After a decade on Seattle City Council, socialist Kshama Sawant is declining to seek reelection and will instead launch a new national coalition called Workers Strike Back this March in cities around the US. The goal of Workers Strike Back is to build an independent workers’ movement that fights for the interests of the working class, rather than the agenda of either corporate party. This coalition will organize for a $ 25 an hour minimum wage, build grassroots labor unions, fight for a clean energy transition, battle anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation, and more. Kshama Sawant joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss the launch of Workers Strike Back.
Kshama Sawant has spent 10 years on the Seattle City Council, during which time she accepted only workers’ wages, increased the minimum wage to $15, and fought to increase taxes on Amazon. Sawant is a member of Socialist Alternative.
Production: Cameron Granadino, David Hebden, Adam Coley
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Audio Post-Production: Tommy Harron
Chris Hedges: Kshama Sawant, a socialist who served for over a decade on the Seattle City Council, has announced she will not seek reelection. Instead, she will launch a national coalition called Workers Strike Back this March in cities around the country. This coalition will organize for a $25 an hour minimum wage, build grassroots labor unions in corporations such as Amazon, and advocate for a shorter work week without a cut in benefits and pay. It will also employ strikes when its demands are not met. It will work to build a massive green jobs program that can employ millions of workers in clean energy and prevent climate catastrophe, along with public ownership of the big energy corporations.
“Only the bosses profit from divisions among the working class,” she notes. Workers Strike Back will be a united, multi-racial, multi-gendered movement of working people. It will battle anti-trans legislation, and stand against all right-wing attacks on LGBTQ+ people. It will organize to win legal, safe, free abortions for all who need them. It will campaign to end racist policing, putting police under the control of democratically elected community boards with full power over department policy, hiring, and firing.
Her new labor organization calls for rent control, with no rent increases above inflation, as well as a massive expansion of publicly owned, high quality affordable housing, by taxing the rich. “We’re dying from unaffordable healthcare,” she notes, “As the pharma bosses and for-profit health insurance industry makes money from our sicknesses.” She and Workers Strike Back will call for free, state of the art Medicare for all, owned and democratically run by working people.
“The Democrats and Republicans both answer to the billionaire class. That’s why working people,” she writes, “keep getting screwed. Even so-called progressives in Congress,” she notes, “have completely failed to fight against the establishment, and offer no solutions.” The elected leadership of Workers Strike Back will accept only the average worker’s wage, as she did when she was a member of the city council.
Sawant, in her decade as a member of the Seattle City Council, has had an impressive track record. She helped win a $15 minimum wage for Seattle workers, pushed the council to tax Amazon, and championed renter protection as the chair of the Renters and Sustainability Committee. She joined the Socialist Alternative Party in 2006, and since then has helped organize demonstrations for marriage equality, participated in the movement to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was involved in the Occupy movement. She’s an active member in the American Federation of Teachers Local 1789, fighting against budget cuts and tuition hikes.
Joining me to discuss the launch of Workers Strike Back is Kshama Sawant. So let’s begin with your tenure at the city council. I listed some of the achievements you and Socialist Alternative managed against fierce opposition, including a recall attempt to remove you from the council. What you managed to achieve. Why this break with local politics? Why this shift?
Kshama Sawant: As you recounted yourself, Chris, we have, in the near decade that I’ve been on the City Council, we meaning Socialist Alternative and I, have demonstrated a phenomenal example of what can be achieved when you have an elected representative in office that is unflinchingly tied to building movements of working people, and the marginalized, and the oppressed, and understands that, as a representative of working people, your job is not to make deals with the Democratic or Republican establishments. Not to make friends with your supposed colleagues in the halls of power. But instead, your loyalty lies with the people who suffer under the system of capitalism and through the policies of the parties of big business.
We have won numerous victories, as you were also talking about. We feel that, at this point, after a decade on the city council, it is important for us to share the lessons of how we won this, and what it took to win these, what it took to overcome the dogged opposition of the ruling class, of the wealthy, of corporate landlords, of billionaires like Jeff Bezos. To take this message of a fighting strategy. How to build fighting movements to win victories for working people. We believe that it’s time to take this message national.
As you also importantly noted, we don’t have this kind of fighting politics virtually anywhere in the United States, and it’s unfortunate. Especially what’s striking is the absence of any fighting left politics in the US Congress. That’s happening in the midst of an historic cost of living crisis. Many young people have only known economic insecurity, and low wages, unaffordable housing that gets more unaffordable every time the landlord jacks up rent. The statistics are just damning. To see how the bottom has fallen from under working people’s lives.
