Above Photo: Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant addresses supporters during her inauguration and “Tax Amazon 2020 Kickoff” event in Seattle, Washington on January 13, 2020. Jason Redmond / AFP / Getty Images.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant describes how her party has mobilized ordinary people to win victories in the war being waged on the working class and the poor—despite opposition from Democrats.
Since being elected to office in 2013, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and her socialist party have been locked in a bitter battle against the city’s moneyed elites, who have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a corporate PAC called “A Better Seattle” and saturated television and digital platforms with negative advertising. Sawant is hated because she is effective. Following a three-year struggle against the richest man in the world—Jeff Bezos—and his political establishment, she and her allies pushed through a tax on big business that increased city revenues by an estimated $210 to 240 million a year.
Her leadership and her party provide an example of effective resistance to the war being waged on the working class and the poor—but, as she explains in this episode of The Chris Hedges Report, every victory has been won in spite of entrenched opposition from Democrats. Instead of depending on the Democratic Party establishment, Sawant says the only way to make advances in the class war is through class struggle and mobilizing ordinary people.
Chris Hedges interviews writers, intellectuals, and dissidents, many banished from the mainstream, in his half-hour show, The Chris Hedges Report. He gives voice to those, from Cornel West and Noam Chomsky to the leaders of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who are on the front lines of the struggle against militarism, corporate capitalism, white supremacy, the looming ecocide, as well as the battle to wrest back our democracy from the clutches of the ruling global oligarchy.
Chris Hedges: In December, Socialist Alternative leader and Seattle city council Member Kshama Sawant defeated a well-funded campaign by the city’s business community to remove her in a recall vote. Since being elected to office in 2013, Sawant and her socialist party have been locked in a bitter battle against the city’s moneyed elites, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a corporate PAC called A Better Seattle and saturated television and digital platforms with negative advertising.
She and her party have been denied ads by Google, YouTube, and Hulu. Amazon alone spent over $3 million to defeat her when she ran for office in 2019. Sawant is hated because she is effective. She helped lead the fight in 2014 that made Seattle the first major American city to mandate a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Following a three-year struggle against one of the richest men in the world, Jeff Bezos, and his political establishment, she and her allies pushed through a tax on big business that increased city revenues by an estimated $210 to $240 million a year. She was part of the movement that led to Seattle’s successful ban on school year evictions of school children, their families, and school employees. She was one of the sponsors of a bill that protects tenants from being evicted at the end of their term leases, requiring landlords to provide tenants with the right to renew their leases, and prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent if the rent was due during the COVID emergency and the renter could not pay due to financial hardship.
Her leadership and her party provide an example of effective resistance to the war being waged on the working class and the poor. Joining me to discuss her nearly decade-long battle against the billionaire class and the lessons we can take from her successful struggle is Kshama Sawant.
So Kshama, the campaign to remove you from office was dirty. It was highly funded. But rather than go on the defensive, you used the recall campaign to collect over 15,000 signatures to establish rent control, which I expect shocked your rich adversaries. I wondered if you could explain those tactics.
Kshama Sawant: Yes. I think the idea of going on the offensive for the working class and our representatives and our movements to go on the offensive against big business and the politicians that represent them is contrary to the conventional guidebook we are handed down by the Democratic Party officials and by the NGO leaders. And in fact, unfortunately, even many social movement and labor movement leaders, the idea is that you can actually make change by not antagonizing the powers that be and resorting to moral persuasion and prioritizing peaceful – And not just peaceful, but extremely cordial relationships with big business, politicians, with Democratic Party politicians as in Seattle, and with big business lobbyists.
Well, we threw that guidebook out the window because we understand from our study of history as socialists, as Marxists, that that is precisely what doesn’t work in the interest of the working class. And in fact, it is not an incidental idea, this pervasive idea that, well, we should all be talking nicely regardless of our position in society, and that is the way to convince rich people to hand a little bit of crumbs to those of us who don’t have any.
