Kshama Sawant & Seattle’s corporate inequality pushback

As of Tuesday, Kshama Sawant was beating incumbent Richard Conlin by 41 votes. Credit: Photo: Bill Lucia

There are several reasons I voted for Kshama Sawant: She’s a fellow Indian-born immigrant and she volunteered for me at OneAmerica when she first came to town. She will be the first foreign-born Seattle City Council member in a long time – a major milestone in a city that values diversity.

But for me, Sawant’s victory is also about a larger Seattle sea change around growing inequality.

As Seattle has gotten more and more unaffordable, people of color have been disproportionately affected. As urban demographer Dick Morrill wrote in Crosscut after the 2010 Census, the new numbers told a story of the “continued gentrification of Seattle, with displacement of minorities and the less affluent out of the center of the city, especially to south King County and Pierce County.” Between 2006 and 2010, the percentage of foreign-born Seattle residents decreased by two percentage points, while the diversity of surrounding South King County increased substantially. 

Kshama Sawant’s $15 minimum wage platform and demand that we address Seattle’s growing inequality reflected the urgency felt by working people of all races across the city. Her lack of corporate money and her passionate grassroots campaign resonated with a voting public that is increasingly uncomfortable with the city’s lack of affordability and growing corporatism.

We see clearly that the rising tide is lifting all the yachts – not all the boats.

Sawant is not the only signal of this unrest. During a UFCW grocery workers contract negotiation last month, grocery store corporations put forward proposals that eliminated health care for some workers and cut benefits for the rest. The proposals would also have lowered wages, particularly for those at the bottom of the scale, and slowed ladders to get to the top of the scale.
 
But workers put their collective feet down, voting to strike instead of accept the contract. The community rallied around them, taking pictures of themselves with their favorite grocery store workers and filling a facebook page with messages to the companies. Two hours before the strike deadline, the corporations adjusted their proposals, providing a fair contract to the workers with no take-aways or cuts.

The SeaTac $15 minimum wage vote is another sign of this change. Against all predictions and despite hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by airlines, car rental companies and other airport businesses to defeat it, the initiative is leading by 41 votes. Washington’s minimum wage of $9.19 is the highest in the country, but still not enough. Studies from The Economic Policy Institute and The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago show that minimum wage earners use all or nearly all of their money just to pay their rent, buy groceries and clothe their families. In other words, all or most of it goes right back into the economy.

Raising the minimum wage in SeaTac, where 60 percent of the population are people of color and 33 percent are foreign-born, takes the fight to the bowels of inequality. Sixteen percent of SeaTac’s population lives in poverty and the median household income is $48,000 – well below the state’s median. The SeaTac campaign has engaged a new population of immigrants, working class and people of color in democracy.

The struggle between Boeing and the Machinists Union is another pin in the inequality cushion. At the same time that Boeing is recording record profits and paying its CEO enormous amounts, it is proposing taking away already-negotiated pensions, reducing health care benefits and making it an impossibly long wait to advance to higher wages.

If Boeing’s CEO retires today, he would get $265,575 a month. The current Boeing pension plan, which the company wants to eliminate, would provide $2,700 a month for someone who has worked for the company for 30 years. What’s wrong with this picture? And why do our elected leaders keep talking about sweetening Boeing’s pot to keep them when they should be telling Boeing that these workers are talented, loyal and worthy of a decent pension?

Sawant is entering the City Council at a moment of tremendous opportunity. She’s a talented and smart woman of color who is fierce about her beliefs. She understands that some Seattleites think we need not just a course correction, but a whole new path forward.

Some say she’s going to have to figure out how to go from outsider to insider.  I’m actually hoping that she figures out how to bring the outside right there into City Hall chambers, working with other good members of the Council to bring about a real urgency on issues of inequality and diversity.

Sawant’s election was not just about people wanting a change — any change.  It was about people wanting a new way to build our city — together, for everyone. 

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