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Why Every Socialist Should View the Video of Kshama Sawant’s Reelection Rally

by George Shriver, co-managing editor, Labor Standard

[NOTE: This is a preliminary comment on one aspect of the 2015–2016 “election cycle,” which is already well under way. Other articles will take up related questions : the Bernie Sanders campaign; the campaign by Jill Stein and the Greens; and the overall issue of how socialists can best relate to and make use of the problem-filled reality of capitalist elections.—G.S.]

Hip-Hop Introduction 0:23
Gender Justice League Exec. Dir. Danielle Askini 12:15
WA State Senator Pramila Jayapal Washington State Senator19:48
Local grass roots activist Abdi Mohamed 30:24
SEIU 1199 NW Nurse Bernadette Haskins 36:53
Journalist Chris Hedges 46:54
Urban League Sheley Secrest 55:55
President SEIU775 David Rolf 1:02:39
Green Party Jill Stein 1:10:54
Syriza Christos Giovanopoulos 1:19:50
Socialist Party member of Parliament Ireland Ruth Coppinger 1:24:04
Kshama Sawant 1:37:22

Virtually every union local in Seattle is supporting the reelection of Kshama Sawant, a young woman originally from the Mumbai region of India who is the first socialist to be elected to the Seattle City Council since the Debs era, a century ago.

That is something all socialists should be aware of. And anyone who views the video of the June 6 rally in an objective spirit will see confirmation of this. It was attended by 900 grass roots supporters who filled the balcony and the main floor of Town Hall.

Labor support for Kshama Sawant now includes the King County Labor Council, the major umbrella group for AFL-CIO unions in the area. In 2013 that Labor Council did NOT support her, although many individual locals did. At her victory rally, after she won the election in November–December 2013, the head of the King County Labor Council stated they had made a mistake in not endorsing her. (The top labor leaders had argued that she was “not a viable candidate.”) In 2015, they are not repeating that mistake.

This shift in the unions’ willingness to support an unabashed revolutionary socialist is a reflection of the deepening crisis of capitalism and growing disillusionment with the existing political structure of the capitalist status quo. Opinion polls show that 60 percent are disgusted with the two main parties and ready for an alternative. Sawant’s victory in 2013 was itself an expression of this radicalizing trend, as was the near-victory of her comrade Ty Moore in Minneapolis in 2013, where strong labor backing for the socialist candidate was a new development, and where several socialist groups, led by the Twin Cities Socialist Action branch, united to support the socialist candidate. That is the trend of the times, and it is showing up even more strongly in the 2015 reelection campaign for Sawant.

One of the scheduled speakers at the June 6 rally last Saturday represented the 30,000 members of the Machinists union at Boeing, perhaps the largest of AFL-CIO unions around Seattle. The willingness of that big local to back socialist Sawant is one more sign of the changing times and of new developments breaking through. Rank-and-file Machinists probably also remember how Sawant outspokenly took their side two years ago when Boeing was threatening to move production from the Seattle region—a blackmail move to force concessions in contract bargaining.

Two speakers at the rally represented the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). One of them, Dave Rolfe, heads Local 775, which represents 43,000 home care workers. That local declined to endorse Sawant in 2013, but is giving her enthusiastic backing now, in 2015. Rolfe’s speech was notable in its radicalism. Perhaps Rolfe is learning something. We should remember that back in the 1880s, Eugene Debs was once a Democrat, but he became a Socialist after being jailed for leading the Pullman Strike of 1894.

Anyone who listens to Rolfe’s speech on the video of the June 6 rally will probably be impressed, as I was, by the passage where he describes how U.S. workers’ living standards and labor rights have been driven down by the employers in the last several decades—and Rolfe denounced both major parties for carrying out these anti-worker policies.

I was also impressed by the speech of an operating room nurse from SEIU’s Local 1199 Northwest. She described her local’s difficult fight against the octopus-like “health care” corporation at the hospital where she works, and praised Kshama Sawant for always being there in support of the union at protest actions during contract negotiations, the only elected political figure to be directly committed and involved with the union’s fight in that way.

At the June 6 rally, a dozen or more speakers represented grassroots movements, from the LGBTQ community and antiracist activists to environmentalists opposing Shell Oil Co.’s giant drilling rig, which U.S. President Barack Obama has given permission to start drilling in Arctic waters this summer and which is now sitting in the harbor of Seattle. This shows how deeply rooted Sawant’s campaign is in current, ongoing social movements, fighting for the interests of working people against the profiteers.

Sawant has taken a leading role in helping to organize the movement for rent control in Seattle and to stop “economic evictions,” such as the doubling of rents that forces people out of their homes. That this is a mass movement can be seen by the fact that 600 people showed up to testify on housing issues at a hearing called by Sawant. In the face of such mass pressure, the developer-friendly candidate for Seattle Housing Authority was forced to resign—during the very week preceding the June 6 rally for Sawant’s reelection.

The campaign to reelect a fighting socialist in a major U.S. city has international significance. This was reflected in the presence of socialist speakers from Ireland and Greece.

This reelection campaign is part of the fightback against the global crisis of the capitalist world system.

A key speaker at the rally was Christopher Hedges, a former prizewinning New York Times reporter who has become radicalized by the crisis of capitalism—see his recent article, “Karl Marx Was Right.” Hedges states a central theme of this important reelection rally: To overcome this crisis-ridden capitalist system we have to smash the two major parties of U.S. capitalism, Democrats and Republicans.

A brief interview with Hedges was posted on a blog of Seattle’s alternative weekly The Stranger the night of the June 6 rally. Among other things, Hedges blasted Bernie Sanders as a sheepdog for the capitalist Democratic Party. Once again we see the essential fact:  An anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti–Democratic Party theme dominated the June 6 rally, and dominates the Sawant campaign.

Some have argued that Sawant and her fellow socialists of the Socialist Alternative party are making a mistake by, for example, having a Democrat State Senator, Pramila Jayapal, be the first speaker at the rally. (In her speech Jayapal said that she and her husband were donating $700 each to the campaign for Sawant’s reelection. Jayapal also promised to work for a statewide ballot initiative for a $15/hr minimum wage, wrongly blaming Republicans only for blocking such a bill in the state legislature.)

Of course there are dangers in having anything to do with the Democratic Party, or with anyone associated with that party—which has historically been the graveyard of social movements.

But what is the real significance of what is going on in Seattle, as illustrated by the video of the June 6 reelect Sawant rally? Isn’t the main thrust and direction of movement in Sawant’s campaign, and at this rally, opposition to capitalism and to its two major parties, which have been institutionalized during the past two centuries? How serious is the danger when a few Democrats give support to a fighting socialist? Isn’t that their contradiction? That’s what we used to say back in the 1960s, when one or two maverick Democrat politicians spoke at a mass demonstration against the Vietnam war.

A valuable assessment of the situation in Seattle appears in an article by longtime Seattle activist and former SWP member David McDonald, “Is Kshama Sawant Really Caving in to the Democrats?” (David McDonald’s article was first posted in mid-March on Counterpunch; it can also be found on the Labor Standard website.) In one passage he makes a particularly telling point:

Objectively, Gossett’s and Jayapal’s endorsement of Kshama Sawant is a split in the Democratic Party’s campaign to bury Sawant. So far from denouncing her, we should congratulate Kshama for her good sense in reaching out to Democrats who can be carved away from the “Die, Trotskyite Bitch” campaign of the Democratic Party [hierarchy], whose admitted spiritual leader Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has let it be known that Sawant’s defeat is his No 1 priority in the City Council elections.