Kshama Sawant, a member of the City Council of Seattle, who introduced an ordinance to ban any kind of discrimination on the basis of caste in the city, spoke to Sidharth Bhatia for ‘The Wire Talks’ about the lived reality of the working class and the opposition to this ordinance by right-wing groups.
Below is the full text of the interview. Listen to the podcast here.
Sidharth Bhatia: Hello, and welcome to ‘The Wire Talks’. I am Sidharth Bhatia. On the 21st of February, Seattle became the first city in the United States to explicitly ban discrimination on the basis of caste after the City Council passed an ordinance.
The ordinance was introduced by council member Kshama Sawant, who called it profound and historic. Sawant, who grew up in Mumbai moved to the US and completed a Ph.D. in economics from North Carolina State University. She is a member of the Socialist Alternative, the first, and only member of the party to be elected into public office. She has been a council member since 2014 and won a historic victory in 2015, when she successfully pushed for a minimum wage in the city of Seattle of $15 an hour.
In California, meanwhile, a Cisco employee, who alleged discrimination on account of his caste status, is fighting a court case. This case highlighted how caste is subtly used to discriminate against the so-called lower caste, even in the United States, and it led to many universities banning it.
After the City Council’s decision, Sawant expressed the hope that other cities would follow, but the move was severely criticised by groups, such as the Hindu American Foundation, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which has said that it demonised Hindus.
Sawant joins us today to discuss this historic step. Welcome to The Wire Talks, Kshama Sawant.
Kshama Sawant: Thank you for having me, Sidharth.
You’re the first socialist to win a citywide election in Seattle, in almost a century. That was in 2014. And in these 10 years, you have won elections to the council, each time you stood. What is it that convinces voters to support a socialist in a city that has so many large tech companies, and presumably tech employees?
Yes, I was first elected in 2013, I took office in 2014, and now in December, I will have served on the council for nearly a decade, a full decade. And as you said, I have won four elections, and the reason we have won these elections, and the reason the majority of the voters have consistently supported an open socialist and not, you know, much less a Marxist (I’ve been openly a Marxist, and our organisation, Socialist Alternative, has been very open about our politics), the reason we have won despite all the demonising of the ideas of socialism and not even that, in fact, even the massive opposition there has been from the bosses of the tech sector, the billionaire class, billionaires like Jeff Bezos, the reason they’ve won, despite all of that, is because we have have successfully put forward an agenda, a programme of demands that resonates with the vast majority of people.
We don’t demand that they agree on every aspect of our analysis as Socialists, or as Marxists. But for example, in 2013, when we ran our first campaign for City Council, it became enormously popular among working people, because we talked about the need for $15 an-hour minimum wage in a city where 100,000 workers were making wages below the poverty line.
The campaign was embraced by the majority of the working class because we brought up the question of rent control, because this is a city and, in fact, this is true in every metropolitan area in the United States. It is a city with skyrocketing rents and we were the only ones talking about rent control and renters’ rights. And the other main demand we brought out was the need to tax the billionaire bosses to find affordable housing and other needs of our city.
And, contrary to the conventional logic of politics, this much isn’t just true about the United States, this is true in many parts of the world. The conventional logic of establishment-style politics is that you don’t rock the boat. You don’t say anything controversial and that your preoccupation should be to make yourself liked by the powers that be, make sure you pay your respects to the wealthiest people, to the political establishment, and make sure they are happy. But actually, that logic prevents you from building links with the working-class people. So we threw the conventional rule book out of the window, and we boldly campaigned on a working-class programme each time. That is what has allowed us to win election after election.
You mentioned demonisation by the billionaire class, and presumably, the business class in general. You actually mentioned Jeff Bezos, and from what I understand and what I read, Amazon or he personally funded a campaign against you. This is what I read. Don’t Americans also get nervous when they hear the word “socialist”, much less “Marxist”?
It used to be that way, but that was for the so-called baby boomer era. But now we are living in a world where, for the vast majority of the young people in America, and we’re talking about tens of millions of people, it’s not just the question of Seattle, the most predominant feeling for young people is that the current system of capitalism is not working for them.
