Socialist Seattle Council-member Kshama Sawant offers her rebuttal to President Obama on the economy, raising the minimum wage and police accountability


Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address has been praised by supporters for confidently laying out his agenda for his final two years in office, advancing liberal causes, and addressing economic inequality. Here’s a bit of what he said. ~~~ BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: [T]he verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way. We can’t slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns. We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got to fix a broken system. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it. They will have earned my veto. ~~~ NOOR: This might all sound great for his supporters, but is this all too little too late? Republicans firmly control Congress and have already rejected the majority of President Obama’s proposals. Well, now joining us to respond to President Obama’s speech from Seattle, Washington, is the woman who gave the socialist response to Obama’s State of the Union, Kshama Sawant. Kshama is the first open socialist to be elected to Seattle City Council in over a century. She’s an economics professor at Seattle Central Community College and a member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 1789. Thank you so much for joining us again. KSHAMA SAWANT, SEATTLE CITY COUNCIL MEMBER, SOCIALIST PARTY: Thank you for having me. NOOR: So, President Obama, he focused on his economic vision for the final two years of his office. He said he’ll veto Republican efforts to thwart them. What’s your response? We already know that with the Republicans in control of the House and the Senate, a lot of these proposals were already dead in the water. SAWANT: Well, Obama did make some points that are in the right direction, you know, paid sick and maternity leave. He talked about the minimum wage, he talked about the need to close corporate tax loopholes, and so on. He talked about municipal broadband. And I think it’s important that you’re pointing out that this is happening in the last two years of his administration. But particularly it is after the debacle that the Democrats faced in the midterm elections last year, when the Republicans completely routed them out. And for the moment there’s much more to be said about this, but for the moment let’s give Obama the benefit of the doubt and let’s assume the best intentions. The real question is: how does he plan to overcome the inevitable Republican obstruction? It is going to be a huge obstacle. And more importantly than that, the elephant in the room: how does he plan to fight against the completely entrenched domination of Wall Street interests? How can the Democratic Party do that when they’re taking money from the very same entities? And to carry out any of these actual policies, he is going to have to really fight against that. And I think the reason we’re talking here today is because we’ve shown what really makes things work. We’ve shown that in Seattle. But we showed that by demonstrating how we need an independent political alternative for working people. We fought against the entrenched political establishment and succeeded in winning $15 an hour. That’s how we did it. NOOR: And that’s the next point I wanted to bring up in Obama’s speech. He said it’s time to raise the federal minimum wage. Here’s a bit of what he said. ~~~ OBAMA: It’s 2015. It’s time. We still need to make sure employees get the overtime they’ve earned. And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: if you truly believe you could work full time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise. ~~~ NOOR: So that was President Obama talking about raising the minimum wage. And the federal minimum wage is just $7.25 an hour, but Obama wants to raise it to $10.10. Is that enough? You spearheaded a campaign in Seattle to get it raised to $15 an hour. SAWANT: Yes. Clearly, the minimum wage, the federal minimum wage, at $7.25 and subminimum for tipped workers in many states is completely anachronistic, completely behind the times, and completely incapable of allowing families, working families, to make ends meet. And as a socialist, I would support any measure that would increase the minimum wage, even if it’s $10.10. Let’s do it. The real question is this: why haven’t the Democratic Party leadership actually provided the leading effort on this? I would say that throughout last year, when they were struggling to keep their foothold on Congress and not just in Washington, D.C., but all throughout the states, if they have shown leadership on the minimum wage issue, if they had followed what mass movements were doing in Seattle and in other cities, then they could have prevented the Republican takeover of Washington, D.C., that they are now fighting against. So, again, the question is: if he is truly going to fight for the minimum wage increase, how does he plan to do that in the face of Republican domination? They didn’t do this when they could have actually got it passed. And so I think the main point that we need to focus on is to step back from Obama’s words and look at what has actually succeeded in all of last year. What was it that allowed us to start making a pushback against this stunning economic inequality that is crushing so many working families? What did it was the building of a mass movement. Seattle led the way. But the way we did it was by campaigning through an independent working-class candidate, winning a seat on the City Council by the labor movement, by low-wage workers taking strike action and showing the genuine leadership. And then we saw the victory in Seattle taking the minds of workers everywhere in the country by storm. We saw the huge win in San Francisco to the $15 an hour that they were able to pass. Now we are seeing states like Minnesota making a huge push towards that. And the main point, again, here is that in the same election that Republicans won such a big victory against the Democrats, in the same elections, four states had worker initiatives for minimum wage increase, including Nebraska and South Dakota, which are Republican-dominated states. How is it possible? If America were indeed moving to the right, how could these progressive initiatives pass? It shows you that the majority of working people are well to the left of what U.S. Congress or what Obama is willing to fight for. And so the take-home lesson is not to stand here and wait for Obama with bated breath waiting for him to deliver something in the waning of his presidency, but to really take charge and keep pushing for the movement that have already succeeded. This is the time to push for a bigger mass movement, to push for $15 now to take hold in many different cities, to make sure that we win $15 an hour or any other minimum wage increase that we can win, all throughout the nation, and keep pushing back against this economic inequality. NOOR: President Obama also addressed the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and subsequent national protest. Here’s a bit of what he said about that. ~~~ OBAMA: We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. And surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. And surely we can agree that it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves all of us. ~~~ NOOR: But as you noted your state of the union address Tuesday night, President Obama never said “black lives matter”. He never addressed racism being the root cause of these tensions and these killings that are happening all over this country by law enforcement. SAWANT: You’re absolutely right. President Obama, neither last night nor any time since the Ferguson movement happened, has ever said “black lives matter”. But we need to go beyond the rhetoric, even. Not only has he not said “black lives matter”, but throughout his presidency, what vision has he provided to actually address the scourge of racism? In reality, America has become a much more racially and economically divided society under him, and although youth of color, the people of color that campaigned in historic numbers for his first election and then helped to get him reelected, they have seen no tangible changes in their lot. And we’re talking about police brutality as a big issue, the killing of one black person every 28 hours by police and vigilantes, and we’re also talking about the fundamental problem, which is the underlying economic and social divide in our society and how do we actually address this. In order to do this, we need concrete and radical measures against corporate domination of our politics. We need to rescind all the massive corporate tax loopholes. We need political leaders who are going to show real leadership in making sure that there is funding greatly expanded in order to make sure that working families, primarily those who are poor–and many of them tend to be black-headed or headed by single women, we need to make sure that they are hugely prioritized. None of this appeared in either his speech last night or throughout his six years. And so, once again, we need to take note of the fact that starting in August, this movement that began in Ferguson and that has spread nationwide, this is the first significant challenge to the racism in our society, and it’s the first black-led movement that is coming into the ascendancy since the 1970s. So what’s our job? Once again, our job is not to look up at Obama and hope that he leads the way, but to lead the way ourselves by pushing for mass movements against racism throughout the nation and pushing for concrete reforms on the police questions. NOOR: We’re going to have to leave it there, but Kshama Sawant, thank you so much for joining us. SAWANT: Thank you. NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

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Kshama Sawant

Kshama Sawant is the first open socialist to be elected to Seattle City Council in over a century. She is an economics professor at Seattle Central Community College and a member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 1789. She was an activist in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and is a fighter for workers, women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants through her work in the organization Socialist Alternative.