Bengaluru: Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, 49, is a classic example of how one elected politician’s drive and commitment can translate into a groundswell of support to fight corporate or political injustice.
Sawant has won multiple battles against big business and the Hindu right despite being surrounded by colleagues whose views are, often, dramatically different from hers.
“Since I first took office in 2014 as a socialist, as a Marxist, there has been one socialist, me, and eight Democrats,” Sawant said in an email interview. Democrats, Sawant believes, are as pro-wealthy as Republicans and “loath to take any bold stand on progressive issues, unless they are forced to by movements of working people”. That’s pretty much how she arm-twisted them to support her.
On 21 February 2023, Sawant convinced her colleagues to pass an ordinance that made Seattle the world’s first city outside South Asia to ban caste discrimination. Seattle law already bans discrimination based on gender identification, disability, national origin, religion, and sexual orientation.
It was only the latest of many victories during Sawant’s decade in office. In 2020, thanks to Sawant’s efforts, the same city council passed the first resolution outside India that condemned the hurriedly passed Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 and the National Register for Citizens.
Seattle was also the first city to pass a resolution standing with the farmers’ movement. Sawant has waged and won battles against big companies, such as Amazon and Starbucks. She said she takes home an average worker’s wages and donates a large part of her salary to workers’ movements across the US through her solidarity fund.
The caste-discrimination law was endorsed by nearly 200 community and labour organisations, including the union that represents Google workers. International organisations, celebrity authors, oppressed-caste activists, union members and dominant-caste allies from all religions supported the move.
“Hundreds gave public testimony in the City Council meetings, and over 4,000 working people signed the solidarity petition from my office,” Sawant said.
In her elected tenure this past decade Sawant, whose early political influences came from the stories her mother told her and whose political career took off after she participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement, has clearly demonstrated that even a lone elected representative can bring together a diverse group of people with the same demands to make an actual difference.
This is not the first time you’ve done something like this. Tell us how you convinced Seattle City Council to unanimously pass a resolution condemning the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in 2020. It was the first such legislation to be passed outside India. Who/what were you up against?
In January 2020, local organisations held a protest in Seattle downtown against the anti-Muslim, anti-oppressed-caste, anti-poor CAA-NRC citizenship laws by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing, Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party regime. I spoke at the protest as a City Council member, and as a socialist elected representative, and suggested that we should fight to win a resolution in the Seattle City Council—a resolution condemning CAA-NRC, and urging the United States Congress to do the same. The lead activists of that protest, including from organisations like the Indian American Muslim Council and the Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans, immediately agreed.
We won this resolution with a unanimous vote from the City Council. This resolution was groundbreaking, because it was the first such resolution outside India that condemned the CAA-NRC.
But winning it was far from easy or straightforward. We won only after a massive fightback against the Modi-aligned Hindu right wing. The right wing turned up in City Hall in big numbers and viciously opposed our resolution. The Modi regime’s Indian Consulate in San Francisco sent the City Council a letter, claiming that the resolution from my office should be withdrawn because in their opinion, it completely misrepresented the CAA-NRC.
But the Hindu right wing were not the only forces we were up against. Seattle, like many cities in the United States, is controlled by the Democratic Party establishment. The Democratic Party has some real differences with the Republican Party. The Republican Party is openly right-wing, openly anti-worker and anti-poor and anti-immigrant. The Democratic Party, some of whose politicians have progressive rhetoric, nonetheless has some things in common with the Republicans. They are just as loyal to the interests of the billionaire class and the wealthy as are the Republicans. And despite their progressive rhetoric, most Democratic Party politicians are loath to take any bold stand on progressive issues, unless they are forced to by movements of working people.
The Seattle City Council, which has nine seats, has always been all Democrats for as long as anyone remembers. Since I first took office in 2014 as a socialist, as a Marxist, there has been one socialist, me, and eight Democrats.
How we won the resolution against the CAA-NRC was a concrete example of how Socialist Alternative, my political organisation, and I have used our elected office for nearly 10 years now. We bring a fundamentally different approach to politics than Democrats or Republicans. Contrary to making peace with the political status quo, we have used a fighting strategy, using our position to build movements to win unprecedented victories like the $15/hour minimum wage, the Amazon Tax to fund affordable housing, and landmark renters’ rights victories.
Each time, we won unanimous or majority votes on the City Council, but not by having quiet backroom conversations with them, and despite the majority of the Democratic Council members actively trying to undermine our movements. Even the minority who did not try to undermine us virtually never did anything to help us win. We won each time because we brought a fighting movement of working people together—hundreds or thousands of emails, protests, marches and rallies, hundreds coming to city hall for public comment.