Think of how the world looks from the eyes of somebody who is 20 years old or 30 years old. All they have seen is crisis after crisis after crisis. Most young people in America, for example, fall into what’s now coming to be called as the “Downwardly Mobile Generation”, meaning that even if you grew up in a family where your parents had somewhat decent standards of living, you’re not able to replicate those terms of living because the world right now is in the crisis of capitalism; it is simply not giving you those options.
Even if you work hard in school, you go to college, you end up accumulating tens of thousands of dollars of student debt, just to get a college degree. You don’t get a job. For the most part, people are not getting jobs that are able to give them a decent standard of living, pay the rent that they need to pay, and pay the interest and the principal on the student loans. So it is a massive crisis for the vast majority of young people and a huge section of the working class, especially people of colour, immigrant community workers, who just don’t get by.
But I should also say the popularity of our demands, and the way we have used a fighting strategy to win our campaigns, and also the win, the $15 an hour minimum wage, as you mentioned, and also the Amazon tax attacks on big business to fund affordable housing, the popularity of these demands is not just with the low-income people. These are also the demands of the tech sector workers.
So, there’s a very clear class-based contrast on who’s on which side. So as you said, billionaires like Jeff Bezos, who own the assets in Amazon, were completely opposed to us. And in fact, you’re completely right. They directly spent millions of dollars trying to defeat us, but on the other hand, many of the workers at corporations like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are on our side. And they not only voted for us, they also helped campaign for us.
So Kshama, from what I pick up here, is that the young American today, people of colour, especially women, minorities of different kinds, but everyone else, too, feels that they have no options in life if this kind of system continues. They have lost faith in the politics of the country. Is that a good summation?
It is. In fact, it’s pretty striking how much the vast majority of young people are disenchanted with both the Republican and the Democratic party, even though there are differences between the two parties. I mean, Republicans are openly right-wing, openly anti-worker, and anti-union, and anti-immigrant. Democrats are not openly [anti] like that. At the end of the day though, the two parties agree on a very fundamental point, which is that they are both servants of the interests of Wall Street, interests of the wealthy. And so young people are very disenchanted by those ideas, and they are frustrated and angry with corporate politics, and now they are looking for an alternative type of agenda.
And in fact, that’s also linked with the huge rise in popularity of unions and unionising. So, over the last three to four years, there has been an unprecedented rise in Union drives. In fact, right now, there’s a very important union drive going on at Amazon warehouses.
I’m playing devil’s advocate here, if that is the case, why wouldn’t other proper Leftists and Socialists and others emerge elsewhere?
You mean others in other left forces in the United States?
In the United States, in Seattle, in other cities. Why are they not getting traction, assuming that there are people like that?
That is actually a very important question. In fact, without asking and answering that question, you can’t really make sense of why at the same time that consciousness of America is moving to the left. You’re also seeing at the same time a rise, a historic rise, in right populism, the Trump agenda. Why are both things, contradictory things, happening at the same time?
And the answer to your question is that unfortunately, there isn’t leadership on the wider left. Socialist Alternative, unfortunately, is one of the rare exceptions to the rule and what’s mostly predominant on the left. In fact, unfortunately, at this point of the so-called left in the United States, the real left ideas have been decimated in the last 50 years. And what has emerged is, in the labour movement, for example, we don’t have the leadership that was present decades ago in the United States, which carried out the kind of leadership that carried out the most inspiring radical militant general strikes that led to huge progress in the United States at that time.
We don’t have that right now. In fact, the most predominant ideas among the Labour leadership in the United States today are what I would call ‘business unionism’. This is a really toxic and rotten idea because it’s based on this mythology that you can make deals with the bosses, which utterly fails to understand the very basic concept of capitalism, which is, the interests of the bosses, of the wealthiest, of the capitalist class are diametrically opposed to the interests of workers.
So what these business unionist labour leaders do is that they don’t activate the rank-and-file membership. They instead want to have negotiations with the bosses, and they want to prevent strike actions by workers at all costs.
