Seattle has elected its first Socialist to city office in generations. Kshama Sawant’s election to the Seattle City Council made her one of a few Socialists to hold elected office in the country. Sawant is an economics teacher and former Occupy Wall Street activist who ran on a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. "The important thing about running as a Socialist is, for one, to show that there is a definite openness for clear alternatives, not only to the big business parties, but the system that they represent, the capitalist system," Sawant says. Seattle’s new mayor, Ed Murray, has announced plans to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all city employees. Meanwhile, voters in the nearby community of SeaTac recently increased the minimum wage for many local workers to $15. The vote suffered a setback when a judge ruled last month that the raise does not apply to workers at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the area’s largest employer. That ruling has been appealed. Murray and Sawant are being sworn in today with record crowds expected at City Hall.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Seattle, Washington, where a former Occupy Wall Street activist is being sworn in today to the City Council. Kshama Sawant is the first Socialist elected to the city office in Seattle in generations.
KSHAMA SAWANT: We have shown that it’s possible to succeed as an independent, grassroots, openly Socialist campaign, not taking any money from big business, not currying favor with the establishment parties of big business, having an unapologetic campaign platform for improving the living standards of Seattle’s working people, and rejecting the business as usual. This moment belongs to that way of organizing.
AMY GOODMAN: Kshama Sawant has also played a pivotal role in the Fight for 15 movement, the campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in the Seattle area. Voters in the nearby community of SeaTac recently increased the minimum wage for many local workers to $15. While that vote is being challenged in the courts, Seattle’s new mayor, Ed Murray, has just announced plans to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all city employees.
We go now to Seattle, where we’re joined by Kshama Sawant, newly elected Socialist city councilmember of the Seattle City Council, member of Socialist Alternative. She is also a teacher and a union activist.
Welcome to Democracy Now! and congratulations, Kshama. Can you talk about what today means—today, your inauguration?
KSHAMA SAWANT: Thank you, Amy, for having me here.
Today’s inauguration really is an absolutely historic moment for working-class politics, and to understand—to really feel the moment that this is a turning point in the history of the United States. And I don’t mean just the election of a Socialist in city council, but everything that you have been mentioning—the Occupy movement, the movement to legalize marijuana use, marriage equality—this is all an indication that the people in this country are extremely frustrated and angry and outraged at the status quo, at the deepening income inequality, poverty, the political dysfunction of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and there’s this deep search for alternatives. And the fact that we have been victorious in this grassroots campaign is really an indication that people are ready to start moving forward, moving into struggle. And so, the real question is: How are we, on the left—how are we going to take up this responsibility of organizing the vast numbers of people, especially young people, for whom there is no future? And how are we going to present those alternatives?
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you decide to run as a Socialist, Kshama?
KSHAMA SAWANT: The first thing is, I’m a member of Socialist Alternative, which is a nationwide organization of social and economic justice activists. And that, by itself, presents a really different way of organizing politics and political actions where it is not simply up to me as some sort of superstar, but really a democratic decision among large numbers of people, saying, "You know, year after year we are asked to vote for Democrats or Republicans, and nothing changes. Wall Street is making historically high profits since the recession broke out, and the burden of the recession has fallen squarely on the shoulders of ordinary working people. How do we come out of this? What is the way forward?" And presenting a different type of electoral politics was extremely important to me and to everybody else who was involved in this campaign. And there were hundreds of people who worked on this campaign.
And the important thing about running as a Socialist is, you know, for one, to show that there is a definite openness for clear alternatives, not only to the big business parties, but the system that they represent, the capitalist system. And if you look at recent polls, they show that people, especially young people, are much more open to socialism than you would find out from the corporate media. People are also fed up with the political dysfunction. Sixty percent of Americans recently said that they are looking for a political alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. And, you know, everybody says, "Well, don’t you have to vote for Democrats, because otherwise the evil Republicans will come in?" And, of course, it’s absolutely correct that, you know, Republicans and the right wing need to be, you know, defeated, but at the same time it is important to recognize that the reason the right wing, the tea party and the Republicans gain any sort of ascendancy over the American people is because the Democrats do not present an alternative. The tea party arose because of Obama’s administration’s failure to deal with the outrage against the bank bailouts, and the tea party channeled it. So, really, it’s up to us to present a different way of doing that, to really show that working people can fight for ourselves.
It’s not simply about electoral politics. The electoral arena is one avenue where we can, you know, gain a hold, you know, occupy the space, so to say. But really the question is: How are we going to organize overall? How are we going to have a mass movement that will challenge the status quo of capitalism?
AMY GOODMAN: You were involved in the campaign to have the minimum wage increased to $15 an hour. I want to play highlights from news coverage of a recent march by the Fight for 15 campaign in the Seattle area.
