Kicking off yesterday’s long, crowded and fiery rally for 15 Now, a new group pushing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, MC Katie Wilson declared: “What we are witnessing now is a rebirth of the left in this county.” It was a remark that framed the two-and-a-half hours and more than a dozen speeches to follow.
Photography by Kyu Han
Yes, the goal at hand is creating a vast increase in the minimum wage. Speaker after speaker at downtown’s Labor Temple both marveled at what Philip Locker, a spokesperson for the Socialist Alternative party, called the “breathtaking” momentum towards that goal and warned of battles ahead.
“There’s going to be a propaganda war,” Locker asserted, contending that big business will attempt to “confuse” and “undermine” workers. Jess Spear, a 15 Now organizer, similarly warned of the “lies” that will be told by “big business.”
We got to this point because of “heat in the street,” SEIU 775 vice-president Sterling Harders told the crowd, her face lit by a ferocious energy and her arm frequently raised and gesticulating. Much more of that heat is going to be necessary now, she said.
“What do we want?” she and numerous other speakers asked the crowd of several hundred.
“15!” they always roared.
“When do we want it?”
But as Wilson alluded to at the beginning, the minimum wage movement is a symbol of something bigger in the eyes of many people at the rally. Many of them are activists far to the left of the Democratic party who have dreamed of a real, socialist-style uprising for many years. Finally, as they see it, their day has come.
And so Robby Stern, a veteran of Students for a Democratic Society, a radical group from the ‘60s, resurrected an old sing-songy chant.
“Power,” he sang.
“Power,” the crowd repeated.
“Power to the workers.”
A special guest was Joe Higgins, who flew all the way from Ireland, where he serves as a socialist member of parliament. A firebrand, he denounced the “criminal” policies of “neo-liberalism,” called for the working class to take control of private resources and said that a minimum wage victory in Seattle would resound around the world because it would happen “in the heartland of capitalism.”
At his remarks, newly-elected, socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who had sat impassively through much of the proceedings, smiled and clapped vigorously.
Sawant’s upset victory in November gives her a chance to take her ideas to the mainstream. She has already had great success with the minimum wage issue, which she ran on, and which has been adopted by the mayor and virtually all city council members. Buoyed, she shows no inclination of watering down her socialist ideals to court further mainstream acceptance. Quite the reverse.
Achieving a $15 wage is an important step, she said when she finally came to the podium as the very last speaker. For that campaign, she pledged $15,000 a year from her $120,000 city council salary. But it is only the first step, she stressed.
Next up: fighting for rent control, a municipal tax and “breaking our ties with those who have betrayed us again and again.” That would be the “two big business parties,” the Democratic and the Republican.
How will this overtly socialist message go down beyond the echo chamber of the Labor Temple? Will it help or hurt the $15 movement? Seattle is a famously liberal city, but not that liberal. Microsoft and Amazon workers kind of like the fruits of capitalism, and probably aren’t going to endorse a state appropriation of their workplace any time soon. It will be fascinating to watch this play out in the months ahead.
In the mean time, members of the crowd may ponder a cautionary note sounded yesterday by Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the M.L. King County Labor Council. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he said of his activism. He kept waiting for this moment to arrive. Finally, it’s here.
And yet, he warned, “We could blow it.” He was speaking not of the danger poised by big business but of “sectarianism” on the left. He spoke of criticism leveled at mainstream leaders from “our anarchist friends” and others on the far-left.
To win, he said, those on the left are going to have to learn to work together.
View a slideshow of the 15 Now event here.