United States: Undefeated – Lessons from 10 years of a socialist in office

Long before Bernie Sanders and AOC were household names, Kshama Sawant was elected as the first open socialist in Seattle in nearly a century. Kshama has remained the lone socialist on the City Council for the past ten years — with which she and Seattle’s working people have won historic victory after victory.

Grace Fors, Socialist Alternative (ISA in United States)

(This article was first published on 3 January 2024)

Nobody in Seattle has caused more headaches for big business, the billionaire class, and the political establishment than Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative, and the movements we have used this office to build. Longtime corporate landlord lobbyist Jamie Durkan once said every dollar that corporate landlords had spent over the last decade lobbying the Seattle City Council was wasted because of “Sawant’s army” of rank-and-file renters mobilizing to win renters’ rights victories.

Kshama leaves office at the end of this month undefeated, having won four elections despite every attempt by the city’s wealthy, pro-corporate forces to unseat her and the class-struggle politics she represents.

What did our Council office win?

It is undeniable that every time Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative have said “When we fight, we can win,” we meant it.

Just months after Kshama was elected, we built the 15 Now movement and won the first $15/hour minimum wage in any major city. That was a watershed moment that allowed the $15 minimum wage to break into the mainstream, with movements winning the demand in cities across the country after our victory in Seattle. The law we won was also tied to inflation, meaning Seattle’s minimum wage will be $19.97 starting in 2024, at which point it will be the highest minimum wage in the entire country.

We were able to win despite the attempts of many local leaders to sell out the movement, including a prominent labor leader who at one point during the struggle said that $15/hour wasn’t realistic and we should just settle for $11. Kshama was the only one who spoke up, saying she would take this betrayal public if the leading committee watered down the demand.

Kshama’s office also spearheaded the Tax Amazon movement, which won a $100 million annual tax on big business in 2018 — this was then repealed by Democrats in an illegally-organized City Council vote, in coordination with Amazon itself, who waged a fierce campaign against the tax. In 2020, at the height of the George Floyd protests, the Tax Amazon movement returned and gathered over 20,000 signatures from working people on a ballot initiative to successfully pressure the City Council to pass the historic Amazon Tax. The Amazon Tax we won raises over $240 million annually by taxing Seattle’s wealthiest corporations, to fund affordable housing, social services, and Green New Deal projects.

By mobilizing renters and union members, Kshama’s office has also spearheaded a whole series of landmark renters’ rights, such as requiring a six-month notice for rent increases, mandating landlords to pay relocation assistance of three months’ rent upon forcing tenants to leave due to rent increases over 10 percent, a ban on evictions in winter months, and a ban on evictions of schoolchildren and public school workers during the school year. These laws — while not enough to fully protect renters from the bottomless greed of corporate landlords and the politicians who do their bidding without a movement to defend and enforce them—have fundamentally altered the lives of millions of Seattle renters.

At the end of Kshama’s first year in office, we defeated the Stepping Forward program alongside hundreds of low-income tenants. The program, if enacted, would have increased the rents of low-income tenants by 400% over five years, which almost inevitably would have led to homelessness for countless families. Tenants and housing activists organized a series of protests and demonstrations, including packing the Mayor’s office to demand that City officials take decisive action to protect low-income tenants. Together, we were able to force the City Council to send a unanimous letter opposing the program, and succeeded in forcing the Seattle Housing Authority to withdraw Stepping Forward. Over the past ten years, Kshama’s office has helped organize countless working-class and poor tenants in dozens of buildings across the city to fight rent increases and against bad conditionsforcing corporate landlords to concede.

We have won the first ban on caste discrimination in the world outside South Asia, a series of international resolutions including one in solidarity with the historic Indian farmers’ movement of 2020–21, unprecedented resolutions in solidarity with the labor movement and strikes, the replacement of Seattle’s Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the nation’s first ban on police use of chemical weapons as part of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, a law making Seattle an abortion sanctuary and full public funding for abortion services, a resolution making Seattle the biggest city to so far call for a cease-fire in Gaza.

This (extremely abbreviated) record of victories remains unparalleled anywhere in the country.

The rest of the City Council has been made up of Democrats for as long as anyone can remember, and those Democrats fought against every single one of these victories. In 2018, the eight Democrats on the Council colluded illegally behind the scenes to repeal the first attempt at an Amazon Tax to appease billionaire Jeff Bezos. The Tax Amazon movement came back in 2020 to force the Democrats to pass an even bigger tax than the one they had repealed. When Kshama and anti-war activists brought forward the resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza last month, not a single Democrat would second the motion to allow a vote on the resolution. It required 500 workers and activists packing City Hall to force the Democrats to vote on this urgent matter, though the Democrats made sure to water down the resolution before passing it.