This is exactly the kind of strategy Socialist Alternative and I brought to win the resolution against the CAA-NRC, alongside the organisations I mentioned earlier. Activists in our movement made it very clear: if the Democrats voted ‘No’ on our resolution, they would be siding with the right wing, and that they would pay a political price for betraying working people and the oppressed.
What were the key factors that came together in passing the ban on caste discrimination in Seattle?
Seattle has become the world’s first jurisdiction outside South Asia to ban caste discrimination, and it was only won because we built a fighting movement and have a socialist elected representative on the City Council.
Our ordinance was strenuously opposed by right-wing, Hindu fundamentalist organisations like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA). Our movement responded publicly and boldly to cut through disingenuous talking points by the right wing, exposing them for what they really are. For instance, when the right wing falsely claimed that a ban on caste discrimination would be anti-Hindu, we pointed out how it was eerily reminiscent of the Christian right wing contending that their religious beliefs justified discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community. Progressives support freedom of religion, but we oppose religion being used as an excuse to abuse others. As Sravya Tadepalli of Hindus for Human Rights, an organisation that endorsed the ordinance said to the Seattle City Council, “I am a proud Hindu... I urge you, as a Hindu, to vote YES on the bill to ban caste discrimination.”
Our movement exposed the dangerous far-right character of the opponents of our ordinance. HAF and CoHNA have an agenda that is closely aligned with Modi and the BJP. Furthermore, the most prominent organisation joining them in opposing our ordinance was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which has been implicated by Human Rights Watch in the 2002 carnage of Muslims in the Western Indian state of Gujarat.
The most audaciously false claim by the right wing was that our ordinance would be divisive. As we said in the Frequently Asked Questions document my office published to educate Seattle’s working people about the issue—just as claims of race-blindness do not erase racism, claims of caste-blindness do not erase caste oppression. In reality, such arguments are themselves an expression of the widespread discrimination facing people from oppressed castes. It is capitalism that enforces divisions by engendering various types of oppression, and the working class needs to fight the divide-and-conquer by the bosses by building unified movements against both oppression and economic exploitation.
In a stunning rebuke to the right-wing allegation of divisiveness, the ordinance had overwhelming, united support in the community. It was endorsed by nearly 200 community and labour organisations, including the Alphabet Workers Union, the union that represents Google workers. We also had the support of Amnesty International, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance. We were also supported by Arundhati Roy, Cornel West, and Noam Chomsky. Oppressed-caste activists were joined by dominant-caste Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, socialists, and union members. We had oppressed-caste working people and activists join us from around the United States. We were even joined by Sikh Ravidassia oppressed-caste community activists from British Columbia in Canada. Hundreds gave public testimony in the City Council meetings, and over 4,000 working people signed the solidarity petition from my office.
It was also crucial for activists to recognise that Democratic Council members were overwhelmingly not on our side in this fight. The Democrats even initially echoed some of the right wing’s talking points, though ultimately all but one voted ‘Yes’ under pressure from our movement. But even on the day of the vote, they were hatching plans to delay or undermine the legislation. That morning, I received a phone call from one Democratic Council member who said they intended to bring forward an amendment to delay the law’s implementation. This Council member finally backed down under the pressure from our movement, but it’s a reminder how crucial it is to mobilise working people to overcome establishment opposition.
How widespread is caste discrimination in the US tech sector?
Dalit community members from South Asia and other oppressed-caste immigrant community members often face discrimination, especially in the workplace, including in the tech sector. Data from Equality Labs show that one in four caste-oppressed people faced physical and verbal assault, one in three faced education discrimination, and two in three (77%) faced workplace discrimination. A separate study conducted on wider issues related to the South Asian American community, conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also found significant evidence of caste-based discrimination in the United States.
In a public letter published anonymously, 30 oppressed-caste women software engineers documented the systematic caste bias they had experienced in hiring, referrals, and peer review, and the insults and demeaning comments they had endured. The workers described the caste discrimination and sexism they faced as “dominant caste locker room culture at its worst.”
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing won an appeals court ruling in August, 2022, to proceed with a lawsuit alleging that a Dalit engineer at Cisco Systems—a multibillion-dollar tech conglomerate—was actively targeted by his dominant-caste managers, and denied professional opportunities, such as a raise and promotions, because of his caste background. As a columnist in The New York Times wrote, the “technology giant got away with ignoring the persistent caste discrimination because American laws don’t yet recognize caste discrimination as a valid form of exclusion,” allowing companies to operate “in willful ignorance of the terrifying realities of caste.”