Throughout the pandemic and its aftermath, working people have lost trillions of dollars worth of what was with them. Not only in terms of the recessionary effects of loss of jobs, but the overall cost that they’re going to pay. But it’s not happening in a neutral world. At the same time, billionaires have added trillions of dollars to their fortunes during that same period of the pandemic.
So it really reveals how capitalism is a zero sum game. The wealthy are becoming wealthier, not because they have high IQs or because they’re creative, but because they’re siphoning off wealth from the vast majority of workers. Workers, that’s why, are falling further and further behind. This has resulted in huge anger among workers.
At the same time, what is conspicuously missing by its absence is genuine left leadership, as I was saying before, and as you were saying as well. That’s why we are launching this nationwide movement, Workers Strike Back. Really it should be the labor leadership, leadership of the labor movement, that’s launching this, just like Enough Is Enough in the UK. However, that’s not happened, and we can’t hold our breath that they’re going to do it. That’s why Workers Strike Back is being launched.
As you correctly said, we are raising the demands of a real raise for workers, like $25 an hour. Good union jobs for all. We are also continuing to fight racism, sexism, and all oppression. Again, as you said, free healthcare for all, and quality affordable housing. Bottom line, this is very important, if we are to build a real force on the left for the working class whose leadership does not sell out, we need a new party for the working class where the rank and file of the party can hold its leadership accountable.
Chris Hedges: Is the idea to build a militant labor movement, and out of that build a political party?
Kshama Sawant: I think that that has to… I don’t know if we can lay out a blueprint schematic of the chronology of how it will happen. But absolutely, what you’re indicating is very true, which is that the two things are going to go together. In other words, we are not going to get a new party of a working class outside of building rank and file militancy in the labor movement as well. Those two things are going to go hand in hand.
At the same time, it’s not only about the labor movement as it is today. Because we also have to remember that the vast majority of young people, young workers, where there’s the strongest support for the politics we are bringing forward, most of them are not unionized. Workers Strike Back understands that. We obviously want to specifically and consciously orient towards the rank and file today, who are already within the labor movement. But at the same time, also begin helping to mobilize and organize the unorganized.
You mentioned Amazon. Absolutely, Amazon is a crucial, crucial battle. Right now, actually, Socialist Alternative, my organization, and also Workers Strike Back, the national movement we are launching, we’re already in solidarity with a campaign that Socialist Alternative is leading in Kentucky. The largest Air Hub of Amazon in the world, which is located in Kentucky near Cincinnati Airport, we are carrying out a union drive there. This is extremely important, because this is one of the choke points of the capitalist class. So all of this has to go hand in hand with building the efforts to build a new party.
One other thing I’ll add here is, and then the reason also why these two things are so deeply interconnected, is that one of the key obstacles to building a new party for the working class, to actually have fighting politics that represent the interests of the working class, as opposed to those of the billionaires, is that the majority of the labor leadership has been, and continues to be, tied at the hip to the Democratic establishment. That is not coincidentally existing on its own. That goes hand in hand with the primary strategy of the same labor leadership being business unionism, which is trying to make peace with the bosses.
Trying to make peace with the bosses goes hand in hand with trying to keep the peace with the Democratic and Republican establishment as well. So we need a real break from all of this towards rank and file militancy, whether it’s unionized or not.
Chris Hedges: When you look at the rise of the Swedish socialist state, which the capitalist class managed finally to dismantle, but it was built through strikes. A series of strikes. Very high, I think over 70% of the Swedish workforce was unionized. They used that power to paralyze the country and get what they wanted. I’m looking at your movement, essentially, as embracing that tactic. That understanding that the only real weapon we have is no longer at the ballot box, with the two-party corporate duopoly, which blocks – I worked for Nader, as you know – Blocks any attempt by third parties to build a viable movement. But by mobilizing the working class to cripple the billionaire class through strikes. Is that essentially where you would like us to go?
Kshama Sawant: Absolutely correct. I could not agree more with what you said. In fact, for Workers Strike Back and for building any kind of movement towards concrete victories for the working class, for any of that agenda, using the working class weapon of going on strike has to be an integral component. Without that, it’s not going to work. In fact, this very much goes into the heart of the problem with business unionism as well, and why these ideas are ultimately not only problematic, but actually rotten, in the sense that they negate a very basic reality under capitalism, which is that the interests of the billionaire class, the bosses, the major shareholders, the corporate executives, their interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of workers.
