Meet the Seattle Socialist Leading the Fight for a $15 Minimum Wage

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Photo: Shannon Kringen

Unless you're a municipal politics buff or a left-wing activist, you may never have heard of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. Sawant, who was elected to represent Seattle's Position 2 last year, first came into the spotlight as one of the highest-ranking socialists in America. Since then, she has become a hero on the left thanks to her push to raise Seattle's minimum wage to $15 an hour, a bold experiment that would create the highest minimum wage in the world.

Sawant's advocacy is paying off — a $15 minimum wage plan with bipartisan support was proposed by Seattle's mayor earlier this month and will likely pass in some form later this year. Once considered unthinkably high, the $15 minimum wage is now being discussed all over the country — with everyone from striking fast-food workers to leading economists adding their support. Sawant has been credited as the driving force behind the movement.

Here's what you need to know about her:

Who is Kshama Sawant?
Kshama Sawant (pronounced "SHAH-mah sah-WANT") is a 41-year-old part-time economics instructor at Seattle Central Community College. An Indian immigrant who grew up mostly in Mumbai, she earned a Ph.D. in economics from North Carolina State University and moved to Seattle in 2006 with her husband, a Microsoft engineer. She ran for the Washington House of Representatives in 2012, lost, then ran for Seattle's City Council. She defeated incumbent Richard Conlin by a razor-thin margin and assumed office on January 1 of this year.

Oh, and she's a socialist.

Wait, like a real socialist?
Yep. Sawant is a member of Socialist Alternative, a political party formed in 1986 that is active in at least 20 major U.S. cities. (Motto: "Struggle, Solidarity, Socialism.") Socialist Alternative supported Ralph Nader's runs for president in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008, and played a major role in organizing and sustaining the Occupy Wall Street movement. According to the group's website, it believes that "the dictatorships that existed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were perversions of what socialism is really about. We are for democratic socialism where ordinary people will have control over our daily lives."

Sawant joined Socialist Alternative after hearing a speech from one of the group's members in 2009. Since then, she has worn her affiliation proudly: "People have an interest in rebuilding the left in the U.S.," she told me in an interview this week. "There are scores of young people who are looking for alternatives to capitalism."

In keeping with the social justice themes of her campaign, she takes only $40,000 of her $117,000 a year council member salary and puts the rest into a self-administered "solidarity fund," which she uses to fund social justice campaigns. "This is not a question of charity," she told me. "You simply cannot be so far removed from the values of the people you're representing."

How did this $15 minimum wage thing happen?
In large part, because Sawant made it happen. Before last year, nobody was really talking about raising the minimum wage by such a dramatic amount. But Sawant campaigned for office on the issue — putting "$15" on her campaign signs and picketing with striking fast-food workers — and pretty soon, she'd brought the issue to the point where not supporting it became a political liability. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn came onboard with a $15 minimum wage, as did the candidate running against him. Since then, a working group made up of local business and labor leaders hashed out an agreement, and their proposal was sent to City Council for approval.

The Seattle Times has credited Sawant with "coming out of nowhere to commandeer the city's political agenda." 

(Oddly enough, Sawant is the only member of Seattle's City Council who didn't co-sponsor the mayor's current $15 minimum wage plan — as a purist, she thinks it doesn't go far enough and contains too many handouts to businesses.)

What is the minimum wage now?
Federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour for most non-tipped jobs. But some cities have set higher marks for themselves. In New York, it's $8.00 an hour. In San Francisco, it's $10.74. In Seattle, it's currently $9.32.

Does anyone else think raising the minimum wage to $15 is a good idea?
Yes. In June of last year, Nick Hanauer, a Seattle venture capitalist, wrote a column in Bloomberg View supporting a raise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Hanauer wrote:

Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would inject about $450 billion into the economy each year. That would give more purchasing power to millions of poor and lower-middle-class Americans, and would stimulate buying, production and hiring.

Felix Salmon, formerly of Reuters, thinks it's a "a win-win-win-win-win-win" that "would immediately raise the incomes of millions of cash-strapped Americans." And many of the thousands of fast-food workers who have been going on strike across the country have signed onto the so-called "Fight For 15" movement, which was started in 2012 by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago.

Photo: Courtesy of Vote Sawant

Does anyone think a $15 minimum wage is a bad idea?
Predictably, local business officials and industry leaders don't like what's happening. “When you start by insisting on $15 an hour, that’s not conducive to substantive dialogue,” Scott DeFife, an executive vice president with the National Restaurant Association, told the Times. Republicans in Congress aren't crazy about it, either. Recently, they voted down an attempt by President Obama to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, well short of Sawant's $15 mark. 

In wonky quarters,  Dylan Matthews, formerly of the Washington Post, wrote that the $15 minimum wage was "a terrible idea." Slate's Jordan Weissmann says it's "built on dubious economics." The Times' Timothy Egan warns that "one consequence of a $15 mandate could be the relocation of entire immigrant communities to neighboring cities."

Economists have mixed feelings about the $15 minimum wage — some think such a drastic change would alleviate poverty while keeping employment levels steady, while others believe it would increase unemployment and cause local labor shocks. Arindrajit Dube, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, concluded that a $15 minimum wage in the fast-food industry would cause food prices to rise by nearly 20 percent, though he admits that, because we've never had a $15 minimum wage in a city as large as Seattle before, "we just do not know what [it] would do."

For her part, Sawant told me that even if raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour hurts the Seattle economy (and nobody knows if it will), that would say more about capitalism than the merits of the wage hike itself. "If making sure that workers get out of poverty would severely impact the economy, then maybe we don't need this economy," she said.

How likely is the $15 minimum wage to pass?
Very likely. Seattle's City Council just began debating the ordinance this week, and though the final terms still need to be hashed out (including how long it will take to be phased in and which kinds of businesses will get exemptions), it looks almost certain to happen in some form.

Is there anything else to know about Kshama Sawant?
She's remarkably humble for a politician. “There’s nothing unique about me,” she told the Seattle Times. In our interview, she described herself as an introvert who enjoys cooking and walking with her dog. She was arrested during an Occupy protest in 2012, and during her City Council run, she received endorsements from Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and System of a Down's Serj Tankian. She's also a trained software engineer with a degree in computer science. She did a Reddit AMA last year.

Interestingly, Sawant is divisive among fellow socialists, some of whom see her as a reformer rather than a revolutionary. According to Seattle Weekly, Socialist Workers Party spokesperson Mary Martin has criticized Sawant, saying she "isn’t doing enough to inspire a revolution and take power away from the 'bourgeois' capitalist class."

What's next for her?
According to the Seattle Times, Sawant has other issues on her plate — like "[reforming] the city’s tax system to impose a fee on millionaires that would pay for public transit" and implementing rent control. She'll also have to defend her seat in 2015, and a redistricting plan in Seattle means she might have a tougher time winning over voters in the next cycle.

Still, she seems bound for bigger things. Seattle Weekly describes her as "strikingly approachable, yet relentlessly on-message, flanked by a phalanx of young activists, and with an eye for the long game that would make any politician proud." She told me that she's seen tweets and gotten emails encouraging her to run for Seattle mayor. "It's an interesting idea," she said.