the course of the struggle and how much more could’ve been accomplished if only they had followed the line of this blog. The way it’s written makes it sounds like what happened was a defeat and a betrayal when it was anything but.

      • Quote: “So because I hadn’t heard about the SF ordnance I must there be “somewhat disingenuous”? ”
        Reply: No, I also said it was inaccurate. In this instance, that’s what applies.

        Quote: “2. So Sawant should have ruled out working with other council members before hand?”
        Reply: RDS’s comment implies that there’s not a history behind the liberal Democrats; or maybe he or she simply is ignorant of that history. When asked, she should have said, “look, they are members of the corporate-controlled Democratic Party and I’m a socialist for a reason: They are dedicated to furthering the interests of the corporations and I’m dedicated to furthering the interests of the working class.”

        Quote: “3. You speak of “the position of the hotel workers’ union bureaucracy that hotel workers could all make at least $15 per hour or they could keep their health benefits, but not both.” The real question here is: what was management’s position?”
        Reply: What RDS is ignorant of (or covers up) is the fact that the labor leadership time and again simply acts as the spokespeople for management, as in this case.

        Quote (regarding the claim of Socialist Alternative’s leadership that the victory of a $15/hour minimum wage would “transform the consciousness” of the US working class): “Last point: why should I or anyone care if the leaders of Socialist Alternative were right or wrong about this or that prediction?”
        Reply: This is really sad. Back in the old days of the predecessor to Socialist Alternative – Labor Militant – we used to take perspectives seriously, and when an important part of our perspectives turned out to be wrong, we tried to examine it afresh. Or rather, where we didn’t, it led to serious further mistakes. That used to be the theme stressed by the CWI. Now, the position is “who cares if our perspectives were wrong?” The fact of the matter is that behind this assertion was the implication that it doesn’t matter what sorts of concessions and compromises in principle we make since a victory will lead to a new mass movement. That’s why it matters.

      • “This is really sad. Back in the old days of the predecessor to Socialist Alternative – Labor Militant – we used to take perspectives seriously, and when an important part of our perspectives turned out to be wrong, we tried to examine it afresh. Or rather, where we didn’t, it led to serious further mistakes. That used to be the theme stressed by the CWI. Now, the position is ‘who cares if our perspectives were wrong?’ The fact of the matter is that behind this assertion was the implication that it doesn’t matter what sorts of concessions and compromises in principle we make since a victory will lead to a new mass movement. That’s why it matters.” But since I was never a member of Labor Militant nor a member of a CWI affiliate, I don’t care whether their perspectives were wrong. If I were concerned with the mistakes and errors of this or that sect, I would never have time to study any other topic.

  3. And one last point that maybe RDS would care to comment on: At last year’s 15 Now conference, the Socialist Alternative leadership predicted that the passage of a $15 per hour minimum wage ordinance in Seattle would “transform the consciousness” of the US working class. Well, according to them this did pass in Seattle. What happened to that transformation of the consciousness?

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