So when you have a majority of labor leadership that is married to the idea of business unionism, then you have a leadership that, for the most part, they consciously refuse to mobilize, activate their rank and file members, because the whole idea of business unionism is that the tops of the labor leadership will quietly negotiate contracts with the bosses. Unfortunately, we’ve seen the history. Often these are filled with defeats for workers, setbacks for workers, rather than what we feel should be class struggle unionism, which is actively organizing the rank and file. Not only organizing them in general, but organizing for powerful and successful strike actions.
Because class struggle unionism recognizes that the bosses will never concede anything unless they’re forced to, because their profits and their position of power and the system of capitalism itself, all of this is directly derived from underpaying workers. From stealing the value of the labor that workers produce.
One of the hallmarks of business unionism is preventing strike actions at all costs. Business unionists put their stress on the so-called bargaining process because they fear antagonizing management by any real mobilization of workers, much less going on strike. In fact, often what you see is the majority of the labor leadership even refusing to carry out militant protest actions, much less go on strike. In fact, not only is it going to be important in general, going on strike. But already, as The Guardian newspaper reported just this past Sunday, that the bosses at corporations like Amazon, it’s not like they’re asleep at the wheel. They know the anger in society. They know that unionizing drives are starting to pick up. They know that young workers are especially angry. So what they are doing is they’re beginning to counter all of that with fierce, old school anti-union or union busting measures.
So how will we push back against any of this successfully? It will not happen through business unionist strategy. It will require a class struggle approach, which is, as I said, rooted in the recognition that workers have to fight against the capitalist class’s interests, not engage in the futile idea of wanting to morally persuade the boss, because they’re not going to be persuaded.
The reason we want the Amazon tax, or the $15 minimum wage, or the series of renters’ rights that we want is not because we made moral arguments to the ruling class, the Chamber of Commerce, or Jeff Bezos. No, they fought tooth and nail against each such movement. Corporate landlords were absolutely against what we were calling for. But we won because we organized rank and file workers, renters, to go up against the might of the billionaire class.
Class struggle unionism recognizes that worker power does not reside in the bargaining room, but outside it. In the workplaces and on the streets. As you said, throughout history, not only Europe, obviously in Europe the labor movement trajectory was much stronger historically than in the United States. But even in the United States, there was a powerful American made worker tradition of militant strike action.
In fact, the New Deal and the creation of the measure of material standards of living that the middle class did get, that came not because of FDR’s beneficence, but because of militant strikes. General strikes, including in Minneapolis. These are historic, earth shattering events that changed the course of history. But that happened because there were Marxist socialists and other courageous leaders of the left who understood that we have to have this fighting strategy.
Today, concretely, we need this strategy to unionize Amazon and other prominent workplaces like that. Also coming up, the UPS contract is up for renewal. The contract of the longshore workers on the West Coast, all the way from Washington to Southern California, they are up for renewal. These are, alongside the Amazon Air Hub, these are strategic choke points for the capitalist class. So it is really crucial that we start educating. Have active discussions and debates inside the labor movement, and outside it, to discuss how do we shut down the corporate money making machine of capitalism, and win over the wider working class for the strike actions, and really win some real victories, and raise the consciousness, the political education of the working class?
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about the Democratic Party. Biden calls himself a pro labor president. Maybe you can mention what happened to the freight rail workers. But the Democratic Party essentially works hand in glove with the corporate community to prevent labor unions, and most of all to prevent strikes. That’s what they did with the freight rail unions, which actually, that’s one of the few groups of workers that retained the right to collective bargaining. The Biden administration took it away.
Kshama Sawant: Yes, it was a deeply shameful moment for president Biden, and all the Democrats in Congress who went along with it to carry out, as you said, historically shameful strike breaking action by breaking the railroad worker strike. In fact, to keep in mind how it’s almost Dickensian, this situation they were facing. On the one hand, you have billionaires like Warren Buffett who are the main owners of the freight railroads. You’ve got the railroad bosses. On the other hand, you have railroad workers who are facing very dangerous working conditions. Even facing loss of life, injury, repeated cases of injury. What were they demanding? Just basic paid sick leave. Here, in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of humanity, these workers are having to fight for these basic needs. What you saw was the complete betrayal by this so-called pro labor president.
But we have to be clear. If we are going to be clear about the Democratic Party, then we also have to call out the role played by the so-called progressives. The Congressional Progressive Caucus – So-called progressive as I called them – The Congressional Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party in the US Congress is 100 strong. The chair of that caucus is Pramila Jayapal, again, another so-called progressive. Then you have all these members of the so-called Squad, who were elected with these high expectations that they will show courage in the face of Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer, and all the power brokers on behalf of Wall Street. What you have seen again and again is repeated betrayals of working people. The betrayal of the railroad workers and the breaking of their strike, obviously, was one of the starkest moments, and I think really crystallized for millions of people.
