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”.
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?
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.
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.