Dozens of self-described socialists and progressives have been elected in other cities in the US, but none of them have accomplished anything approaching Kshama’s record. Instead, they’ve settled for a more or less peaceful co-existence with the Democratic Party, which means death for any social movements that could win real victories.

What makes Kshama different?

Kshama takes only the average wage of a worker in her district, donating the rest of her City Council salary after taxes to a solidarity fund for social movements and worker organizing. As far as we could find, there are no other elected officials in the country who have followed this example, whether in the labor movement or in government office. What makes her such a unique example of genuinely accountable leadership?

Some critics attempt to brush off what we have achieved with this Council seat by saying that winning things at the local level is just easier. Some will also say all this was possible because Seattle is such a progressive city. If that’s the case, where are all the other local elected officials doing what Kshama has done with her office, in progressive cities or otherwise?

One peek behind the curtain of Seattle politics will show you exactly how “progressive” it really was before Kshama and our movements altered the political landscape of the city. Long before Kshama was elected, since 1987, Seattle City Council members attended yearly autumn retreats at the invitation of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce (whose corporate lobbyists work for behemoths like Boeing and Microsoft and Vulcan Real Estate). These expensive retreats were paid for with thousands of dollars of taxpayer money, where Councilmembers wined and dined with corporate lobbyists right before budget deliberations began each year.

After taking office in 2014, Kshama was invited to that year’s retreat. Instead of attending, her office publicly denounced it, broke the story to local media and launched the first People’s Budget campaign to fight for a budget that represented the needs of the majority, not the billionaires. Without a socialist representative there to expose the betrayals of even so-called “progressive” Democrats, it is very likely that these retreats would have continued unbeknownst to working people.

Through a decade of yearly People’s Budget campaigns, Kshama’s office alongside community members, union members, and activists have won hundreds of millions of dollars for transitional housing for homeless neighbors, new affordable housing, renter organizing, mental health services for workers and students, restorative justice programs, cultural programs, and more—most of which would have otherwise been cut from the city budget or never funded in the first place.

Winning serious working-class victories has little to do with whether an elected position is local or national, or whether there are more Democrats or Republicans in office. It’s also not about personality, although it is imperative for a serious working-class fighter to be courageous, principled, and unshakeable in the face of unrelenting pressure. These are not just individual traits. Most crucially, they flow from genuine socialist ideas and a crystal clear political analysis of the class forces involved.

Part of that political analysis is understanding that as a working-class representative, your task is not to help run the capitalist state alongside Democrats and Republicans, only in a slightly more humane way. Your task is to disrupt the status quo, to use that elected position to mobilize and organize working and young people into struggle around concrete demands. By exposing the parties of big business for what they are, that is, fundamentally unwilling to meet the real needs of the working class, you explain the fightback needed to win working-class victories. Exposing sell-out politicians is especially crucial when it comes to Democrats who call themselves progressive or pro-labor, because at the end of the day they will do the bidding of the establishment, and working people need to know who is actually on their side.

Inevitably, this means that the day-to-day experience of genuine working-class representatives in the halls of government will be brutal. Kshama has said that people often think it’s the bloated salaries and corporate cash that keep politicians in line and keep them selling out. And there’s truth to that, which is why Kshama takes home only the average worker’s wage — but it’s actually so much more insidious.

If you dare to break with the establishment even in a small way after they’ve tried unsuccessfully to sweet-talk you into submission, they will then make every part of your life hell. They will do everything in their power to make you miserable and wear you down, sit you down in your own office and tell you they run City Hall, ostracize and isolate you in the hallways, bully you, shout at you in the backrooms, malign you personally, harass and intimidate you, even threaten you in your home. In a moment of honesty, AOC alluded to this, when she said that if you defied the Democratic leadership, you faced “relational harm.” This is what she meant: that she was not going to fight for working people, because if she did, it would spoil her personal relations with the establishment politicians and other powerbrokers of her party.

If you are unable to understand that establishment politicians are not your colleagues but your class enemies, and that they will oppose you if you stand up for working people, you will end up selling out, despite the very best of intentions.

