Since the global wave of revolt in 2011, ending with Occupy Wall Street here in the U.S., Socialist Alternative has argued that historic opportunities exist to build a powerful left electoral challenge to the two corporate parties. In 2012 we ran Kshama Sawant for Washington State House, challenging the powerful House Speaker and gaining a historic 30% of the vote for a socialist. This confirmed the widespread thirst for a bold working-class political challenge, and this year we are running three Socialist Alternative candidates for city council in Boston, Minneapolis, and Seattle. Our candidates aim to give voice to the growing movements of low-wage workers, environmental activists, and community campaigns erupting across the country and to popularize socialist policies to address the capitalist crisis facing working people.
Christian Brooks and Dennis Prater interviewed the candidates for Justice.
Interview with Kshama Sawant
Candidate for Seattle City Council Position 2
Christian Brooks (CB): We have seen the tremendous struggle by fast-food workers around the demand for a for $15 an hour wage. However, you found a very different approach from the mayor and other Democratic Party politicians in Seattle. Tell us about that?
Kshama Sawant (KS): The mayor and City Council members say they support raising the minimum wage, but when reporters asked them if they support a $15 minimum wage, they all refused to comment on that. In fact, there is a very interesting article in Seattle Weekly where one official was asked that question and was so stunned that he said he didn’t know how to answer it and had to get back with them, which he never did. These Democratic Party politicians don’t even know how to process such a question.
These Democrats are well-schooled in paying lip service to issues, but only when they can see where the wind is blowing. So, if they see there is lots of support in the city for the demand for higher minimum wage, they pay lip service and say they will support it. That is easy to do. It’s one thing to support the idea of a higher minimum wage, but it’s quite another to support the figure of a $15 an hour minimum wage and actually fight for it. They know, as well as we do, that saying you support it is not enough. It has to be fought for.
CB: You asked to speak at the rally of Seattle fast-food strikers. Tell us what happened?
KS: The rally was controlled by SEIU and the union leaders. They allowed Democrats to speak, but when we asked to speak, they wouldn’t let me, even if we did not mention our election campaign but only spoke with a message of solidarity from my teachers’ union.
At the Fight for 15 demonstration, it really stood out how much passion and energy exists among workers. Workers in stores where Fast Food Forward had not even organized heard about the walkouts and decided they would join them. Unorganized workers are ready to stand up and revitalize the labor movement if a serious lead is given. This is the first taste of that.
The fact that the Fast Food Forward movement is calling for $15 an hour and our socialist city council campaign is making the same demand really strikes a chord with people. Workers are walking off their jobs courageously for this demand. This builds a very clear link between struggles in the streets and the question of creating a political voice for mass movements and for working people. It helps us to argue against this false dichotomy that if you are running for elections, you are a corporate politician and can’t do anything for the working class, and that if you want to fight for justice you have to only do it in the street.
CB: What are some other issues that are central to the campaign?
KS: We are also fighting against the coal export terminal. If there is no fight-back, the coal export terminal will not just be exporting coal to China, but it will be exporting climate disaster. The coal trains will be travelling through many cities, including Seattle. This would lead to horrific traffic snarls and skyrocketing respiratory illnesses. The City Council has passed toothless resolutions against the coal terminal, but the only way to really stop the coal terminal would be for them to break their ties to big coal, big oil, and the big banks that are backing it. We are willing to participate in a blockade to stop the terminal and I am willing personally to be arrested for the cause. Will Democratic Party politicians be putting their bodies on the line to show an example of what is necessary?
Interview with Seamus Whelan
Candidate for Boston City Council At-Large
CB: What made you decide to run for Boston City Council this year?
Seamus Whelan (SW): We ran a candidate in 2007 for Boston City Counil that had a real impact. In the new political situation following Occupy Wall Street, we wanted to test the waters again to put forward our ideas in the electoral field, especially in light of the success of the Kshama Sawant campaign in getting almost 30% of the vote in a congressional race in Seattle last year. It seemed like a favorable time for socialists to take a bold initiative here in Boston.
I work full-time at a city hospital near Boston. I’m a member of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) and I’m an elected union representative on my hospital bargaining unit. I’m also an elected conference rep to National Nurses United (NNU). I put forward a motion, which passed at the National Conference of the NNU, which the MNA is affiliated to, for the NNU to run and support independent candidates. So I wanted to test that here in Boston to see if my union will actually support a real campaign, rather than supporting the passing of a resolution without acting on it.
CB: What has the response been from people on the streets when you’ve been talking to people about the campaign?
SW: Usually we are asked why we are running and if we think we can change anything by running. Our response is, we are not running as politicians, but because we are activists. We are using this election campaign to put forward a vision that there can be an alternative to the establishment politicians, to the Democrats and the Republicans.