That idea is a false one, but it doesn’t incidentally exist in our society under capitalism. It is very much a conscious narrative that is put forward by the ruling class, by the capitalist class, by their political representatives, and their media representatives in the corporate media. Because it benefits them for working people to be lulled into this idea that we’re all on the same side, this is a shared situation, that COVID was a shared sacrifice.
Well, I think people’s eyes have been opened for the most part in understanding that the very essence of capitalism is that the very wealthy at the top, they make this enormous profit at the expense of ordinary people. And the only way really to address the class war that we face is through class struggle.
Chris Hedges: Can you talk about the role of the Democratic Party, especially during your efforts to raise the minimum wage, to protect people from evictions, to increase taxes on large corporations such as Amazon? Where were the Democrats?
Kshama Sawant: Yeah, I mean just to make sure all your viewers know, Seattle, the electorate, the ordinary people are extremely progressive, and you could say it’s a left-leaning city for the most part. And the city council has nine council members. I am one socialist, and the rest of the eight have always been Democrats from as long as I know. And certainly as long as I’ve been on the council, since I took office in January 2014.
One of the first things that happened when I took office was these two prominent Democrats, Democratic council members who came into my office, sat me down, and said, well it’s all well and good – I mean, I’m paraphrasing, obviously, I don’t remember the exact words – But paraphrasing, that it’s all well and good. You roused the rabble and got elected as a socialist, but we’re here to tell you that City Hall runs on our terms and you are not winning any wage increase, let alone $15 an hour. And less than six months later, we had won the $15 an hour minimum wage. So that about sums it up for the Democrats.
And as you indicated, Chris, it has never changed. It has never been different. It’s not like they were close to $15 an hour, but they were forced to concede, and then they were morally persuaded to then be on the side of working people. No, it has never been that way. As a matter of fact, even the more self-described progressives, not the overt corporate Democrats, even have played a role which is actually contrary to the interest of working people, and every step of the way they have placed obstacles in the path of winning these victories.
And so every such victory, not just $15 an hour, but the Amazon tax that you mentioned, all the renters rights victories that we have won, unprecedented renters rights victories that we have won, every single victory has come about despite the either overt or backroom opposition and tactics by the Democrats. And the reason we have won is because we mobilized ordinary people, union members, to fight for it.
Chris Hedges: Yet, the rhetoric of the Democratic Party is aligned with your campaign. I mean, for instance, Biden, when he ran for the presidency, promised that he would work to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He also promised to cancel student debt. And yet, once in power, of course, I think as your situation illustrates, they work at cross purposes, from certainly what they have espoused during campaigns.
Kshama Sawant: Oh, absolutely. And in fact, it’s quite spectacular now what we are seeing from the consciousness of ordinary people, understanding that the Biden administration has completely failed them. And you don’t have to take the word of a socialist. You can see the approval ratings for Biden are as low as they’ve ever been throughout this presidency. It’s not just him, but the Democratic establishment including his regime have completely failed in passing any kind of progressive program, whether it is $15 an hour or Medicare for All. As you said, he promised to cancel student debt and not even a fraction of that measure has been carried out. And so it’s no wonder. This is exactly the reason why now we are staring into potential clobbering of the Democrats by the Republicans and by the right wing in the midterm elections.
And as I said, it’s not just me saying it. If you look at the news, I mean, the analysis from even Democratic Party media strongholds like CNN and The New York Times, they’re having to be very frank about this. They’re clearly admitting it, that actually the Democrats are headed into a real slaughter at the midterms, and that it primarily lies at the doorstep of the Biden administration just really failing to get anything done.
And I think this is the thing that we have to talk about, is that the Democrats failing to deliver on any of the progressive agenda that they say that they support, that they espouse sort of verbal support for, what does that actually lead to? That leads to greater and greater openings for right populism to have its own day. And look at the attacks on LGBTQ rights in various states including Florida, look at the ax that is going to come down very likely on Roe v. Wade. All of this should be a warning sign that the left needs to build itself.
