Millions of working people around the country, in the midst of this historic crisis of capitalism, have been inspired by the demand for a $15/hour minimum wage. 

The first victories for $15 were won in Seattle and nearby Seatac, later popularized by Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential campaign, and recently proposed as part of the new federal stimulus plan by new Democratic President Joe Biden. Our win in Seattle represented a $3 billion transfer of wealth from big business to the lowest wage workers over a decade, benefiting women and people of color in particular, at a time when $15 was being painted as “utopian” by the corporate media.

This week, millions of people were disappointed to see an almost immediate removal of the $15 minimum wage from Biden’s plan, under pressure from big business. Last week, Biden privately told a group of governors and mayors that the $15 minimum wage hike likely isn’t happening.

So what strategy is needed to win $15? Can we have confidence in any of the corporate Democratic politicians to follow through on their promises?

If the experience of Seattle is any guide, the answer is a resounding no.

Seattle’s historic $15/hour minimum wage was won as the result of a socialist strategy, basing itself on independently and democratically organized mass movements. It was not won through the strategy of most of the labor leaders who had been organizing Fight for $15 protests, but who relied on negotiations with Democratic politicians or big business.

A Trailblazing Socialist Election Campaign

In November 2013, I was elected as Seattle’s first socialist in nearly a century after running a campaign centered around the fight for a $15 minimum wage. This was of course well before Bernie Sanders’ first presidential run or the elections of Squad members to the U.S. Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The following year, less than six months after I took office, Seattle became the first major city to pass a $15 minimum wage, and kicked off campaigns and victories for $15 in dozens of other cities.

How did this happen? 

In January of 2013, Socialist Alternative and I organized the launch of a socialist election campaign for Seattle City Council, against a 16-year Democratic establishment incumbent. We did so in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement, recognizing a new openness for socialist ideas and class struggle.

From the beginning we called for a $15 minimum wage. As our grassroots campaign progressed, and fast food worker strikes were beginning to develop around the country, we increasingly put $15/hour at the forefront of our fighting platform.

Also from the beginning, we received a great deal of pushback from Democratic Party operatives. I was told that I should not call myself a socialist if I wanted to be elected, and that $15 was too high and just not winnable. Not one Democratic politician or candidate in Seattle spoke in favor of $15 at the time, even after our campaign built huge momentum and I came in second in the August primary election.

A few prominent labor leaders who were organizing the fast food worker protests were also unhappy with our campaign for $15/hour. Interestingly, that same year, many of the same labor unions were campaigning for $15 and other workplace rights in the small nearby city of SeaTac, whose economy is centered around the regional airport. But they believed that $15 was not winnable in a major city like Seattle, and that we were not helping the cause. They repeatedly urged us to stop calling for $15. They themselves began building a Seattle campaign against wage theft instead, because they thought it was a mild enough demand that big business would not strongly oppose. They refused to endorse our campaign, and instead supported my corporate Democratic opponent, who opposed $15.

Despite this, we sought in every way to build up a dynamic and connection between the Seatac struggle and our own fight. We had hundreds of conversations with rank-and-file airport workers, and spoke publicly in solidarity with the SeaTac campaign and against the right wing think tanks and anti-worker City Councilmembers.

Our grassroots City Council campaign, centered around $15, taxing the rich, and rent control created a powerful dynamic as a long overdue alternative to business-as-usual politics. We succeeded in putting $15 at the center of Seattle politics. It began to be earnestly discussed everywhere by those in favor (most workers) and those opposed (most of the wealthy). Workers at restaurants, seeing me or our volunteers wearing bright red $15/hour campaign t-shirts at their tables would sometimes ask, “What is happening with the $15 minimum wage? Is it really going to happen?” 

A few weeks before the general election, the two Seattle mayoral candidates took up $15 under pressure from our campaign and union members. Soon-to-be Mayor Murray pivoted toward the issue first, likely in a pragmatic effort to get some of that $15 mojo our movement had created, to gain a final edge in his tight race.

After we won, the union leaders who had not endorsed our election campaign said they wanted to work with us to win $15. They noted that despite their endorsement of our opponent, most labor rank and file had been inspired by our campaign and had voted for us! We went to work on $15 alongside them, while making it clear our strategy would be based on mass movements, not negotiations with corporate politicians or big business.

Socialist City Councilmember

In early January, a few weeks after I took office, two of the corporate Democratic Councilmembers dropped by my office to warn me that even though I had rabble-roused my way into office, I was not going to win $15/hour, and that City Hall ran on their terms. I likewise informed them that things were about to change in City Hall – that I would base myself on working-class movements. As I said in my inauguration speech a few days later, “Let me make one thing absolutely clear: There will be no backroom deals with corporations or their political servants. There will be no rotten sell-out of the people I represent.”

