From Occupy to City Hall: Meet the Woman Leading the Fight for $15 in Seattle

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Kshama Sawant speak at a March 15, 2013, "March for $15" rally in Seattle. (Image: Flickr/ Shannon Kringen)

UPDATE: On May 1, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced that the City Council had struck a deal with labor unions, activists and the business community to raise Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by the end of the decade.  The increase will phase in at different speeds for businesses of various sizes: employers with more than 500 employees would have three years to adjust their pay-scales, while smaller companies would have five. Tipped workers would become subject to the $15 per hour minimum after five years.

At a press conference following the announcement, Kshama Sawant said that the deal was a victory for grassroots activists, but because of the lengthy phase-in for big businesses — and other issues — she will continue to pressure the City Council for a better bill.

In her short time in office, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant has shaken up the city’s dominant Democratic establishment — and made all the right enemies along the way with her fight to make the Emerald City the first major metropolitan area with a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Sawant — an Indian-born activist and economist who was a prominent figure in the city’s Occupy movement — wasn’t given much of a chance of winning when she jumped into a race against Richard Conlin, an incumbent who was first elected to the council in 1997. But she tapped into the community’s frustration with politics as usual — and with the city’s growing inequities in income and housing — and ran on a promise to fight for a real living wage.

Sawant, a socialist, forced a runoff with 35 percent of the primary vote, and went on to defeat Conlin in a close contest last November.

Sawant walks the walk. She kept her campaign promise to take home only $40,000 out of her $117,000 salary, saying in a release that a hefty paycheck “removes Council members from the realities of life for working people. Every Council member faces a choice of who they represent and which world they inhabit,” she said. “My place is with working people and their struggles.” recently spoke with Sawant about the movement that she’s building in Seattle. Below is a transcript that’s been lightly edited for clarity.

Joshua Holland: What are you doing with the rest of your salary?

Kshama Sawant: Technically, I’m paid $117,000 by the city. I’m taking home $40,000 and I’m giving the rest to social justice movements. I’ve created a solidarity fund, but I want to make it clear that it’s not charity. The point is that if we are to have a political system that’s accountable to the interests of the majority, then how are we going to do it with public officials and executives being paid salaries that are completely out of the realm of the average worker? In reality, $117,000 is a magnificent salary compared to what most people are making—most people are barely getting by.

The solidarity fund is going to strengthen movements that are fighting for social justice. One of the donations I’ve already made is $15,000 to the 15 Now campaign.

Holland: You’re considered a leader, if not the leader of the fight for a $15 minimum wage. People think of Seattle as a progressive town, and it certainly is, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a powerful business community that opposes this raise.

Can you explain your strategy —are you approaching this with an inside-outside strategy? What kind of coalition are you building?

Sawant: You’re correct that Seattle is a progressive city. But I think people have to parse that to understand what it really means. It means that the majority of the population holds really progressive views on many issues of social and economic justice. But that is not necessarily represented in the city government.

For example, there was a recent poll on $15 an hour in Seattle, and 68 percent of Seattle’s voters said they strongly support the measure. If that distribution was reflected in the city government, we wouldn’t be having any debate at all. We could have just held a vote, passed it and we would be having a victory celebration right now.

The reality is that the political establishment here is controlled by a very pro-business and pro-wealthy elite, as it is in every major city in the United States. And Seattle is an interesting example of a city that is dominated by Democratic Party leadership, but that does not necessarily imply that the political establishment reflects the views of the people they are supposed to represent.

So we need a strategy in order to make sure that the views of the majority of the people in Seattle are upheld in the face of opposition from business. And the reason I’m talking about the political establishment is that you can’t really understand how much power business has unless you understand that they have the vast majority of the political establishment on their side. What the politicians are willing to do really depends on how much push they feel they’re getting from different corners, and ultimately, the strategy for winning $15 an hour — or any other reform for social change — depends on the balance of forces. So, my key task is to figure out how we can build our forces on the ground. All the low-wage workers, community activists and community organizations — they all whole-heartedly support a strong $15 measure, and we have to make sure that their voices are heard. That is what pushes the discussion further along.