Chris Hedges: You have been targeted by the far right. Your campaign volunteers were harassed and threatened. The former police union president Ron Smith called for you to be handcuffed as Seattle police actively worked in your recall. And I wanted to ask about this clash with right-wing populism. Is this inevitable for the left, especially as you said, as the Biden administration fails to provide meaningful reforms?
Kshama Sawant: I think, fundamentally, the clash between the very wealthy, big business, the capitalist Wall Street interest, and the working class and any of us who have any vision of social justice and a different kind of society than what’s on offer, that clash… In other words, the class divide or class struggle, that is inevitable. And how it plays out will depend, as we were just discussing earlier, on how the forces of the left, genuine left, and how the forces of the working class develop. So the extent to which right populism succeeds is a testament to the failures of the Democratic Party and still the infancy of the left, the US left. And so, in other words, how much the right succeeds and how much of a clash there will be is really dependent on how the balance of forces adjusts itself.
So in other words, let me just put it this way. If the agenda for a living wage adjusted for inflation, for Medicare for All, for canceling student debt, for a real Green New Deal policy agenda, if all of this was actually put forward by the Democrats, there is no question that… It is absolutely given that they would be able to win over a big section of the voting population that will end up either staying out of the elections or will end up voting for Republicans and the right wing. Because for the most part, I mean, there is a genuinely dangerous and reactionary current on every continent, but to the degree to which they get traction, that entirely depends on what else is on offer.
In other words, it is precisely because people are so disgusted with the connections between the Democratic Party and big business that – And they [also feel that] about Republicans to some degree – But they’re searching for answers. Working people in America right now are searching for answers. And in fact, it should be noted in this context that it is because of the disappointments on the electoral arena, the disappointments from many of the BLM leaders being unable to deliver on the promise of this enormous Black Lives Matter movement that happened in 2020. It is because of all these reasons that now young people are testing the avenue of labor organizing.
And so it is important to note that it’s in the midst of this complete failure and disarray that the Democrats are in that the workers at the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island were able to win the first ever union in Amazon. And the reason they were able to win is precisely, again, they used class struggle methods to convince their coworkers.
Chris Hedges: The Democratic Party for a long time has essentially attempted to replace a political agenda with woke soundbites. I know you call them the woke Democrats and cancel culture. I wondered what effect this is having on the political landscape?
Kshama Sawant: I think this is a very dangerous development, and I think it is actually incumbent on the left to think through these things and have honest, if uncomfortable, debates. In other words, what I mean is that the potential for a multiracial working-class solidarity, in order to actually fight for and win a society that is free of racial and sexual oppression and economic exploitation is very much there. I mean, look at the fact that over 20 million people marched in Black Lives Matter. I mean, that is not out of nowhere. That is because the vast majority of the American working people, young people, can be won over, and are actually already won over to the ideas of a society that genuinely respects everybody around us.
So, again, it’s no coincidence that at this point, the support for Roe v. Wade is two thirds of the American population. And yet, Roe v. Wade is on the chopping block. In other words, we have to be very, very clear in our minds that these regressive attacks from the right wing, the attacks on women’s rights, the attacks on LGBTQ rights, the attacks on the Black community, they are not coming because ordinary people are just irredeemably racist and sexist. That is absolutely not the case. In fact, it is the exact opposite. That there has been a huge shift, progressive shift on the questions of racism and sexism in our society, as evidenced by the size of the BLM marches, by the fact of how much support abortion and reproductive rights have, how much support LGBTQ rights have.
And in spite of that, we are seeing this kind of relentless attack from the right wing that shows you that it’s not the ordinary people’s consciousness that is the barrier. The barrier right now, the obstacle for progressive change is the leadership that’s on offer. And it’s not only electoral leadership in terms of the Democratic Party and even the squad, but it’s also leadership of the labor movement, leadership of social movements like BLM. So we on the left and rank and file workers and rank and file activists, we have the task of opening up genuine debates in which we bring these points out and explain that that kind of identity politics, sort of the world corporatized identity politics, is not the answer. That is not the way to win over working-class people. Actually, that is handing a weapon to the right wing on a golden platter.
