When reached by the Georgia Straight, Seattle city councillor Kshama Sawant had just wrapped up a speech at a march advocating for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Bellevue, Washington.
“There’s many low-wage workers here—there’s a lot of poverty,” she said in a phone interview.
Sawant is part of a growing campaign in the U.S. for an increased minimum wage. In November 2013, she defeated a 16-year incumbent to become the first socialist to be elected to Seattle city council in more than a century.
She ran on a platform advocating for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and she and her party Socialist Alternative refused to accept any corporate funding, depending instead on grassroots support.
Following the approval of the minimum-wage policy in Seattle in June, Sawant is setting her sights on expanding the “15 Now” movement.
“I think what we would like people to know is that it’s not only that we need some improvements in the standards of living of workers everywhere, including workers in Vancouver, but what we have to spread is a message of empowerment,” Sawant said.
According to the councillor, having a socialist in city hall was “one of the essential ingredients” needed to secure the higher wage.
She’s set to share some of her campaign experiences when she speaks at a Coalition of Progressive Electors event in Vancouver on September 27.
“It’s not going to be true that every single individual tactic that worked in Seattle is going to work like a blueprint everywhere else, but the point is, that the strategy of asking for small things timidly has failed us…and so we need a strategy of fighting back and building an independent force for the working class,” she stated.
In its municipal election platform, COPE is proposing an amendment to the Vancouver Charter to allow the city to set a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
“It’s not just about minimum wage,” COPE city council candidate Lisa Barrett said in a phone interview. “The city has so many tools that they can leverage to alleviate that kind of poverty.”
One example she cited is subsidized child-care spaces.
“I think we have to look at solidarity with all people across Canada struggling—people who are living in poverty, and people who are vulnerable,” said Barrett.
“So many people are in very precarious work positions, with very precarious housing conditions. We’ve got to really start to work together to find some solutions, and I think a $15 minimum wage is a start. But we’ve got to fill in those gaps all the way around with providing for people in ways that are meaningful and lift people out of poverty.”
Sawant, an activist who was part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, believes the 15 Now rallies have more than a little in common with the Occupy demonstrations that took place in cities across the continent and internationally in 2011.
“Really some of the roots of the energy that you saw in the $15-an-hour struggle, and also the momentum that you continue to see of movements that will be coming up in the near future, have a lot to do with Occupy,” she said.
“One thing that Occupy did was it ended the silence on income inequality, and for the first time in many decades, a large section of young people especially were participating in a political movement for the first time in their lives.”
Sawant believes that the “mood is changing”, particularly among young people, whom she sees as appearing “more and more restless and unwilling to accept the status quo”.
“We’re going to see more of that,” she predicted. “Some of those changes you’re seeing all around the nation are directly inspired by what happened in Seattle, both from the victory of the socialist campaign for city council and for the victory of 15.”
Since the Seattle campaign, the 15 Now movement has started to spread to cities including Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York City.
Sawant noted she still hears from people in the streets of Seattle who are grateful for the minimum wage policy. (Starting next year, the new wage will be phased in over three to seven years, depending on the size of the business.)
About 100,000 people in Seattle are making less than $15 an hour, according to Sawant, with many more making above that but still struggling to make ends meet.
She expects the higher wage will have a positive impact on both groups, in the form of both better income and increased morale, and more willingness among employees to challenge poor working conditions.
“What we did was not only build a movement, but we activated people’s instinctive ability to fight against income inequality,” she said.
Sawant will speak at the Maritime Labour Centre, located at 1880 Triumph Street, at 7 p.m.