On January 12, Socialist Alternative and I launched the 15 Now grassroots campaign along with progressive labor unions. We organized mass conferences, launched “neighborhood action groups”, and held a series of marches. Then, in a conference attended by hundreds of working people, with democratic discussion and voting, 15 Now decided to file a grassroots ballot initiative so that we could take the issue to voters if Democratic City Councilmembers failed to act. 

We also published a series of op-eds countering the political attacks carried out by the establishment and big business. We did not make arguments that $15/hour would be “good for business” or accept any of the arguments for watering it down, but instead relentlessly exposed all the lies of the ruling class – that big businesses “couldn’t afford it” or that if implemented, it would kill jobs and lead to economic apocalypse.

All of this was crucial, because neither the Democrats or their big business bosses had any intention of allowing a real $15 minimum wage. 

Nonetheless, a section of big business and the Democratic establishment had drawn the conclusion that it would be poor strategy to openly oppose $15, because they saw the huge support we had won for it over the course of the election. A poll in January showed 68% of Seattle voters supported $15. So they decided instead on a strategy of ensuring only a severely watered-down law as a symbolic measure. Rather than attacking it headlong, their plan was to lower the number from 15, get permanent carve outs of big sections of workers – including tipped, fast food, and disabled workers – and a sunset clause to make the wage increase temporary.

A Shop Steward for Seattle’s Working Class

Their immediate step was to have newly-elected Democratic Mayor Ed Murray launch what came to be known as the Income Inequality Advisory Committee (IIAC). The IIAC was going to include prominent labor leaders, NGO leaders, and many local corporate barons who were fiercely opposed to 15, and who did not bother to conceal their disdain towards workers and me. Included were the Chamber of Commerce, leaders of the restaurant industry, the hotel industry, and Nucor Steel. Howard Wright, owner of Space Needle, and David Rolf, the then President of SEIU 775, were appointed co-chairs.

Murray invited me on to the IIAC, perhaps thinking that we would refuse, which could marginalize the working-class movement, and allow the establishment to portray themselves as the ones actually doing the work on 15 while we were merely grandstanding on the sidelines. Alternatively, they might have hoped to be able to co-opt us to some degree into their agenda. (They learned their lesson after the 15 fight, and I was not invited again to sit on any such establishment-led committees.)

With potential dangers on both sides, the question of whether or not to accept this invitation is a real-life example of the complicated tactical questions working people’s representatives and movements will need to navigate in a principled manner. 

Socialist Alternative discussed and decided that I would accept it – but on our terms. I met with Mayor Murray and told him I will participate in the IIAC, with the caveat that I would no be in any constrained by the decisions of the body, that I was not going to be accountable to the members of the IIAC but to working people, that I was not going to follow a nondisclosure policy, and that there needed to be a strict deadline for the conclusions of the committee to allow time for a ballot initiative to be run in 2014 if the City Council failed to act. He was forced to agree to that. 

A few days later, at the IIAC launch press conference, I said that I will serve on this committee as a shop steward of Seattle’s working people. 

A Socialist United Front Method

The labor members of the IIAC and I had separate meetings as the Labor Caucus of the IIAC, which as a rank-and-file member of teachers union AFT 1789, I attended. At one of these Labor Caucus meetings, during a pivotal moment when the 15 Now street movement had been gaining ground, one of the most influential labor leader in the $15 movement said that they had talked to the business leaders on the IIAC, and that things were at an impasse, that they were convinced we were simply not going to get $15. They said that maybe $12/hour was viable, and that we should back down now and win what we can. 

This was stunning, because it was not at a moment when the movement had declined or been thrown back. Support for 15 was stronger than ever, and more and more people are willing to march on the streets. It was, in fact, the moment to sharpen the pressure on big business. Some of the other labor leaders also seemed to disagree with this proposed capitulation, but were unwilling to push back. So it was left to me to say that I strongly disagreed, and that giving in now would be a betrayal of working people, and that while I much preferred that we remained united in our tactics, I would have to break with them if they insisted. The labor leader who had advocated for this position responded by backing down from it, and we continued in a united way, which was beneficial to the $15 movement.

This is a good example of how as socialist elected representatives, whether in legislatures or in the union movement, our unity has to be with working people, not those who are reluctant to take on a fighting strategy, even when they are well-meaning progressives or labor leaders.

Following our launch of the 15 Now campaign, the prominent labor and NGO leaders (many of whom were on the IIAC with me) formed a separate, closed-door coalition called “15 for Seattle.” They allowed Socialist Alternative to formally participate in 15 for Seattle, but things became tense when they soon disagreed with us about the need for a ballot initiative threat. 