Chris Hedges: Well, in fact, the movements that have been successful, including your own, have challenged the traditional hierarchy. You, the Democratic Party, Staten Island, there were no major labor organizations that supported them. Black Lives Matter, in fact, when Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, these figures visited places like Ferguson, they were booed. We’re watching a kind of revolt against the established liberal elite. I wonder if you could talk about that?
Kshama Sawant: Yeah, it’s absolutely right, Chris, and I’m glad you mentioned that. Again, the examples that you gave once again, are illustrating the increased political clarity that exists among millions of young people that actually these leaders are there just for photo ops, they’re there to co-opt our movements. And in fact, we should be wary of them.
And one of the reasons the Amazon Labor Union succeeded at the JFK warehouse in winning this historic first ever union election in this trillion dollar corporation headed by one of the richest men in the world Jeff Bezos, is precisely because they did not use what I would call the business unionism, basically the conventional ideas that have existed in the labor movement, in the Democratic Party, and even among social movement and NGO leaders that the way to organize for change and even to win a union election or to win a good contract is to think about the margins, by this sort of mythical idea of a few labor leaders at the bargaining table, and then not mobilizing the rank and file.
The ALU did not agree with all of that. And it was because they decided to build independently. And then they did many things that most labor leaders haven’t done in the last four decades. Which is, one, they led with concrete demands. They didn’t talk about the union as an abstract entity. They made it very clear to the workers in the warehouse, and workers made it clear to workers in the warehouse, that we need a union because don’t you agree that we need to win a $30 an hour starting wage? Don’t you agree that we need job security? Don’t you think that we deserve a say in scheduling? Don’t you think that we should get full-time hours if we want them?
It was through concrete issues that they were able to build this kind of solidarity, shop floor solidarity where you may not get workers to agree on every single thing on this plan and on every ideological issue. But if you can get agreement on a core group of concrete demands, and that is a solid basis for building a unified struggle. And then the other thing that they did right was that they made it very clear that the bosses are not on your side. So they didn’t cultivate illusions that somehow they could convince management and Jeff Bezos to be nice just by making morally persuasive arguments. They said, no, they’re going to fight against the union tooth and nail.
And so that is the kind of clarity we need to bring forward if we are to win any such victories. And we can see that people are ready for that kind of thing. But I’m unfortunately not hopeful that most of the crop of current labor leaders are going to carry that kind of change out. So in other words, if we want to do what ALU did and win, replicate those victories, not only in other Amazon warehouses, but if we want to win a historic union struggle, and then on top of that win strong contracts for workers, then we will need a rank and file revival of the American labor movement in the first place.
Chris Hedges: Although you’ve been very successful electorally, you’ve always argued that elections are not the point. Elections are secondary to organizing. Can you explain that strategy?
Kshama Sawant: Yeah, I think this is very important to explain, because the politicians who, for the most part despite their progressive rhetoric, who ultimately have made their peace with the capitalist system where they believe that this is pretty much the best we can get, but then let’s think around the edges and win a few reforms here and there. For them, it is fundamentally a different idea in the sense that they believe that because this is generally the best we can get, then flowing from that, the best approach we can have for political change is by getting a few progressive people elected, but maybe not a few anymore, maybe getting hundreds of progressive people elected. And then that way by sort of getting more and more self-proclaimed socialists or progressives elected, that is the way to make change. Because then they will go and then have these negotiations, or have conversations with corporate politicians, with corporate lobbyists, and then deliver a few progressive changes for us.
Now, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to do anything, but so far they haven’t. We’ve seen the evidence for that. The Biden administration is in shambles precisely because that approach does not work. And it also calls into question what exactly, how far are we actually going to aim to change society?
And I think if you look at the crisis that our society is in, that kind of tinkering around the edges approach simply does not work anymore. I mean, if you look at the data on the climate crisis, it is very clear. We have a very small window in which we need to make a fundamental shift away from capitalism. And for that, we will need mass movements of workers. We will need mass revolutionary struggle led by working people, ordinary people, in order to bring about that kind of change.