Obviously I am aware that there are many well meaning people who still may have illusions. But it’s our duty to clarify to them that, “Look, this is what happened.” We cannot just keep thinking that at some point, somewhere, something is going to change, and finally the progressives in the Democratic Party will do something for working people, because they are not. We are seeing repeated betrayals from them.
Now we are seeing the brutal consequences from the Democrats siding with the railroad tycoons. We’re seeing this apocalyptic scenario unfolding in East Palestine, Ohio. So the only way we can come out of this really tragic situation, not only in East Palestine, but all the living standards that have stagnated and slipped back for the majority of the American working class. A non-starter for us to change anything is if we continue putting our faith in the Democratic Party.
That’s another very dangerous component for the left, failing to build a new party for the working class and the Democrats continuing to sell out working people, as the threat of the growth of right populism is still hanging in the air. Because workers are angry. They’re going to be looking for alternatives. In the absence of a genuine left alternative, they are going to end up getting scapegoated by right populism.
In fact, in the wake of the sellout by Biden, some railroad workers feel like, well you know what? I’m going to just maybe end up voting for Trump next time. Because what else is there for me to do? Trump came to power in the first place because there was such massive anger against the betrayals by both the Democratic and Republican parties. Unfortunately Trump ran, he was a con man through and through. He’s a member of the billionaire class. But he ran with this idea, the false idea that he was going to represent ordinary people. Obviously he didn’t. But the threat of Trumpism and right populism, far from gone, is actually growing.
Then the other thing I think to note is, when we were calling, when sections of the left, and Socialist Alternative, and you, and others were calling for Force the Vote, the Squad members like AOC said, you can’t do that. Now we are seeing the rightmost, and some of the most dangerous right-wing Republicans, like the Freedom Caucus, not to mention the MAGA squad within the Freedom Caucus, they showed that Force the Vote can be done, except they showed it from the right.
I have to say, it’s really just terrible that in response to the left asking, ordinary people asking, well the right wing showed how to do Force the Vote. What stopped you from doing Force the Vote for Medicare For All? Unfortunately, AOC’s response was, we can’t do that because it will cause relational harm. Actually, I think that was a rare moment of political honesty. Because what she really means – And this is true – What she means is that it is relational harm. Meaning if your priority is to keep cozy relationships with Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, then you’re not going to fight for working people, because that will cause conflict between you and people like Pelosi and Biden. You will become public enemy number one to them. But that is what is needed.
We need leaders on the left for working people who have the courage to become public enemy number one of the ruling class, and understand that, actually, that is necessary in order to fight for working people.
Chris Hedges: I just want to throw in that part of the contract negotiations for the freight railroad workers was addressing the lack of safety. They warned precisely that because they had downsized or fired so many workers and reduced crews to skeletal levels, and then were also not instituting even basic safety reforms, they completely predicted this horrific chemical spill we’ve seen in Ohio.
Kshama Sawant: Oh, absolutely. You’re totally right, Chris, that the demands of the railroad workers were connected with the actual conditions. This was a completely predictable and avoidable catastrophe that has happened in East Palestine, Ohio. In fact, many of your viewers might know already that these freight magnates, the billionaires, their agenda is to expand profits, obviously. So they introduced a concept that they call Precision Scheduled Railroading. It sounds like something sophisticated. But that’s just, Precision Scheduled Railroading, or PSR, is just corporate speak for, let’s make everything as crappy as we can get away with for railroad workers and working class people as a whole, and take the maximum loot for the billionaires, the major shareholders, and the top executives. Basically what it meant was making the trains longer, reducing the staff, scrapping safety inspections, and lobbying the government to whittle down regulations. This is what’s happening.
In fact, that’s why it’s important also to highlight how we want to use Workers Strike Back as a nationwide movement to raise the consciousness of working people and also start building an alternative to the corporate parties. We are now launching a new petition, hopefully in collaboration with left railroad union leaders and other progressive labor unions, which is a petition, where the demands are that we need to bring railroads into democratic public ownership. Because the East Palestine derailment, and also what happened with the strike breaking shows that we need to eliminate the profit motive from the railroads altogether. Because it’s only when it is owned publicly, by workers, that we will be able to ensure safety measures and stop these preventable tragedies, and not further enrich the billionaires through stock buy-backs.
This petition, in response to the railroad crisis, is also calling for free healthcare for all. Obviously this is an overall demand that rank and file Democrat and Republican voters agree with. But most immediately, obviously we know that East Palestine residents will likely suffer serious, and even deadly health conditions, from this toxic disaster. We know that the railroad tycoons are attempting to evade any liability. So we need, as you said before, free state of the art Medicare for all, publicly owned and democratically run by working people. Of course, again, fundamentally all of this is also still tied to the need for a new working class party.
