In November 1999, the World Trade Organisation convened in Seattle to discuss a new round of trade negotiations. This wet, windy, seaport city was suddenly under the spotlight. The conference was examining the potential to increase globalisation through new free trade agreements and tariffs between its member nations. But thousands of left-wing protesters had a different idea, resulting in a disastrous event with no new trade pact. Fourteen years later, the city elected its first unapologetic socialist to the council.
Kshama Sawant made headlines with her election victory in 2013. Even in liberal Seattle, where the City Council consists only of Democrats and its mayor is openly gay, it’s a significant sign of social progress for an Indian-born political outsider to gain such prominence.
When I ask her about winning an election after trying and failing the previous year, she responds with the optimism of a political newbie:
“We wouldn’t have won in 2013 unless we had run in 2012. I think it demonstrates the importance of running, fighting grassroots campaigns that energise and mobilise ordinary people. That’s the kind of campaign that you need to run, win or lose.”
It might seem odd to focus on a city-wide official from America’s west coast, but the main crux of Sawant’s campaign was the countrywide-focused “fight for $15”: a mass movement of liberals, workers, environmentalists and union members who are campaigning for a nationwide, federally-mandated increased minimum wage of $15 per hour. (At the time of writing, this would be equivalent to over £12.30 an hour in Britain, nearly double our current minimum wage level.)
It started with David Rolf, the city’s most notable union leader. After the victory of the new multi-step minimum wage increase in Seattle, the fight has spread to other cities, including victories in California and New York.
Sawant, an engineer by trade who went on to study and teach economics, remains the only elected candidate of Socialist Alternative, a sub-group of CWI (Committee for a Workers’ International) which last had its greatest influence in British politics as the Labour Party’s Militant wing.
Yes, Sawant is an unabashed socialist who believes capitalism is utterly broken for all workers, and laments the failures of the left particularly fiercely, concluding: “There has been a historic abdication of duty in the last four to five decades . . . they [the left] have failed to provide an alternative to capitalist-style globalisation and neoliberalism.”
But her pragmatism in dealing with everyday issues currently facing her constituents is how she remains well-tuned to reality. This is clear when I ask about the left’s recent inability to organise as well as other political movements, such as the Tea Party.
“It’s important that ordinary working people are brought out onto the streets, are politicised around concrete issues, because people learn through our experience,” she replies, arguing that rights have always been won through contentious battles, and not handed down freely by political and corporate elites.
This is the key observation Sawant shares during our two lengthy phone calls, as it gives an insight into her party’s political strategy: the need for mass engagement. She continues to state the importance of “reading the consciousness of a mass movement of people”, and working out how far people are willing to go – again mentioning the new minimum wage laws being phased into her city.
You might be forgiven for thinking Seattle is a liberal utopia ready to embrace socialism with both arms.
But here reside the corporate headquarters of Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, to name a few, and many others thanks to a booming tech scene. It’s already proving that the new $15 wage law is not having any major impact with regards to employment, a common myth conservatives spread when the discussion of tackling low pay arises.
Seattle has many challenges shared by cities around the globe, and Sawant’s current targets are introducing rent controls and municipal broadband.
When asked how the energy and urgency of her message can be effectively utilised in other parts of the world, she stresses the need to engage as many working people as possible, but also having tangible ideas and “concrete examples” of success.
This is valuable advice for all progressives in Britain and elsewhere right now. Labour is currently in a deep malaise. Corbyn’s muddled and anaemic leadership has created an alternate reality for his admirers, while he himself has a barely existent relationship with his deputy. And his principles seem muddled, exemplified most recently by the tangle this week regarding his stance on freedom of movement. This is all taking place against a Conservative PM who causes the value of the pound to drop whenever she speaks, an excuse in its own right to increase our minimum wage levels.
But it looks like progressives in Britain will end up battling for a universal basic income instead of an equally much-needed jump in our low-wage levels. Finland has begun a trial this year and Glasgow councillor Matt Kerr wants to lead a concerted, cross-party effort to realise this payment for all citizens and scrap our complex, multi-tiered welfare system.
Whatever happens, it’s an example that shows tackling inequality is going to be the biggest hurdle in many parts of the world, not just Seattle.
Back in America, Sawant faces the inauguration of Donald Trump and the fact that insurgent politicians of the left have been squeezed out before. San Francisco’s mayoral race of 2003 shows this, where Matt Gonzalez of the Greens very nearly beat the Democratic Party’s Gavin Newsom. Newsom has gone on to serve as lieutenant in Jerry Brown’s governorship of California.
But she remains optimistic and continues to be defiant. She intends to march in Washington DC on 20 January, along with thousands of others, for what could be the biggest demonstration against the inauguration of a new president.
“This is the best shot in a generation to build massive movements and uprisings, we should go for full force,” she says. Her actions have already produced results for her hometown, where her inclusive approach works with her robust tone. It looks like Seattle’s famous overcast might just be clearing up.