And that kind of change that we need, flowing from the needs of the planet itself cannot happen through elections. Although at the same time, we have to be very clear that just being anti-electoral in a simplistic manner also ends up benefiting the Democratic Party. Because that doesn’t explain to ordinary people, okay, so how do we deal with the fact that every four years, every two years we are told to vote for Democrats?
So in other words, the left does need to put forward strong campaigns like ours. Campaigns organized around demands, not around personality politics. But at the same time, explain that the way to run a really strong electoral campaign is to, as I said, completely reject personality politics, completely reject careerism, and build political organizations like Socialist Alternative. Except we need far bigger organizations where we can hold our elected representatives and other leaders in the organization accountable in that the program of demands that we are fighting around becomes the central focus, not those individuals who could then use those positions just to build their own careers by making themselves useful to the ruling class. That’s what we need to reject.
Chris Hedges: So Kshama, the Democrats focus on likely voters. That’s not been your tactic. You focus on those who are often part of the 80 million eligible voters who don’t cast ballots, including immigrants, those living in public housing, and marginalized communities. I know you distribute campaign material in, I think, eight languages. And this has been a tactic that’s worked very well for you. In fact, in one heavily East African building, I think turnout was nearly 10 times what it was in the general election. I wonder if you could describe how this works?
Kshama Sawant: I think this tactic that you are correctly talking about, Chris, and which as you correctly said, it stands in stark contrast to the approach of the Democratic Party. I think that difference flows from the fundamental political differences in the first place. In other words, the whole ethos of the Democratic Party is that they’re not going to be overtly, ambitiously pro big business in the way that the Republicans are… The Republican Party is in its very rhetoric very openly pro big business. They also don’t have a problem being openly racist, openly going against the rights of LGBTQ people, for example, as they’re doing in Florida. And openly attacking reproductive rights, all of that. So the Democrats are not overtly against all rights of ordinary people in that way, but their role for the ruling class, they’re also, their primary task is to be useful for the ruling class under capitalism, but the way they do it is by speaking from both sides of their mouth.
And because of that, because, for example, they will talk about $15 an hour. Every so often you will see Pramila Jayapal, the head of the congressional progressive caucus tweet out saying it’s time for Medicare for All. But then when it actually comes time to fight for it, then they will actually use their progressive status to give cover for the Biden regime, which is what they have done every step of the way.
Because that is their agenda, and there’s this disconnect between the rhetoric they espouse and the actual role that they play that is in service of the ruling class, because of that, they’re not eager to actually mobilize the kind of voters, as you said, that we mobilized. Where we would not actually have won our elections had we not mobilized a whole section of the population that is typically disenfranchised. Not because they don’t have the legal right to vote, but because there’s nothing for them to vote for. And nobody cares whether they vote or not, because they are not the people those Democrats are there to fight for.
And so, because of that difference, they don’t actually want to mobilize those same voters that we mobilize. Because when you go out there and say, hey as East African working-class people, as workers, as union members, you need to not only come out and vote for our campaign, but we need you to then join us in door knocking. We need you in order to win $15 an hour, the Amazon tax, or renter’s rights. When you do that, what you are doing is raising the expectations, the political expectations of all those people who are mobilized.
You’re giving them the hope that, actually, if you vote for this and then you fight alongside this elected representative, we can actually win concrete victories. See, the Democrats don’t want to do that because they have no intention of actually winning those concrete victories for you. They just want you to think about that enough. Think that just feel positive just enough so that the Democrats are able to win elections. But ultimately their goal is to maintain this unsaid equilibrium where there are somewhat to the left of the Republican Party, but their main goal is to be the gatekeeper against the genuine left interest and genuine working class interest.
So because of that fundamental difference between what role they want to play and why we are political as socialists, you see these tactical differences emerge as well. And then repeatedly, you will see that the ruling class will use other… Every new iteration, every time we run for reelection, they will use different tactics in order to then undermine us.
