Seattle councilmember launches movement toward new workers party

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Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant is launching a campaign Saturday that calls for a new worker-centered political party.

Joined by political organization Socialist Alternative and others, Sawant is launching the Workers Strike Back campaign. They’ll hold rallies this weekend in nine cities across the country, including in Rust Belt states Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The campaign’s platform includes support for a $25 an hour starting wage, unionizing all workplaces, Medicare for All “owned and democratically run by working people” and “a new, multiracial, working-class party[.]”

Sawant, in office since 2014, announced in January she’ll focus on this movement instead of seeking reelection. The councilmember recently made headlines after Seattle became the first city to ban discrimination based on caste thanks to an ordinance she sponsored.

In an op-ed, Sawant said several self-described democratic socialists in office “have failed to stand up to the political establishment.”

“We saw the historic and shameful betrayal of railroad workers by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including caucus chair Pramila Jayapal and self-proclaimed democratic-socialist ‘Squad’ members such as AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez],” Sawant said, in reference to last year’s potential strike by U.S. railroad workers.

In the fall, four of 12 rail unions refused to ratify a contract that didn’t include paid sick days. At President Biden’s urging, Congress passed a labor deal – which did not include sick days – via resolution to avert a strike. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held a separate vote after to give rail workers seven paid sick days. The House passed that resolution, and the Senate voted it down. Reps. Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) voted for both measures.

The two lawmakers and dozens of other Democrats then signed a letter asking Biden to guarantee sick days using executive action. The letter said Biden’s labor deal prevented “a lockout that would have caused severe damage to the economy during the busy holiday season” and was better than what the rail industry offered but that its exclusion of paid sick days “is unacceptable and must be rectified.” To date, Biden has not taken such action.

Many progressives elected in recent years have focused on pulling the Democratic Party left from within. Since Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) 2016 Democratic presidential bid, support for a $15 minimum wage and expanding government health care programs to some extent have become more mainstream in the party.

Some in the party have blamed a leftward shift, including use of the term “socialism,” for election losses in recent years. Sawant argues the party “is moving further and further right in their loyal support of the corporate elite,” creating an opportunity for Republicans to seize the mantle as the party supporting workers.

“It is deeply unfortunate that it was the right-wing Freedom Caucus who demonstrated how to use leverage to force establishment concessions, rather than the ‘Squad,’” Sawant says in the op-ed. “With a continued failure of any real leadership on the left, the House Speakership fight revealed just how quickly and dangerously the right wing current can fill the void. It is a frightening flashback to how Trump won his election in the first place.”

In 2016’s presidential race, Donald Trump won several Rust Belt states that had supported former President Barack Obama in previous cycles (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). Biden won a few back in 2020 by small margins. He’s framed his economic agenda as a “blue collar blueprint” throughout his term.

In a Gallup poll from September, 56 percent said the major parties “do such a poor job that a third major party is needed.” Combined 2021-2022 data showed 74 percent of independents (including both right- and left-leaners), 60 percent of moderate/liberal Republicans and 51 percent of liberal Democrats supported a third major party. Appetite was lower among conservative Republicans and moderate/conservative Democrats.

A Pew survey from last summer showed support for “more political parties to choose from” was highest among independents and Democrats.

Minor party and independent candidates have achieved relatively few electoral victories in the U.S., something that’s been attributed to several factors, including a winner-take-all over a proportional representation system for many offices.

“We want to build a bigger movement than just those who are socialists,” Elan Axelbank, a labor organizer with Socialist Alternative who is involved in the Workers Strike Back movement, told The Hill. “We want to see the building of a broad political party that can challenge both the Democrats and the Republicans[.]”

Sawant’s city council term ends in December.

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