All of this has resulted in a situation where even union members, let alone the vast majority of the young people who don’t have access to unions, are not unionised, and their living standards are lower. But even for union members, a lot has been lost, a lot of ground has been lost in the last 50 years because of this business unionist approach by trade union leaders where they don’t mobilise the rank and file, and they want to prevent strike actions at all costs. That’s a real problem, because going on strike and holding up the profits of the billionaire class is the most important weapon that workers have in their hands.
So if we don’t go on strike, we actually can’t win against the billionaire class. So this is what’s happening, there’s been a vacuum of leadership on the left, and we need much more of that but we don’t have that yet.
There was a strike in Amazon if I recall and they did unionise in the end. And there are slow tech unions, I may be factually slightly wrong, so please correct me, but unions are emerging in tech companies also, aren’t they?
Unions are starting to emerge and one of the most historic successful union drives happened and I think that’s the one you’re referring to, at the Amazon warehouse facility on Staten Island in New York. And that was the first union ever in the Amazon Corporation in the United States.
And as I said, we are Socialist Alternative, leading a union drive at the largest air hub of Amazon, and that’s also an extremely crucial union drive. And we also have seen the emergence of the Alphabet Workers’ Union, which is the union that represents Google workers. So these are very important beginnings, but we have a long way to go, and in fact, as The Guardian reported, the bosses, the billionaires like Jeff Bezos at corporations like Amazon, are fiercely starting to crack down on the workers who are unionising, and we are seeing a whole series of firings of workers who are actively leading these union drives.
A couple of your other campaigns were on millionaires, tax-free transit, housing. Where did they reach?
In 2019, the Amazon Corporation, including Bezos himself, many of the corporate executives, the Chamber of Commerce, these are some of the wealthiest interests that are deeply hostile to the interests of the working class. They went all out to try and defeat us in the re-election that year, but despite everything stacked against us, and in fact, it wasn’t just the billionaires, it was also the Democratic establishment of this city that ran candidates against me that year. The so-called progressives also ran candidates against me. And because of our fighting approach and our strategy of uniting working people on a common programme, the Socialist Alternative and I were able to defeat them in 2019, and then we built on that election victory by launching the ‘Tax Amazon’ campaign, the ‘Tax Amazon’ movement in January of 2020.
In fact, my swearing-in ceremony in 2020 was combined with the launch of the ‘Tax Amazon’ movement and that was a genuinely democratically organised movement, where thousands of rank-and-file workers participated.
We also mobilsed unions alongside us and other community organisations, and we were able to win a historic, what we call the Amazon Tax, but you’re exactly right, it was a tax on the multi-millionaires and the billionaires in order to fund affordable housing, another Green New Deal programme, and that actually has become one of the backbones of the city’s budget as it turns out because of the COVID-19 recession and other factors.
And as far as renters’ rights are concerned, we have not won rent control yet but we have won a whole series of renters’ rights. Just to give you a couple of examples, and there are too many for me to mention here, because we won many renters’ rights victories in the last 10 years. But some of the most crucial ones are, one, the law that mandates that landlords have to give renters or their tenants six months’ notice before they increase the rent. And another one, where the law says that if you are a renter, if you’re a tenant of a landlord, and if you are forced to leave and move somewhere else because your landlord increased the rent by more than 10%, in other words, if you are economically evicted, then your landlord owes you three months’ rent.
These were the two of the strongest laws that we want as part of renters’ rights.
Now coming to your latest victory, triumph of sorts in the American context at least. Why did you think of picking up caste as an issue and how did you go about it?
The genesis of this historic caste ordinance goes back three years ago in January and February of 2020. We, my office, was organising alongside the many of the Hindu, Muslim, and also Dalit protesters who were fighting against the CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act] and the NRC [National Register of Citizens] – the citizenship laws of the Modi regime – which obviously, as all your viewers and listeners know, were horrific laws.
They were anti-Muslim, anti-oppressed caste, and anti-poor. And so in those protests, the Socialist Alternative and my council office proposed that we should fight for a City Council, Seattle City Council resolution, against the CAA, condemning those laws and urging the US Congress to do the same.