After that lawsuit was initially announced, nearly 260 tech workers talked about the caste discrimination they had faced in the workplace, including in the Pacific Northwest, in companies like Facebook, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon.
Despite the fact that Seattle has the second highest salaries for council members in the country, you take home the average worker’s wage. How did that happen? How else do you show solidarity with workers in your life as a politician?
I was first elected to office a decade ago to represent the working people of this city. Since then, I have only taken the average wage of a Seattle worker in order to stay accountable to those working people who elected me into office. The bloated salaries that politicians and even many labour leaders make put them out of touch with the day-to-day realities of working-class life and play a role in their prioritising their personal career interests and reluctance to take any political risks to fight for working people. After deducting my wage, the rest of my salary after taxes goes into a solidarity fund that is used to make donations to social justice campaigns, union strike funds, and other working-class struggles. Through my solidarity fund, I’ve made donations to Amazon workers on Staten Island fighting for a union contract, the ongoing Amazon Air Hub union drive in Kentucky, grassroots activists fighting nationwide for a $15 minimum wage and Tax Amazon campaigns in Seattle and other cities.
In my time as a City Council member, I’ve stood with workers against the bosses and the political establishment at every turn. I walked the picket line with striking carpenters in 2021 who were abandoned by both their own union leaders and every Democratic elected official in the region. Last year, my Council office introduced a resolution calling on Starbucks to end union busting, and we organised a rally demanding the reinstatement of fired union organisers at Starbucks. More recently, we also stood with Seattle educators who went on strike over benefits and pay. I use my city council office as a megaphone for workers and young people fighting for good jobs, social services like education and healthcare and an end to all forms of oppression.
My office has also stood with renters fighting back against exploitative landlords, like in 2015 when we helped organise tenants at the Chateau Apartments to force the building owners to carry out years of repairs on the property and make $5000 payments to each resident. More recently in 2021, we helped tenants at Rainier Court Apartments, many of them low-income senior citizens and disabled, organise to cancel rent increases and force the landlord to carry out maintenance on units in serious disrepair. Both of these struggles were successful because tenants and working people were ready to get organised and fight, with my Council office and Socialist Alternative showing the way forward.
Tell us about the allies you’ve collected over the years by speaking up for things happening in India, such as the farmers’ protest movement.
The farmers’ protest movement, as you know, was a mass struggle of farmers and agricultural workers against a right wing reform that would have dismantled the basic protections that millions of small farmers rely on for their survival. The Modi regime was dealt a huge blow when the farmers and their organisations, in solidarity with the labour movement, forced the hand of the ruling class and won the repeal of the laws. Indian workers carried out the largest general strike in history and humiliated the Indian capitalist class on a global scale.
The protests were covered in the international press and sparked solidarity actions around the world, including here in Seattle, as well as in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. Our Council office supported the solidarity protests and introduced a resolution standing in solidarity with the farmers of India against the Modi regime’s ruthless privatisation and exploitation.
Thanks to our resolution, Seattle became the first city in the world to pass a resolution standing with the farmers movement. One of the key forces behind this victory was the coalition we built to win the historic Amazon Tax earlier in 2020. We pointed out that the anti-farmer laws were designed to benefit Mukesh Ambani, the Jeff Bezos of India, and that Indian farmers are part of the same struggle against the billionaire class as activists in Seattle fighting to tax Amazon and the largest corporations.
Since then, as I’ve mentioned earlier, we’ve won the support of many grassroots organisations in the South Asian community and beyond, like the Indian American Muslim Council and the Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans, for example, who were a crucial part of the struggle to pass a resolution condemning the racist CAA-NRC citizenship laws. Broadly, my Council office aims to organise working people to fight beyond single issues and link up struggles against oppression, union busting and exploitation by landlords with the larger fight against the billionaires and their corrupt system of capitalism.
How did you go from a Mumbai-based economist to 10 years in this position and the most senior member of the city council? Tell us some details about your journey.
From my earliest memory, I remember being extremely unhappy about the poverty and misery that so many people in India suffered, while a few were extremely wealthy. It was obvious this deep inequality had nothing to do with ‘hard work’. I was also politicized by stories my mother told me about women and activists fighting back against economic injustices and caste and sexual violence. When I moved to the United States, I observed poverty (albeit of a different intensity and magnitude) even in the richest country in the world, and learned of deeply underfunded public services and the absence of socialised healthcare. That helped me to conclude that these issues are related to the capitalist system itself. When I moved to Seattle in 2008, I met with Socialist Alternative, and read more about the Marxist analysis of capitalism.