We are going to use the campaign and, if elected, the position, as a platform to help build movements that will enact real social change. So our campaign is against the politics as usual, the politics of the establishment, and the politics of big business, against corporate-funded politics. We have an alternative type of politics where we refuse to accept corporate donations, where we pledge to only take a worker’s wage if elected. We will refuse to accept budget cuts and increased taxes on working people while allowing the corporations and the wealthy to pay very small amounts of taxes.
CB: What are the main political issues of the campaign?
SW: Initially, the campaign has oriented to issues we feel are important to Boston voters, such as public education and public transit. A jobs program and a living wage are part of our program. This has now become more prominent with the growth of the fast-food worker campaign for “$15 an hour and a union.”
Working people didn’t cause this crisis, and we shouldn’t pay for it. Boston is one of the wealthiest cities in the country. The U.S. is the wealthiest country in the history of humanity. The resources are there to provide decent living conditions, decent wages, and decent services to working people. The political establishment is not prepared to use those resources to help working people. They aren’t prepared to tax the rich, tax corporations and appropriate those resources. Our campaign puts forward an alternative.
We are also saying that by electing socialists to city council, this won’t just be the election of one individual but the election of an idea – that working people need their own political representation that isn’t funded by corporations. We need elected representation that is accountable and will fight for the interests of working people.
Interview with Ty Moore
Candidate for Minneapolis City Council Ward 9
Ty Moore (TM): In many ways, we wouldn’t be running without the work we and others have done to build up Occupy Homes’ struggle against foreclosures and evictions. I live in what we’ve designated the “Eviction Free Zone,” two neighborhoods heavily hit by foreclosures. We’re trying to build a solidarity network between homeowners facing foreclosure and other working people in the neighborhood to fight back against the banks and the city – and we have been winning victories.
So far, there have been three victories in the Eviction Free Zone and not a single defeat. One of our ongoing campaigns is the case of Jaymie Kelly, who is being evicted by Chase alongside Freddie Mac. Jaymie herself has said she’s not leaving her house except in handcuffs. We’re going to use our campaign to help promote her struggle and stand with her. If I need to go to jail with Jaymie to help highlight that struggle, to highlight what real representatives of working people should be doing, I’m prepared to do that.
DP: What do you say to people who think participating in elections doesn’t change things?
TM: Undoubtedly, the electoral system under American capitalism is rigged in favor of the rich and big business. When they have their way, as they often do, they use the electoral system to provide the illusion that we live in a genuine democracy when, in fact, we live in a system totally dominated by big business and run in its interests. But that doesn’t mean working people can’t use elections as one tool among many to fight for their interests. We don’t have rights on the job. Yet we still use every opportunity, every democratic opening we have, to organize our trade union movement. There’s a lot of anger in society. People recognize it’s an uneven playing field. We can push the debate left and also expose the undemocratic character of the system, which opens the discussion about what genuine democracy should look like.
DP: What specific impact do you see this campaign making?
TM: Already, we have forced the other candidates in Ward 9, and beyond, to begin taking up the demands put forward by Occupy Homes. Things like not using police resources to evict homeowners who are fighting their foreclosure, or exploring the use of eminent domain as a way to take vacant homes for the homeless and to provide principal reduction for homeowners. We help popularize the issue of public ownership of the utilities and have compelled the other candidates to also take that issue up. Our emphasis is that only organized movements of working people can bring about lasting change, and we want to use our election to help build community struggles to push back against big business policies that have dominated this city. That idea has begun to take hold. Even our Democratic Party opponent began to adopt similar rhetoric to try and cut across the growing support we have. It shows that our presence in the race is pushing the whole discussion in Minneapolis to the left.
DP: What makes your campaign different from the campaigns of your opponents?
TM: Our campaign is rooted in the idea that only movements of working people have changed things in history. Effectively representing working people in office is not about building good relationships with pro-business politicians. It’s a question of the balance of power and a matter of whether we are in a position to help develop, coordinate, and add a voice to movements of working people and young people, using every means at our disposal to strengthen the forces of the organized working class, community activists, and oppressed communities.
DP: Can you say something about the issues you’ve seen resonating with people as you’ve spoken with them about this campaign?
TM: Every time we knock on somebody’s door, we open with the Occupy Homes petition asking people to sign up in solidarity with their neighbors, calling for a moratorium on home foreclosures. People know the work we’ve done in the community already and are excited to see someone running for office coming out of that work. If we can get out there with these issues and get into conversations with thousands of residents, we can build powerful foundations for Socialist Alternative and for wider movements of working people in this community.
DP: Is there anything else you would like for people to know about this campaign?
TM: There’s a vacuum, especially after Occupy, which the left can fill with a bold and serious approach. Working people lack representation in this city and in this country. We need a party that will stand up for the interests of the 99%. We think our campaigns can play a big role in establishing that it’s not just a pipe dream, but an urgent and possible project that we need to unite wider forces around.