So in reference to this specific tactic you mentioned, Chris, where we have mobilized, in historic numbers, we have mobilized working-class people and communities of color, vulnerable communities like never before. In fact, not only did we do that, we actually have carried out voter registration drives like this city has never seen before. And because of all that, and because the ruling class in Seattle has seen how powerful that is, that we don’t just win votes, but then we go and fight, use our office to win concrete victories.
Now they have failed in defeating us in two reelections. They failed in recalling us last year, and now they are now resorting to trying to gerrymander our district. Our Democrats complain about Republicans gerrymandering, which of course they should, because Republicans do have a gerrymandering agenda. But now it’s the Democrats in Seattle who are trying to gerrymander our district here in order to cut working-class people out of this district. So that’s how far they will go to prevent ordinary people from getting politically involved.
Chris Hedges: Well, that’s how they removed Dennis Kucinich from his House seat. And it was the Democratic Party that did it.
Kshama Sawant: Exactly.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about two things just in the last couple minutes. Let’s assume that this cultish Republican Party does take power in the midterms and the stagnation of the Biden administration results in another Trump presidency or a wannabe Trump presidency. How are we going to resist? And then can you also address this idea of having progressives like Bernie Sanders or Nina Turner run within the embrace of the Democratic Party?
Kshama Sawant: Yes. First of all, in terms of what could happen in the midterms, I mean, the most likely scenario is, unless something unusual develops between now and the voting period, we should expect an absolute shellacking, as I said before, of the Democrats. This is what all political analysts are expecting. And so the prospect not only of the right wing as a whole making gains is a very real one. The prospect of a Trump resurgency is also a very real one, unfortunately, at this point. That’s how dangerous the whole debacle of the Biden regime has been. And so the only way to cut across that and create a genuine alternative to right populism that could unite the majority of working-class people in America is through working-class politics.
It’s not for nothing that Bernie Sanders got a resounding response to his campaign platform every single time that he ran. It united people, even in states that you would otherwise think of as right states or red states. It was in red states that you’ve seen not only a strong, positive response for a working-class campaign program like that of Bernie Sanders. But it’s in a red state, West Virginia, where you saw one of the most successful and historic labor uprisings happen in our times, which was the struggle of the teachers in 2018. The West Virginia educators who won an enormous victory by standing up not only to the Republican led legislature in the state, but also to the leaders of their own unions who were not willing to take a fighting approach to winning a strong contract, and to maintaining solidarity across the board among public school employees.
So it was rank and file leaders and rank and file members of the educators union who did that. So that plus the example of Starbucks workers now in nationwide unionization drives in so many hundreds of stores, and the strike actions that Starbucks workers are starting to take at the store level. Without any political leadership, they themselves are recognizing that the only way to push back against the union busting and the anti-worker intimidation and threats is to take work stoppage actions and strike actions.
And the example of the Amazon Labor Union winning union election, all of this is telling us, well, the way to actually push back against corporate politics, push back against the failures of the Democrats, and to defeat the rise of the right wing is to build struggles of the working class where we’re able to unite a majority of working people on a common working class based program. And in that process, the labor movement and rank and file workers have a huge historic role to play.
So the union drives in major corporations like Amazon and Starbucks are the most crucial thing right now. Absolutely. Without any question. They are the most crucial thing right now. And if we can bring real success, not only in terms of the number of Starbucks stores that win their union elections, we can’t stop there, but in terms of winning strong contracts for store after store in Starbucks. If we can unionize Amazon warehouse after Amazon warehouse across the nation, where tens of thousands of workers start getting unionized and they start winning strong contracts, winning concrete demands like $30 an hour, that will show how a shift can be made.
That is precisely the shift we need to make. But none of this is going to be automatic. We will need courageous rank and file leadership in order to make that happen. And also the political clarity that a labor leadership that is tied at the hip to the Democrats is not going to be the force of change. The force of change will be a revival of the militant labor movement, and that can only be done on the basis of tens of thousands of workers understanding that we need our Democratic rank and file based union movement.
Chris Hedges: Great. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.