Chris Hedges: Well let’s talk about strategy. Only about 11% of the US workforce is unionized. I think it’s about 6% are in the public sector. Like the freight railroad workers by law, essentially, can be blocked from carrying out strikes. The billionaire class itself has pushed through a series of measures going all the way back to the 1947 Taft-Hartley act that makes it difficult to strike. But right-to-work laws, very sophisticated union busting, units in large corporations like Amazon, Starbucks, Walmart. So let’s talk about where we’re starting from and what has to be done.
Kshama Sawant: Yes, your point is very well taken. If you look at the proportion of workers who are unionized, it’s abysmally small. These are both historical failures by labor leadership, and also the fact that there has been a real concerted attack against the labor movement in the last 50 years, starting from the neoliberal era. So the reality is that the majority of young people are not in unions. At the same time, the popularity of unions among young people is historically high.
We have to be very clear. If we are going to be building a national movement like Workers Strike Back, then it’s not only for people who are today members of the labor movement. It is also for young people and other workers who are trying to organize a union in the workplace, but they don’t have a union. It is for all working people who want to get organized to fight back. Not just on workplace issues. It’s also, whether it is a housing struggle for rent control,or it is a struggle against oppression.
You mentioned trans rights. In fact, just last week, actually last Tuesday, our office, alongside Socialist Alternative and many South Asian activists, and also union members, we were able to win the nation’s, and in fact, outside South Asia, the world’s first ban on caste discrimination. Caste oppression is one type of oppression. We have to tie the struggles of workers related to workplace issues to these other struggles as well, because the cost of living crisis and the crisis around discrimination and oppression affects all of us in the working class. So we need to build a united movement of that kind.
At the same time, we also want to keep in mind that the struggles inside the labor movement also, even though at this moment encompass a minority of workers, if we can build rank and file militancy within some crucial unions, sectors of unions and sectors of industry, and win some outsized victories through powerful strike action – And I don’t mean to in any way inadvertently suggest that it’s going to be easy. This is going to be a real struggle, and we’re going to have to go head to head against the rotten business unionist ideas inside the labor movement.
There will need to be very patient political education also being carried out. Because many workers are not familiar with labor history, so we have to have respectful debate and discussion inside labor. This is going to be a difficult process, but a necessary process.
But the point I’m getting at is that, if we can get to a point where we can build major strike action in some crucial sectors of industry and win outsized victories through that process, then that will have, again, as you would say, it will punch above its weight. The effect it will have will boomerang throughout the working class, and especially young people will pay attention to it. That is why it’s important for us to both keep in mind that there are non-workplace issues where struggles will break out, like Black Lives Matter. At the same time, there are very strategic workplace situations that we have to pay attention to. That’s why I was also mentioning UPS. I think that is upcoming. That’s the most urgent dialog that we need, with UPS rank and file.
Chris Hedges: So talk a little bit about how it’s going to work. Are you going to try and build chapters in various cities? What are you going to do?
Kshama Sawant: Yeah, we do want to build chapters in various cities. Undoubtedly, we’ll need to have people who are watching shows like this one to contact us and let us know that they would like to do it for the beginning process. In Socialist Alternative, we are launching Workers Strike Back in various cities. In Seattle for example, on Saturday, March 4 will be our official launch. You are going to be part of that obviously, Chris, and some other leaders, including leaders in left labor.
So the launch is going to be on, as I said, Saturday, March 4 at 12:00 Noon Pacific Time at the University of Washington. If you are watching this, and you are in Seattle, you should definitely join us. Regardless of where you are, if you find this message exciting, please look us up on workersstrikeback.org, and get in touch with us.
Just to give you a sense of what we’ve already done, as I said, we fought for this past legislation. We also are launching, as I said, this petition in solidarity with railroad workers and with the people in East Palestine. But aside from that, we are also helping build this union drive at the largest Amazon Air Hub, which I mentioned before. Then we are also helping to organize a network of undergraduate support for unionized graduate students at Temple University in Philadelphia, who are fighting for a living wage.
We picketed alongside American Airlines employees demanding a fair contract. We’ve stood with nurses calling for safe staffing. We joined over 200 union journalists in a walkout against retaliatory firings at NBC. So all of this shows, these early initiatives show that we can build real solidarity in action and class struggle. So I really hope that thousands, tens of thousands of workers and young people take up the mantle of Workers Strike Back, and build branches in various cities across the country.
Chris Hedges: That was Kshama Sawant on her new organization Workers Strike Back. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.