While the corporate-controlled media focused on the higher level election results (such as the victory of the Tea Partier Mat Bevin for governor of Kentucky), some important local votes were also held. These include:
- The election campaign of long-time activist, working class fighter, fracking opponent and socialist Cliff Willmeng for the city council in Lafayette, Colorado.
- The ballot initiative for an immediate $15/hour minimum wage in Tacoma, Washington.
- The reelection campaign of socialist Kshama Sawant for Seattle City Council.
A former union carpenter who was an active dissident in the Carpenters Union, Cliff became a nurse and moved to Lafayette from Chicago. He became involved in the campaign against fracking*. As part of this campaign, Cliff is involved in getting a ballot initiative in Colorado to empower local communities to stop any sort of investment (including fracking) that the majority of residents feel is not in their interests.
As an emergency room nurse, Cliff also came in contact with firefighters, and through that, he got involved in a campaign to get their union recognized. From these experiences, Cliff explained in this interview that “you’re always asking them (the elected officials) to do favors for you…. And we decided that we needed to start to take some power ourselves…. Through the campaign for city council, we decided that we could advance the ideas of the movement itself and… should I win the campaign as a way to (further) build the movement of grassroots communities.”
Cliff campaigned around the issues of community control over investment, union rights for firefighters, a $15/hour minimum wage, and similar issues. In the event, there were four elected, and they gained from 20.5% to 13.2% of the votes. Cliff got 9.8%, which is not bad for his first time running. (One of the things used against cliff was the complete coincidence that his mother happens to already be a council member. It was implied – completely falsely – that this represented some sort of corruption.) Most important, in many ways his campaign can serve as an example for others.
15 Now Tacoma
Tacoma 15 Now was one of the only such campaigns that took the slogan seriously; they got enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot calling for an immediate $15/hour minimum wage. An interesting addition was that their measure criminalized wage theft by the bosses. Following a militant May Day (2015) rally put on by 15 Now Tacoma, that city’s Chamber of Commerce called a meeting at which its leaders showed a tape of part of the rally and told their members that if they didn’t organize some sort of increase, they would be facing a far worse alternative – 15 now. As a result, they got together with the mayor and other officials and maneuvered to put an increase on the ballot for $12/hour phased in over two years. So voters had a choice: They could first vote “yes” or “no” on whether the minimum wage should be increased at all, and then if “yes”, whether it should be the immediate increase to $15/hour, or the phase in to twelve. Significantly, both the Chamber of Commerce and the restaurant owners association backed the raise to $12/hour, which means that they were backing an overall raise of the minimum wage by what amounts to 27% over two years, rather than fighting it altogether!
In a very low turnout, “yes” won 59% to 41%, but 1b ($12/hour) won by 72% to 28%.
From the chain of events, it’s indisputable that this increase was due to the uncompromising position of 15 Now Tacoma.
Kshama Sawant for Seattle City Council
The entire issue of an immediate raise in the minimum wage to $15/hour is related to the election of socialist city council member Kshama Sawant in Seattle two years ago and her reelection this week. In 2013,“15 Now” was her main slogan, and after she won her main political advisor and speech writer, Phil Locker, promised: “The key task for our campaign — and unlike other campaigns who say one thing when it comes to election time and have a completely different agenda once they are elected – our number one priority going forward is to fight for a $15/hour minimum wage in Seattle not 5 years from now, not 10 years from now… Now. Now!” Her election helped spur discussion on this demand throughout Seattle, as well as advancing discussion on the cause of socialism. All of this was very positive.
Unfortunately, she and her group, Socialist Alternative, made the mistake of waiting some four or five months to start collecting signatures for a minimum wage ballot initiative. Given the deadlines, that made it too late to get enough signatures, so they didn’t have that alternative route to take. The reason they had waited so long was that they had focused on negotiating with the liberal Democrats on the city council and trying to consolidate their support among the union hierarchy, who function as the representatives of the Democrats (and the employers) within the labor movement. They supported the Hotel Workers union leadership in its demand that unionized hotel workers be excluded from any minimum wage proposal that they (Socialist Alternative) would put forward. They failed to campaign among low wage unionized grocery store workers to help them get their union to back a $15/hour minimum wage. Through such actions, they proved to the union hierarchy that they were reliable allies. But at the same time, they didn’t mobilize their own potential power base, leaving themselves in a weakened position, forced to accept a proposal that wasn’t all that very different from what a much smaller group who lacked a city council member won in Tacoma. While the ultimate minimum wage ordinance reaches $15 in Seattle, it takes a seven year phase-in for it to cover all workers (as opposed to two years for all minimum wage Tacoma workers to reach $12/hour).
Supporting Local Democrats
The focus of Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative can also be seen in their support for five local Democrats who were running for city council in districts other than Sawant’s. This is more than a mistake; it is a violation of principle for the workers’ movement and for socialists to call for support for representatives of one of the two parties of big business.
This whole approach explains why Sawant didn’t support 15 Now Tacoma. She didn’t want to conflict with union leaders like Adam Glickman of SEIU, who said he “prefers to work with the business community” on the issue.
Despite this course, it was positive that Sawant won reelection by over 52%. Had she lost, the “rejection” of socialism would have been trumpeted by big business. And, if there is a real movement from below, it is still possible that Sawant and Socialist Alternative could move to a more independent position. Meanwhile, she will help put some issues like housing more in the spotlight.
Some General Conclusions
One factor in the results in Tacoma was the extremely low voter turnout. This even included among minimum (or close to minimum) wage workers – exactly those who would have benefited most from 15 Now. Low wage workers active in the campaign reported that they couldn’t get their co-workers to even vote. Other activists had similar experiences. In an election which was all mail-in, it doesn’t exactly take a massive amount of time and energy to bother sticking an envelope in the mail box. But so many feel so hopeless, so atomized, so powerless to effect any sort of change at all, that even this simple act doesn’t seem worthwhile.
This mood is slowly changing, but it still is there and for many it may take some powerful political or economic shock to drive them into action.
As this changes, what sort of direction is a movement likely to take and, most important, how can an alternative to the Republicrats develop? Elections – both for public office and ballot measures – can only accomplish just so much; the movement in the streets, communities and work places is vital. But as Cliff Willmeng explained above, participating in elections independently of the Republicrats is one important tool in the working class movement’s tool box.
It seems likely that local (and not-so-local) movements will continue to develop – around the issue of racism and the police, fracking, the minimum wage, you-name-it. It also seems likely that other movements will draw the conclusion that the movement Cliff is involved in has drawn – that they have to start running their own candidates for office, almost certainly starting at the local level. As a general trend starts in this direction, and as a few more get elected, then this trend may start to come together, first as a loose network and then developing into a more formal organization, in other words, the beginnings of a true mass workers’ party.
Kshama Sawant, as the first such elected socialist, could play a very helpful role in this process. To do so, she and Socialist Alternative would have to break with the union hierarchy, which will bitterly oppose any serious steps she would take in that direction, and she would have to stop supporting liberal Democrats like those who ran for Seattle city council (also like her de facto support for Bernie Sanders). She and Socialist Alternative would also have to break with their method of refusing to collaborate in a truly democratic and equal manner with others on the left. So far, the signs that they will be willing to do this are not very positive, but stranger things have happened.
Meanwhile, the crisis mounts and there rarely has been a time in the US when a serious socialist movement was more needed… or more possible.