Overcoming this kind of pressure sounds like a Herculean feat, and in a lot of ways it is, which is why it can’t be done alone. It would be impossible for any one individual to withstand the onslaught of the establishment without an organization like Socialist Alternative, which has been the backbone of what Kshama’s office has accomplished alongside working people.

Socialist Alternative’s Marxist program is the first crucial thing that ensured Kshama and the entire organization were clear about how to use the Council seat and what it would be necessary to do in order to never betray the working class. That meant understanding that mass movements of working people are absolutely crucial, when they are armed with a fighting strategy to win. This is how Marxists use elected office.

In Socialist Alternative, if our elected leaders refuse to fight in a principled way, members have the right and the responsibility to challenge them and vote to remove them if called for — this is a model for the kind of democratic accountability necessary in any new party for the working class.

What it took to elect a principled socialist

We campaigned on strong concrete demands that gave working people something not only to vote for, but to join us in fighting for. Unlike progressives and so-called socialists who moderate their politics once in office for the sake of getting re-elected, we campaigned on issues like taxing the rich and rent control. We built powerhouse campaigns with over a thousand volunteers who knocked every door in Kshama’s district multiple times, because they were willing to fight for an elected representative who was serious about winning demands that would materially improve working people’s lives.

We broke voter turnout records and fundraising records, and then broke our OWN records. In 2019, we defeated over $1.2 million in corporate PAC money from Amazon backing our opponent. In 2020, big business and the right wing launched a recall campaign against Kshama for standing with the George Floyd uprising, where they attempted to throw the movement out of office with a low-turnout special election in December 2021. They failed spectacularly when we mobilized voter turnout at 54 percent of eligible voters — which is striking when you consider that voter turnout was only 47 percent in the November general election in our district this year.

“Many progressive politicians want working people to believe that change can happen in some harmonious way,” said Kshama during the 2020–21 campaign to defend her seat against a right-wing recall. “This is simply not possible, and it is a pathway to capitulation. In fact, if you are not facing ferocious opposition from the establishment during your term in office, and if your reelection is a cakewalk, it’s a sign you’re failing working people, because the ruling class does not see you as a threat.”

It hardly needs to be said that working people are in dire need of this kind of accountable socialist leadership. We’re facing catastrophes on nearly every front in society today, and the only way out is with principled leadership that can lead mass movements of working people to victory. In order to have more elected representatives like Kshama, we need a working-class party that provides the framework to hold them accountable and a platform of strong demands to hold them to.

We also need this kind of leadership in our unions. Union leaders and staffers should do what Kshama has done and only take the average wage of the workers they represent, otherwise they’re not tied to the realities of the workers’ lives. In 2021, the president of the union SEIU made over $279,000, while most SEIU members, mainly caregivers and other service workers, make $25,000 per year on average and work multiple jobs.

The fight isn’t over

“I wear the badge of socialist with honor,” Kshama said in her 2014 inauguration speech. “There will be no backroom deals with corporations or their political servants. There will be no rotten sell-out of the people I represent.”

Our socialist Council office has kept that promise. But there are fights to be waged across the country as workers move into struggle in their workplaces and in the streets — they’re looking for the kind of class-struggle approach that Kshama’s office has shown can win. That’s why Kshama and Socialist Alternative launched Workers Strike Back earlier this year: an independent, rank-and-file campaign organizing against the bosses and their political servants. We’re building on the example of the past decade in Seattle on a national scale, to widen and strengthen the class struggle.

Workers Strike Back is already active in eleven cities across the country, and continues to grow (you can sign up to become a member here). Workers Strike Back has recently launched On Strike, a video broadcast co-hosted by Kshama that covers issues from the perspective of workers’ needs, not billionaire greed, with a socialist analysis and strategy to build working-class movements, fight against oppression, and for a new mass party for workers and young people.

The victories of Kshama’s City Council office are singular for this era of politics, and they have been at every moment powered by working-class people and steered by a Marxist method — Socialist Alternative’s method. It is this approach that has allowed a small revolutionary organization to win victories not just in Seattle, but in city after city across the United States. If you believe in the methods of Kshama and our Council office and want to fight for a socialist world, you should consider joining Socialist Alternative.

What Kshama has done did not come without enormous sacrifice, on her part, and on the part of the thousands of workers, young people, rank-and-file union members, renters, activists, and community members who fought alongside her office. Thank you to everyone who has been part of the past ten years of historic struggle — we showed that when we get organized, the working class can tip the balance of power in our favor. We resisted the agenda of the political establishment and big business in Seattle, and we can do it everywhere.

We have so much more to win.