So many of the activists were part of that protest movement. They were the ones who were on the frontlines, alongside my office and the Socialist Alternative fighting for this. Organisations like the Coalition of Seattle Indian-Americans and the Indian-American Muslim Council [participated]. So, we successfully won that resolution and it was also historic in its own way, because we had to overcome strenuous opposition from the Hindu right-wing.
In fact, Modi’s Indian Consulate in San Francisco sent a letter to the City Council claiming that we were not being truthful about the reality of the resolution, about the laws, and that the City Council shouldn’t support me. We had to overcome the opposition of the Democratic party in the city as well. But ultimately, we wanted a unanimous vote, but that’s an example of how you build a fighting movement to win, despite all opposition.
And then after that, we won a resolution in solidarity with the farmers’ movement in India. And then we won yet another resolution against the vaccine nationalisation of the American corporations and other European corporations where vCOVID-19 vaccines were being denied to the neo-colonial world.
And so, it was through this process of winning victory after victory, where the activists in the movement were learning the lessons of how do you fight and how do you win, and we came together again last year in December, and it was clear that many of them, especially the Dalit-led organisations, were talking about how we need to win a major victory related to caste discrimination in the United States, which has become a serious issue now, as the concentration of South Asian immigrant workers has increased.
And it was through that process that we decided this was the next fight to ban caste discrimination in Seattle.
Seattle, first, and then the rest of the country, this is how you decided to pitch it, right?
Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely. I mean and in fact, what’s remarkable about this legislation is that this has made Seattle the first jurisdiction of any level in the United States to have banned caste discrimination. But as far as we know, this is also the first jurisdiction globally outside South Asia to do something like this.
When these Dalit groups came to you, or they started discussing this [matter], what kind of discrimination were they specifically talking about? I’m trying to understand if these Dalit organisations represent members in the United States. How do they perceive it? How do they feel it and experience it on a daily level?
Some of the instances of discrimination in the workplace are pretty serious, like being denied raises, promotions, being given unjust and unfair year-reviews, or appraisals purely based on the fact that you belong to an oppressed caste, not because of your performance. And then there are also other ways in which you face day-to-day [discrimination] on a daily basis like being excluded from meetings, being the target of jokes about your caste, your background, being the target of repeated slurs or derogatory remarks, in a very insulting manner, or being told to use another bathroom.
So, we hear repeated examples of this kind. You mentioned the Cisco case, which is an exemplary case because it talks about how this Dalit worker in Cisco, which is a multi-billion dollar tech conglomerate, was denied raises and promotions. So, that’s a very common situation and a serious thing.
And I should mention another example, which was also notable in a letter written by 30 Dalit women, Dalit software engineers, because the letter was written anonymously, but it was published in the Washington Post. In that letter, they talked about all of the things that I just mentioned, the serious types of discrimination that they are subjected to including these insulting remarks on a daily basis. They even mentioned about facing sexual harassment. So, we see this is more and more prevalent as the concentration of South Asian immigrant workers is increasing in the United States.
Kshama, did you feel that at some stage this was getting out of hand, because when I was reading about the Cisco case, John Doe, the person who alleged that there was this kind of discrimination came up with all kinds of what may appear to the outsider, to the non-American, very subtle ways of discriminating, for example, asking do you eat beef, or trying to feel the sacred thread, or something like that? Now, did you come across such issues?
Yes, I’ve heard both those examples, many times.
How did you explain to your American colleagues that this is what it amounted to? It’s quite an unusual concept for many Americans.
It is, in fact, one of the reasons we were able to win this, despite the fact that, as you correctly said, most American working people wouldn’t be familiar with the caste issue. We were able to win because we got their support as well, but the reason we were able to do that was we took political education of the working people very seriously around this issue.
So one of the things we did through my office was publish a ‘frequently asked questions’ document, where we explain everything from the very first point: What is caste? Where did it originate from? Why has it even become an issue in the United States? Who faces it? What does it look like?
Of all this, the most important component was to explain how there is a common thread running between caste discrimination and other types of discrimination.
