On July 24th, advocates in 50 cities held rallies, marches, car caravans and more to demand single-payer healthcare in the U.S. In the midst of a pandemic that has killed over 600 people and counting in the U.S. alone, the demand for Medicare for All is more popular than ever; ordinary people are ready to fight the deadly for-profit healthcare industry, and the political establishment that protects their interests. Socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant closed out Saturday’s rally at Seattle Center – watch the video of her speech, and read the full text below.
During the pandemic, this last year and a half has laid bare all of the failures not only of capitalism in general, but the failures of the United States’ for-profit healthcare system. But Medicare for All has been a no-brainer since long before the pandemic. In fact, universal healthcare is a wildly popular idea in the United States and even a majority of Republican voters support it.
So the question is not “how can we convince people that we need Medicare for All?” The people know we need Medicare for All. What they are looking for is the strategy to actually win it. And it is time for us to have some serious discussions in our movement.
For decades now, literally decades, the Democratic Party establishment has dangled election-year promises of universal healthcare, single-payer healthcare, or Medicare for All in front of the working class of the United States. And yet the minute they get elected, all of a sudden these Democratic politicians stop talking about it, or start making excuses about why it can’t be prioritized.
At best, progressive Democrats will still talk about it, but not put forward an actual strategy for winning. And let’s be clear: it is certainly positive that there are more progressives and even self-described socialists being elected to the U.S. Congress and in other parts of the government. It is good that these Congressmembers are tweeting about Medicare for All, and some have even brought bills forward. But let’s also be clear: none of this is going to be enough, none of this has been enough, to win Medicare for All.
The healthcare industry is a stunning example of how capitalism works, and the role of the political establishment. The American healthcare industry is a profit-making behemoth for the wealthy, worth an estimated 8.45 trillion dollars, with costs set to rise by an additional 808 billion dollars in 2021 alone. The massive corporations that dominate this industry have their tentacles firmly around the Democratic party establishment.
So it is up to us. It is imperative for us, if we want to save lives, to develop a strategy to overcome this.
How the Canadian working class won their healthcare is a great educator for us. Workers in both Canada and in Western Europe, had long fought for their right to healthcare, but the major reforms began only in the period immediately after World War II, when mass workers’ parties started to be formed as a challenge to the mainstream establishment parties. In Saskatchewan in Canada, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a mass workers’ organization which described itself as socialist, rose to power. Over the next decade, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation won public healthcare in Saskatchewan, spawning copycat programs in two other provinces, British Columbia and Alberta.
These public healthcare plans faced fierce opposition from the ruling class, who fought bitterly against it. But the plans were so successful that throughout the 1960s, workers demonstrated across Canada for the plan to be implemented nationally. At the same time, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation used the healthcare issue as a launching pad to build a national party for working people. And in 1961, the CCF joined with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party (NDP). In 1966, under the twin pressures of organized labor and ordinary workers marching in the streets and the NDP holding the balance of power in parliament, the capitalist Liberal Party then in power was forced to pass a Medicare, universal single-payer healthcare plan in Canada.
This stands in contrast unfortunately to the approach currently being taken by even genuine elected officials and leaders in the movement who unfortunately see forming and maintaining relationships with other powerful Democrats as key in the road to victory. Many of these forces, of course, also advocate for building a movement. But we have to be clear: building a movement is not to serve as leverage on the side as politicians make backroom deals. That is an incorrect notion, we are not going to win Medicare for All on the basis of some amicable, negotiated agreement with the health care corporate billionaires while we are marching on the outside. We are not going to win on that basis.
Using elected office to win concrete victories for movements is impossible – and I say this with my own experience – without being willing to openly speak out against politicians who reject progressive measures, or who say they support it, but then they are not willing to fight for it. Using elected office to win victories is impossible without exposing the betrayals of both the outright corporate politicians and, frankly, even those who may be well-meaning but who refuse to break from big business. Most critically, we have to use our movement’s elected positions to help build serious momentum on the ground, which is the only counterweight to the horrendous pressure of the establishment of the billionaire class.
The #ForceTheVote tactic earlier this year would have been one step in exposing the Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer-led establishment, by forcing them to actually take a stand on Medicare for All in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis. It is only when establishment politicians are relentlessly exposed by our representatives, and they come to fear that exposure, that they end up supporting things that they otherwise would not touch with a ten-foot pole.
Our nearly eight years of experience as a socialist City Council office has also taught us this. Our office has had an unparalleled track record of winning victories alongside movements we helped build: the $15 minimum wage, the Amazon Tax to raise nearly $214 million a year – which we won last year during the Black Lives Matter movement – to fund a major expansion of affordable housing and Green New Deal projects. We have also won unprecedented renters’ rights victories.
But, not one of these victories was won with the support of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, the truth is that we won despite their opposition, and often their blatant attempts to derail our momentum or their behind-the-scenes shenanigans.
We did not win by refusing to speak out publicly against Democrats who opposed working-class demands, with the idea that I need to be nice to “colleagues” rather than calling out their political betrayals. We did not win through my parliamentary calculations of how many votes I had before I was willing to build movement pressure or provoke a debate on the dais.
Changing the balance of forces by activating working people is what wins the “votes.” Just as Canadian workers won universal healthcare by building fighting movements, just like workers in Western Europe, not relying on the parties of the elite, integral to our success in Seattle has been a fighting strategy of street protests and public pressure inside Council Chambers, alongside labor unions and rank and file, community activists, and socialists.
Working people, young people, and the left have a historic opportunity, and an urgent necessity. That is why this day of action is so crucial, because this is the moment to actually fight to win Medicare for All, and to build movements simultaneously to also win the Green New Deal, affordable housing by taxing Wall Street, eliminating student and rental debt, and demanding that billionaire class pay to address this crisis. But it is up to us in the rank and file of the movement to put pressure on all elected officials. Nobody is beyond reproach or critique. All elected officials who claim to stand with working people have to be prepared for a fierce conflict with the ruling class and their political representatives. And let me be clear: this applies not only to legislative elected officials. It applies to elected union leaders, and it applies to non-elected movement leaders.
I want to end by noting that our fight nationally for Medicare for All, and statewide, is also linked to the fight for affordable housing and renters’ rights here in Seattle. Rents have gone up 18.7% in just the first six months of this year. It is a real crisis. and corporate landlords, the land barons and the Wall Street billionaires – they are positively salivating at the idea of even a whisper of an economic recovery, allowing them to raise rents and further exploit working people. That is why we have to doggedly build the fight this year for rent control in Seattle!
I really hope you all alongside the fight for Medicare for All, join us on September 18th for a rally to win rent control in Seattle and even before that, to win two very important renters’ rights victories: one to demand that landlords give six months’ notice for any rent increase, and for landlords who end up evicting their tenants, simply because they raise the rent by 10% or more, to be required to pay those tenants three times the rent so that they can pay for the move. But again, we will not win unless we fight for these important policy measures that we know make a real difference in our lives. So let’s make sure we send a message loud and clear to the establishment and the ruling class that they represent.