The very fact that Seattle is talking about $15 per hour in a serious way — the fact that it is on the top of the political agenda of this city — that itself is proof that grassroots movements work.

Holland: A number of legitimate small business people—not front groups for big companies—testified recently that they couldn’t afford $15. What is your response to that?

Sawant: I think we have to understand the nature of the capitalist system. It disproportionately favors big businesses — the big corporations. And the ones who shoulder the majority of the burden, in different ways, are small businesses and working people.

Look at the impact of the 2008 recession. That’s one quick and easy way of looking at what happened under capitalism. Who suffered? It was working people who have suffered massive unemployment, an epidemic of foreclosures and evictions, and a low-wage economy—almost two thirds of the jobs that have been created since the crash are low-wage jobs. An entire generation is being condemned to low-wage work.

It’s small businesses that have borne the brunt of the economic crisis. When you have a recession that wipes out the spending ability of a majority of the consumer base that small businesses rely on, that’s a real challenge. But if you look at the S&P 500 corporations, they are the ones who are making historically high profits.

So there is truth to the concerns and the fears that small businesses have when they’re wondering, “How can I make this happen? This is going to be difficult, I’m already facing so many challenges.” That’s why my initial proposal—I still stand by it—was to tax big businesses and the super-wealthy in order to provide subsidies for small businesses to mitigate the impact of the wage hike on them. And also to provide full funding for non-profit human services providers.

Instead, what’s happened in Washington State is that the state legislature has essentially throttled the ability of municipalities to institute a progressive tax at the same time as it’s giving out $9 billion in handouts to Boeing executives.

So, I think that we first have to understand that small businesses need to understand that they are being slammed by the same system that is pushing workers to the bottom. We need to fight together on this. And my latest proposal would require big businesses to pay $15 an hour right away, but would give small businesses and non-profits a phase-in period.

Holland: There was a recent study that went back and looked at past minimum wage hikes, and it found that none of the business community’s claims that they would destroy jobs came to fruition.

You mentioned that about seven in 10 Seattle voters favor a $15 minimum. Do you get the sense that the business community has cried wolf one too many times, or are warnings that jobs will be destroyed by just about every progressive policy still potent?

Sawant: Both as an activist and an economist, I think the business community has been crying wolf. The data is so decisive; the data shows, from many, many different cities and states, that an increase in the minimum wage actually benefits the local economies. None of the apocalyptic scenarios that have been painted in all this fear mongering have come to fruition. In fact, minimum wage increases have had very little impact on employment levels. Restaurants and other businesses in San Francisco actually have thrived compared to nearby areas that didn’t increase their minimum wage. The data clearly indicates that all these fears are misplaced.

But as far as whether people believe that Seattle businesses are really just crying wolf, I think that’s a question that is up to the movement. Think of the tens of thousands of workers who will benefit from $15 an hour but are so bogged down in earning a living — in trying to put a roof over their head — that they don’t have the time to engage in these discussions, they don’t have the time to read the economic articles that I’m reading. So whether or not these myths will have a mark on the consciousness of Seattle’s voters is a question to the movement here in Seattle: how much are we as activists — as people who are fighting for this — how much are we willing to go out there and engage with the community, especially with people of color and women — some of the most marginalized workers — and make sure that they are on the same page, that they understand that there is no downside to this other than the fact that businesses will have to accept slightly lower profits, but there is no downside to the economy and workers have only a lot to gain and nothing to lose.

That’s a task for the movement, which is why I’ve helped launch 15 Now, which isn’t limited to Seattle — we have several chapters across the nation.

Holland: I’m going to switch gears briefly. You recently made what The Stranger called “minor history” for voting against accepting a Department of Homeland Security grant for facial recognition software for the Seattle Police Department. These grants are usually just rubber-stamped by city councils because they’re happy to take the money. Can you tell me a little about what went into that decision?