We made repeated attempts to get the ‘15 for Seattle’ coalition to at least “agree to disagree” on the issue of the ballot initiative tactic. But things still came to a head, and they decided to remove us from the coalition. While there was nothing we could do to stop this, we urged them that it was not in the interest of the $15 movement to make that split public, to which they agreed. We also continued to work with progressive union leaders within 15 Now, in particular with Unite Here Local 8, whose members and leadership were active in the movement. This is an example of socialist united front tactics of building principled unity in a mass movement.

The 15 Now ballot initiative threat was absolutely vital to winning. It was later publicly acknowledged by big business leaders that they had had no intention of conceding and allowing their corporate City Council Democrats to vote for the $15 bill, had it not been for the credible threat of the ballot initiative. Socialist Alternative and 15 Now were correct to not to back down on that issue, while making patient efforts to win unity where possible within the coalition.

Can a Federal $15/Hour Be Won Without Class Struggle?

The disagreements between our socialist strategy to win $15 and that of the prominent labor leaders’ reflected the crucial debate between class struggle methods on the one hand and avoiding conflict with business executives and the Democratic Party on the other.

Seattle’s struggle for $15 demonstrates that a strategy by movement leaders and working-class representatives of prioritizing peace with big business and the establishment not only shackles the movement, but it can potentially be fatal.

While most labor and progressive leaders are clear that the Republican Party is openly hostile to workers, they have been closely tied to the Democratic Party and its disastrous neoliberal policies for decades. The Democratic Party has key differences from the Republican Party, especially its right wing. However, both these parties have one thing in common – they serve Wall Street and the wealthy. For decades, the two-party system secured a relatively stable rule for U.S. capitalism. Democrats occasionally allowed minor reforms to be won from time to time as a kind of safety valve – with the aim of preventing sharper clashes and upheavals, and sustaining illusions in the system – while at the same time presiding over massive inequalities and poverty. The American working class has seen cratering living standards, a healthcare crisis, and body blows dealt to basic funding for public education, housing, and services. The pandemic has put all this into sharper relief, with the brunt of the crisis landing on working people. In these circumstances, the Democrats are being forced to go beyond their normal neoliberal approach, but they will not easily concede or fight for gains that would meaningfully improve the lives of working people in a serious way.

While millions of American workers are still unionized, not only has union density plummeted, ideas of business unionism have transformed many unions from their proud militant class-struggle-based history into lobbying organizations preoccupied with maintaining good relationships with Democratic politicians and the corporate bosses. 

In contrast, victories for the working class throughout history have only come about when movements and their leaders and representatives have adopted a class struggle approach. When workers and union rank and file have been mobilized into action in democratically organized movements. When we have recognized who is on our side and who isn’t. We can’t afford to have illusions in any corporate politicians, including the new president, if we hope to win a federal $15. 

What Strategy for Bernie and the Squad

For Bernie Sanders and the Squad, winning a federal $15 will not be mainly a question of writing a bill and formally bringing it forward, much less the ins and outs of parliamentary mechanisms like the budget reconciliation process. The Democratic Party’s history is littered with progressive bills that never achieved more than a symbolic existence. And $15 will also not be won by the Squad making reasonable arguments to the Democratic establishment – this is not going to happen. Instead, the Squad needs to fight for it to stay on the agenda by beginning a public fightback and basing themselves on the strength of the working class. This will put them in open conflict with the Democratic establishment, which cannot be avoided. They should use their elected positions alongside the labor movement to rally millions of working people into mass action. They should begin by calling mass conferences on $15, as we did in Seattle but on a national scale, and then build the momentum of millions to put big business and the establishment on notice.

We of course work with Democratic politicians on issues where we agree, and that are in the clear interests of working people, and always have. But this can never mean limiting yourself to what is acceptable to the political establishment, or basing yourself on insider deals, and then trying to force working people to accept marginal changes to avoid conflict. It cannot mean holding back criticism when Democratic politicians sell out working people. 

Ultimately, the Squad, Bernie Sanders, organizations like the DSA, and progressive union leaders need to draw this to its logical conclusion and begin building a new, working-class political party independent of the Democrats. 

Fighting for fundamental change for working people will require an immediate break with the Democratic Party and the building of truly mass movements of the working class. It will require courage, and a willingness to be in a minority at times. And it will require fighting alongside working people and marginalized communities in their struggles while helping our class raise its sights to what is possible, and in fact necessary, if we are to take on the urgent tasks that face us in this period of historic crisis.

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