Kshama Sawant’s critics thought she would be another Sal Bellomio once she took her seat on the Seattle City Council. For those who don’t follow the council closely, Bellomio lost to council member Sally Bagshaw in the last election. But he’s better known for his bellicose rants during the open forum prior to council meetings where citizens are asked to make comments on that days’ agenda. Bellomio’s twice been banned from council for his unruly behavior, including one time when he called Council President Tim Burgess, “an asshole.”
However, anyone who’s had dealings with Sawant, the first socialist elected to the council, knows that’s just not her personality. She’s actually quite soft-spoken, albeit passionate in her beliefs. Instead of yelling and calling other council member names, the former Seattle Community College economics professor, went about working on the proposal that helped get her elected: passing a $15 minimum wage for the city of Seattle.
On Monday the $15 minimum wage became a reality in Seattle. 15Now, the organization that Sawant’s closely identified with, spearheaded by several of her campaign workers, had a victory party Friday night.
Nevertheless, Sawant’s contribution to Seattle’s adopting the highest minimum in the country can’t be overlooked. True, the demand comes out of a grassroots movement. It’s been a year since fast food workers around the country staged a one-day strike against income inequality. And it really costs $22/hour to live in Seattle. But Sawant was the candidate that made 15Now her number-one campaign issue and is viewed as the catalyst of the movement by friend and foe alike. As one progressive noted as a standing-room only crowd filed into council chambers, “If Richard Conlin had beat Sawant (in the last election) none of us would be here today.”
For Sawant, like a Charles Dickens novel, Monday was the best of times and worst of times. The first-term Council Member, who grew up in India, moved to Seattle and became a socialist in 2006, should have been basking in her victory. But the council added some late provisions that weren’t even agreed upon in Mayor Ed Murray’s often contentious Minimum Wage Committee (which included representatives from labor and management but no actual minimum wage employees).
So there was Sawant, dismissed as a fringe candidate when she announced her run for office and called “too hard left for Seattle” by the Seattle Times, who wouldn’t work well with others, looking like the adult in the room.
Sawant, along with progressive council member Nick Licata, made three amendments to strengthen the bill. The amendments attempted to remove a lesser training wage for teenagers and the disabled; prevent tips and health care from being included in the $15; and to move the starting date of implementation from January 1 to April 1. The reason given for the latter was that another minimum wage proposal might wind up on the ballot and be voted in—highly unlikely now. All three proposals were voted down.
At one point, Sawant said she’d like to hear from other council members who were against the amendments. But the rest of the council sat quietly, looking a bit like children who’d just been yelled at by their parents and didn’t want to say another word. Sawant, Licata and Mike O’Brien voted for all the amendments, Bagshaw voted against training wages, Bruce Harrell voted against moving back the starting date, and all the other votes maintained the status quo. When each amendment was voted down the overflow crowd responded with chants of “shame, shame,” “pawns of big business,” and “the Koch brothers own the City Council.”
However, the crowd still cheered when it became official. Later, the progressives in the audience and the moderate City Council members had cake and ice cream together in City Hall Plaza. Despite the jabs the Council took at the proposal, Seattle has the highest minimum wage in the country—by over $5/hour–although it’ll still be phased in over several years.
“This is a reflection of what workers in the streets have wanted for over a year,” said Sawant. But she also realizes there’s the danger of banging your head against the wall–voting one way as the council goes the other way. She’d like to see other socialists on the council (or at least council members like Licata and O’Brien who often vote the same as Sawant). “We need more socialist candidates to turn the tide. We’re headed in the right direction. We have the will to win.”
For the last five months, Seattle has had a socialist on the City Council. The sky hasn’t fallen, we haven’t been attacked by locusts, and the city hasn’t fallen into the Puget Sound. But we did raise the minimum wage.