Sawant: I’m not sure how many of your readers are aware, but the Seattle Police Department was recently under a systematic investigation by the Department of Justice and is under a consent decree right now from the DOJ. The DOJ found evidence of systematic excessive use of force by the SPD against youth, people of color and activists.

I think that it’s really problematic, yet the entire city government is rubber-stamping something like this without even asking questions about handing over money to the same police department that has been implicated in wrongful use of force. What are we going to do to correct those problems first?

Also, a lot of the funds would be allocated to a fusion center [a data sharing facility for law and intelligence agencies — Ed.], which has a long history of targeting activists. The fact that I was the sole ‘no’ vote is an indication not so much of my courage but the fact that we really, really lack any kind of representation for ordinary people. It shows that we need many more independent candidates who have the courage to challenge the establishment and say ‘no’ to business as usual.

Holland: You’ve been in office for a short time, and you’ve been attacked very, very heavily — there’s a petition calling for your recall. Some have criticized your video rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union Address because it was done with city resources. How are you responding to these attacks?

Savant: I’m not surprised by any of these attacks. In fact, if the establishment wasn’t attacking me, I would be wondering if I’m doing something wrong.

Because the whole point of having a socialist on the City Council — the whole point of having an independent, pro-worker voice in City Hall — is to challenge politics as usual, and if you’re genuinely doing that then you’re going to ruffle some feathers and you have to be okay with that.

I have no response to the people who are making these accusations against me because I know that they are defending the establishment. But to the people out there who have put this faith in me and who want me to continue fighting, I think that if I stopped fighting they would be concerned.

I want to make sure that everything I do inspires other people into action and inspires them to see that this is not about one person. We could change the political balance of power not only in Seattle but everywhere.

I don’t think people are worried that there’s a recall campaign against me. People are frustrated with the fact that for decades we haven’t had voices like mine in government, where there’s at least one person who’s actually standing up for our rights and not being apologetic, not being weak in the knees.

Holland: I want to ask you about being a socialist. It’s understood in the academic world that the word can mean a number of different things — it includes a Scandinavian-style socialism, for example, where there’s a free market paired with a robust public sector.

But when many people hear “socialism,” they think about the state controlling the means of production. It conjures images of East Germany, the Soviet Union.

If you are a social democrat in the Scandinavian mold, doesn’t calling yourself a socialist make it harder for you?

Sawant: First of all, if you look at our numbers from the election campaign last year, well over 93,000 Seattleites voted for me. I don’t have the illusion that 94,000 Seattleites consider themselves socialists. What they voted for was a real change from politics as usual.

We have a political establishment that is dominated by the Democratic Party — there aren’t any Republicans to speak of here — yet the Democratic Party in this city is very closely tied to developers and multi-national corporations. If you look at the lay of the land here in Seattle, large properties are handed over to real estate developers like Paul Allen’s Vulcan, gets to decide how many resources are allocated for transit that benefits only upper-class people while the rest of our bus service is being neglected. There have been decades of policymaking that are clearly slanted towards the wealthy and big business and everybody understands that.

You don’t have to be a socialist to get it, you have to be just an ordinary person in America. The vast majority of young people especially understand that the economy is not working for them and they are looking for something better. Look at the poll that was done nationwide after the federal government shutdown ended. Sixty percent of Americans said they were fed up with the two-party system — they know it doesn’t work and they want a third party.

This is all an indication of the frustration and the disgust that people feel about the political establishment — about the fact that the big banks were bailed out and the rest of us were sold out. It’s starting to crystallize in people’s minds, but they’re not necessarily calling themselves socialists. What they do want is somebody who will fight for them.

Anybody on the left could have run the campaign that we ran. But they didn’t. We did. And it’s not coincidental — it’s because I’m a socialist that I’m very clear about what I stand for. I’ll never apologize for my support for workers’ interest. I did not take a dime from big business so I’m not beholden to them in any way. I did not curry favor with the party establishment, but I did have a great number of Democratic Party supporters who agreed with my campaign and who campaigned for me because they are tired of their own party officials not doing what they believe in.

So not only do I think that socialism isn’t a barrier, it offers a refreshing change in the conversation.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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