REPORTER: After the yes vote in SeaTac, there’s a lot of energy behind this cause.
DALLAS BRAZIER: The cost for, you know, basic necessities for everyday things that you need, sometimes you just don’t have enough on the wages that we make now.
WORKER 1: I’m out here for everyone. I’m out here for me, my family, my children. I’m out here for our future—all future generations.
REPORTER: Fifteen dollars an hour would change her family’s life.
WORKER 2: Will be great—pay bills off, medical bills, go back to school.
WORKER 3: I mean, I wouldn’t have to work two jobs.
AMY GOODMAN: That was coverage of the whole campaign for the minimum wage to be increased to $15. You have been an integral part of that. Explain what’s happened, both at SeaTac and Seattle.
KSHAMA SAWANT: Yes, this really started with, you know, the growing discontent against economic inequality and the abysmal standard of living and the race to the bottom that is being meted out to the vast majority of people, especially the younger-generation low-wage workers. And as you all have covered on Democracy Now!, December 5th of 2012 was a pivotal day, when fast-food workers walked out in New York City—very courageously, might I say—to take a stand on $15 an hour and the right to unionize without retaliation. And that movement for $15 an hour has really captured the imagination of people all around the country. And as you mentioned, the SeaTac initiative last year in 2013 went through. You know, people voted in a majority to give $15 an hour to all the workers there, especially the airport workers. And in Seattle, we, our campaign, Socialist Alternative’s campaign, has been campaigning, from day one, for $15 an hour for all workers in Seattle. We’ve also been campaigning for affordable housing and for taxing the wealthy to provide funding for transit and education. And now this battle has come full force to Seattle. You mentioned the mayor, in the third day of his term, talking about $15 an hour for 600 city employees. We’re saying that this is a positive step forward, and it really reflects how much groundswell of support there has been. The movement has really been building up.
And I would urge everybody to go to 15now.org. That is 15now.org. That’s the website we have launched. It’s a grassroots campaign that we are starting to mobilize in Seattle to fight for 15 in 2014. And I would urge all your viewers and listeners to go to the website, volunteer, sign up to help out. Please give your financial contributions. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Seattle or not. This is the epicenter of $15 an hour, and we need the support of everybody all around the country.
And, you know, I think it’s important to see how dramatically different the political terrain here is today since before Occupy. Before Occupy, there was a lot of, you know, disenchantment and a sort of a feeling of demoralization. Occupy ended the silence on inequality, and really it put capitalism at front and center, you know, the question of the fact that we need a system change. And what’s happening in Seattle is—you know, in a sense, it’s not unique, in the sense that the social conditions that are preparing people to jump into struggle are—exist everywhere in the country. What’s different about Seattle is that the workers and labor activists in SeaTac went forward with this ballot initiative, and Socialist Alternative and its supporters had the audacity to challenge the Democratic Party establishment and go forward with what is now a victorious campaign for a Socialist in city council. And that’s an example, a seed, for something that can be carried over. And so I would urge everybody to support us.
AMY GOODMAN: Kshama, very quickly, in your state, in Washington, the 30,000-member union of machinists has narrowly accepted a new contract from Boeing that includes major concessions on pensions, healthcare benefits, wage growth. Can you talk about this? The union had rejected Boeing’s previous offer by like two-thirds in November.
KSHAMA SAWANT: Yes, and, in fact, people—for people who have been following the news, you will know that Boeing workers, the workers in the state of Washington, have been extremely courageous, and we’ve been in solidarity with them in rejecting the really—this is economic blackmail by the Boeing CEOs. And they have extracted tens of billions of dollars of subsidies from the state. And this is yet another example of why we need an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. You know, the Democrats have colluded as much as the Republicans in the state Legislature, totally sold out the Boeing workers and urging them to accept this really—this real assault on their living standards. And it’s—
AMY GOODMAN: Washington approved the largest corporate tax break by a state to a single corporation in U.S. history.
KSHAMA SAWANT: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s quite astounding.
KSHAMA SAWANT: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what would you say, Kshama, to people who want to run on a third-party platform, like you did as a Socialist?
KSHAMA SAWANT: I would say that it is very possible. There is an openness. And, in fact, I would go farther than that. I would say, look at our campaign. Look at Lorain County, Ohio, where 24 labor activists were elected on independent left labor ticket, not Democrats or Republicans. And, most importantly, this would be an abdication of responsibility of us on the left if we did not challenge the two-party system. This is a challenge for the left and the labor movement.
AMY GOODMAN: Kshama Sawant, we’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you so much for being with us, the newly elected Socialist city councilmember of Seattle’s City Council. She’s being sworn in today.