I was first elected to office in 2013 after being active as an organiser for Socialist Alternative in the Occupy Wall Street movement that emerged after the crisis of the 2008 financial crash. Occupy was a movement against massive inequality and the erosion of workers rights that was created by the same banks that caused the recession. The organisation that I’m a member of, Socialist Alternative, called for 200 independent candidates to run out of the movement across the country. In Seattle, we led the way by running for the Washington state legislature in 2012 and won tens of thousands of votes as an open socialist. In 2013, I successfully ran for the city council on a platform of taxing the rich and a $15 minimum wage, which we won the following year. This was the first time in the U.S. that an independent socialist was elected to a major political office in generations, and my office has served as an example for how socialists can win elections ever since. Running for elected office was not my personal decision. Socialist Alternative is a democratic organisation whose members decide through discussion, debate, and voting, which campaigns to run, who our public representatives should be, and what demands the campaigns should highlight.
Since that historic victory for working people, our movement also succeeded in winning a $15 minimum wage, which was won in Seattle for the first time in a major city and quickly spread across the country. We also won a first-in-the-nation tax on Amazon in 2020, which brings in hundreds of millions of dollars per year to fund affordable housing built by union labour. Last year, we defeated a right-wing recall campaign that sought to remove me from office because of my participation in the Black Lives Matter protests, among other trumped-up charges. And throughout my tenure on the council, we have won countless gains for renters, including a ban on evictions during the school year and protections against economic evictions.
From beginning to end, we’ve had to fight tooth and nail against the billionaires and their servants on the City Council and in the political establishment in general. We didn’t win an iota by making backroom deals or secret concessions to the Democrats and big business—we won by building movements of students and working people on the streets to force the hand of the 1% and their representatives. This would not have been possible without Socialist Alternative, which, along with my council office, has armed these movements with a fighting, socialist backbone.
How did you get into politics? What drives you to be in this field?
I joined Socialist Alternative in 2009 because I was disgusted by the predatory, failed system of capitalism. I was looking for a scientific analysis of capitalism, and wanted to fight for an alternative. As I mentioned earlier, I was active as an organiser in Seattle Occupy in 2011 and was an activist in the 15 November movement.
Ultimately, I’m driven by the goal of winning a world free of oppression, inequality and exploitation: a socialist world.
What are the key ingredients for any successful grassroots movement? How do you unite people from different groups?
Socialist Alternative has a fundamentally different approach to politics and elected office than the careerism of Democrats or Republicans. This extends to our approach to building fighting movements organised around clear demands while explaining the limitations of winning reforms under capitalism.
First and foremost, movements need to be based on the power of working people rather than on deals with the establishment, celebrity endorsements, or legal strategies. It is the working class that has the power to shut down the capitalist system, which is why we fight for accountable, worker leadership in movements against oppression and workplace struggles alike. Unions and socialist organisations like Socialist Alternative need to play a leading role in struggles for this reason.
Socialist Alternative helps to build movements by uniting working people and union members around a clear programme and set of demands.
What's your daily schedule like? How many hours a day do you work?
The number of hours I work day to day is based on the needs of the movement. Unlike the careerist Democrats on the City Council who seldom work outside business hours and frequently miss votes of significance to working people’s lives, organisers in my office and I are ready to walk picket lines, march in protests or hold public meetings at all hours and are available to meet with working people on their schedules, even if that means meeting with constituents in the evening or on the weekend.
One of the most important steps to enforce this law is to make sure workers understand that this law is meant to protect them from caste-based discrimination. To that end, my office will be carrying out various steps for political education, including hosting an upcoming public hearing. We also need to make sure to enforce the law by holding corporations accountable in the courts. Winning in the courts will also require continued building of the kind of movement we built to win the law in the first place, because the judicial system is not on the side of working people. We also need similar victories to be won in other cities.
In the United States, I am helping build a new organisation called Workers Strike Back. Workers Strike Back was part of this struggle to win our legislation against caste discrimination in Seattle. It is an organisation committed to organising rank-and-file workers around a fighting strategy. Right now we have members talking to working people in East Palestine, where there was a catastrophic train accident that took place, in no small part, because so-called progressive Democratic politicians sided with the rail bosses against railroad workers demanding sick pay and basic safety measures. We launched Workers Strike Back in cities around the U.S. just a few days ago. Workers Strike Back is not itself a new party, because that will take at least hundreds of thousands of workers to begin, but it does call for a new party, and is a step toward a new party for working people in the belly of the capitalist beast, the United States.
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(Priya Ramani is on the editorial board of Article 14.)