Last week, respected labor leader and Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the MLK County Labor Council, Nicole Grant, raised a number of concerns regarding Socialist Alternative’s endorsements in this year’s city elections. While I disagree with her letter, as a socialist and as a member of the labor movement myself, I feel the question of which candidates unions and the left choose to support is a vital one for working people to discuss.
Socialist Alternative and I believe that pro-corporate, establishment-friendly politics do not serve working class and oppressed people. We support candidates who have demonstrated they are prepared to firmly stand up against the political establishment and unapologetically fight for our interests. Such candidates, at present, are unfortunately all too uncommon.
After careful consideration, and following a candidate forum and democratic process within our organization, other Socialist Alternative members and I voted to endorse Jon Grant for city council and Nikkita Oliver for mayor. Both are running as left independent candidates and rejecting corporate campaign contributions, while boldly campaigning for working class demands like rent control, requiring 25 percent of new development be affordable, taxing the rich and corporations for a major expansion of city-owned affordable housing, and strong independent community oversight to stop police brutality and racial profiling.
Socialist Alternative has a long track record of supporting and actively building the labor movement. Unions are vital organizations for the self-defense of working people against exploitation and mistreatment by their bosses. Of course, as with any movement, there have been and will continue to be debates and differences of views.
It is no secret we disagree with the long-standing policy of the majority of union leaders of supporting the Democratic Party, whose leadership is thoroughly pro-corporate. Here in Washington State and Seattle we have seen again and again Democratic Party politicians side with the interests of big business against unions, people of color, and the environment. In our opinion, this cautious policy of supporting corporate-friendly Democrats seen as most likely to win has meant workers keep losing. Thousands of Boeing workers have lost retirement benefits, public workers have been furloughed, our public schools are illegally underfunded, and meanwhile Washington State is home to some of the most astronomically wealthy individuals in the history of the world.
It was this reliance on the Democratic Party establishment that led the vast majority of union leaders to refuse to support the working class campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016 out of a desire to not alienate the front-runner in the primaries, Hillary Clinton (who herself later succeeded in alienating many union members in the November election).
In Seattle’s last city election, the majority of unions endorsed Tim Burgess, the most conservative member of the City Council, rather than backing the insurgent campaign of Jon Grant. Despite being outspent by almost six-to-one, Grant came close to winning with over 45 percent of the vote. Labor’s support for Burgess unfortunately helped tip the election.
The vast majority of unions in 2013 supported the pro-developer incumbent Richard Conlin when I ran against him for city council, even though he had voted against paid sick leave for workers and was opposed to the $15 minimum wage. Nonetheless, we heard from a great many rank-and-file union members who voted for our socialist campaign based on a $15 minimum wage, rent control and taxing the rich. To her credit, Nicole Grant (at the time, Executive Director of the Certified Electrical Workers of Washington), broke with the majority of labor leaders to strongly support us.
Past differences have never prevented Socialist Alternative or me from supporting the struggles of unions or collaborating closely on many issues. We have no doubt that despite our disagreement over this year’s elections, we will continue our important common work on other issues based on genuine agreement and honest discussion when we disagree.
Donald Trump and the Republican Party represent a serious danger to working people, women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and the environment. We have been at the forefront of organizing resistance to their vile agenda. But let us remember that there are no Republicans on the ballot in Seattle’s election this year. The city council is made up of eight Democrats and one socialist. The responsibility for the affordable housing crisis, weak labor law enforcement, underfunded public transit and social services, police brutality, a $210 million new youth jail, and a proposed $160 million new police bunker lies squarely at the door step of the Democratic Party establishment that has long run Seattle.
Working people, progressives, and especially Seattle’s strong labor unions, do not need to settle for this state of affairs. We can develop our own political party and run our own candidates, independent of corporate cash.
I wish that my sister Nicole’s response to Socialist Alternative’s endorsements last week had not included highly personalized attacks on Jon Grant. The majority of working people are fed up with personal attacks that all too often substitute for genuine debate. We understand that Nicole and many other labor leaders feel strongly about supporting Teresa Mosqueda, who we agree has made important contributions to workers’ struggles. We endorsed Jon Grant and Nikkita Oliver because they have shown themselves willing to stand up to this city’s entrenched Democratic establishment. As I know from personal experience, whoever is elected this year will, from day one, face huge pressures from the pro-corporate wing of the City Council and big developers to adapt themselves to a status quo agenda. History shows that most elected progressives buckle and conform under such pressures.
At times we will need to agree to disagree on certain issues. But we can and must continue to discuss our differences in a mutually respectful manner, focusing on political issues not personalities, and keeping in mind our shared goal of building movements of working people.
Kshama Sawant is a Seattle City Council member, a member of Socialist Alternative, and a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 1789.