A Conversation with Kshama Sawant
Unrepentant Socialist Seattle City Councillor To Speak at Commencement
Seattle City Councillor and labor organizer Kshama Sawant will be the speaker for this year’s graduation ceremony. Sawant won a seat on the Seattle City Council in 2014, running as a member of the Socialist Alternative party, becoming the first socialist to win a Seattle-wide election in almost a century.
Carrying forward the momentum toward social justice she organized as part of the Occupy movement, she led the campaign for a $15 minimum wage, making Seattle the first city in the nation to adopt the policy. Now, the campaign has gained traction across the country, with mounting pressure in major cities to raise wages.
While the Occupy movement may have brought working people’s struggles to the forefront of the national conversation, Sawant is one of the few leaders from the movement to enact real change through electoral politics.
We talked to Kshama Sawant about Socialism, the future for labor organizing, and what Evergreen means to her.
What are your thoughts on speaking at Evergreen? I know the Evergreen campus quite well, I met a lot of students and faculty from the college who are very. . . They’re critical thinkers and intellectually very advanced compared to a lot of people I meet. But also, they’re very passionate about social justice, and that’s speaking my language. I was really happy when I heard—quite honored actually—that the students from Evergreen would like me to speak there. You know, Clay Showalter from my office is a graduate from Evergreen.
Yeah! He told me in the email. We were wondering, what can be done for $15 minimum wage down here in Olympia, since it happened in Seattle? Yeah, absolutely start a $15 dollar (an hour) campaign in Olympia. It’s the right moment-—the momentum is on our side. Also, you’ll notice that an opinion poll that was released that showed that 69 percent of Olympians are in support of $15 an hour minimum wage. That tells you that the vast majority of the people who live in the city would support a public mandate. You have the public mandate on your side. It’s absolutely the right time to start a $15 campaign.
You may have also heard that the students at the University of Washington in Seattle just last Friday won a key victory. Their movement succeeded in pushing the UW administration to cave to their demand, that the university go on the same schedule as the city for the $15 minimum wage law. The administration was at first saying that the law doesn’t apply to them, but they were forced to agree to it. That’s an example of what campus movements can do. Students can build campus movements and build links with faculty and staff and other unions and fight for tangible victories and win them.
As a matter of fact, throughout history, every era of social movements show that students and young people have played a catalyzing role in building social movements and winning victories.
As socialism is accepted in small numbers, especially on this campus, it is also a polarized term used by the majority to vilify President Obama and anyone else on the left. Has your political identification as a socialist created any trouble in getting $15 minimum wage passed? I don’t think that calling myself a socialist has been any problem for me in being able to build a strong link with people among working families and the labor movement, and community organizations. Basically, people who are all naturally supporting social justice issues. You know, the Cold War propaganda, did end up demonizing the idea of socialism, but we’re in a different era now. The younger generations-—they didn’t grow up under the shadow of the Cold War, so they’re not invested in the demonizing of socialism.
As a matter of fact, they are questioning capitalism, because they are heading into a world where they’re going to be saddled with student debt, and cobbled with the proliferation of low-wage jobs means that they’re not very invested in capitalism. They’re looking for alternatives. So whether they call themselves socialists or not, they are questioning the status quo, which is what’s important.
That questioning of the status quo, the anger against inequality, those were the hallmarks of the Occupy movement. Those are still the driving factors that are propelling movements forward today, whether it’s for $15 an hour, or a movement against the arctic drilling by Shell Oil- which is starting to shape up to be a major issue here in Seattle.
I will say one thing though. Obama is not a socialist. Obama’s not even on the left. As a matter of fact, the Democratic Party establishment now has decades of records of betrayal of working class issues, and that is precisely why it is important for us to look towards a different political alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, to build the power of social movements.
How close do you think we are to a nationwide $15 an hour minimum wage? It’s difficult to predict exactly how close we are. I can say though that there has been a tremendous momentum towards reaching that stage. After we won the victories in SeaTac and Seattle, there’s been the “15 Now” campaign. We launched a “15 Now” campaign in Seattle along with Socialist Alternative and many labor unions and community organizations, but that campaign hasn’t died down after we won the victory in Seattle.
As a matter of fact, it has continued to blossom in many cities around the nation. Cities like Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are all to a lesser or greater degree poised to win $15 an hour victories. I think Los Angeles is especially important from a national standpoint, because it is a large metropolitan area. It is home to more than 800,000 workers who make less than $15 an hour. So, if Los Angeles wins a victory, that would push the movement many steps forward for a national movement to raise the Federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.