[For instance, we explained] discrimination on the basis of gender, or discrimination on the basis of race, racism and racial discrimination, which are much more commonly understood by American workers, and [then] we explained that ultimately all these different types of oppression are related to [each other] and they come from a class-divided society, a class-based society like capitalism, and so the fight against racial discrimination or sexism in the workplace, misogyny in the workplace is linked to the fight against other types of discrimination as well, and that we all have to be united on that basis.
So we explained this in the context of just tens of millions of people having marched in the Black Lives Matter movement only two and a half years ago. So, it made sense to people that this is related to their fight as well and that we should all be in solidarity about this.
Indians are supposed to be, and I use quote marks here, the “model minority” in the US. Won’t there be extra tension on them?
The “model minority” concept is truly damaging and toxic to the interests of the working class and to any idea of solidarity because, firstly, people who come here and think that they are the “model minority”, they are completely in denial of the fact that they were able to immigrate here, [because] they were able to have the wherewithal, the opportunities for education in India, precisely because they come from a position of privilege.
And so for them to come here and say that they are better than other immigrant communities or minorities like the black community is being in denial of the fact that most of the minorities who are in low-income situations are in those situations because of the way the system has organised itself. [A system] where people within the working class have divisions. Some are in the upper-middle class, some are in the middle class, some are working class, and some are very poor. Some have low incomes. But the reality is that the lion’s share of the wealth goes to the billionaire class. So, we have to actually push back hard against the idea of a “model minority”. It is not something to be proud of.
That’s an interesting argument, and personally, I’ve always felt that the “model minority” is an upper-middle-class privileged concept, but I waited for you to say it, and it doesn’t take into account the burger flippers who are hidden underneath the radar, so to speak, below the radar, who find it very, very difficult to join this privileged set.
The Hindu-American Foundation has come out very, very strongly against you and the caste status, the passing of the ordinance. What are they saying? And have they reached out to you? What are you saying to them? They are saying that you are needlessly drawing attention to Hindus.
The first thing to note is that the Hindu-American Foundation and the other organisation, the Coalition of Hindus of North America, are far-right organisations. It’s not that their position on this ordinance is on the right-wing [side], all their positions are to the far-right. If you go to their website, you can see that their agenda aligns very closely with the agenda of the Modi regime, and with the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the idea of Hindu fundamentalism, Hindutva ideology. So, it’s no surprise that they have come out in opposition in California as well as against the Cisco case, for example. It’s no surprise. We expected that they would oppose this ordinance.
As far as their idea is anti-Hindu, I mean, this is not a new idea, they didn’t invent this talking point. It is a right-wing talking point and it is universally used by the right-wing globally.
So just to give you another example in the US, where in the last 20 years, there has been a real momentum towards LGBTQ+ rights, and at that time, we have often heard right-wing Christian people saying, “If I’m a Christian business owner, then I have the right to deny services to LGBTQ+ people because that’s what my religion demands.”
But we don’t accept that. Every progressive knows that that’s a right-wing position. And that we respect every religion, but that religion cannot be used as an excuse to abuse or discriminate against any human being. So that’s the whole point that applies here as well.
Protecting or fighting for people who are facing real oppression is not ‘anti’ for any other person. In fact, it makes all of society better. I would ask the people who make these claims, should they also roll back on the progress that has been made for women’s rights because that supposedly is ‘anti-man’. Obviously, not. Most of us are going to want a society that actually keeps progressing on women’s rights. It’s the same thing that applies here as well.
And ultimately, the thing to remember about the caste ordinance that we won is that who was on our side and who wasn’t. Those lines were clearly drawn when who was on our side. It was obviously the Dalit-led organisations, the Ambedkarite organisations. But it wasn’t only them. It was also the dominant caste Hindus; it was Muslims, Sikhs, and other socialists like me; the union members, the Google workers’ union – they all supported [us].
Amnesty International supported us. Ashwini K.P., who is the United Nations special rapporteur on racism, who’s based in Bangalore, was here to support this. We had Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Arundhati Roy, and hundreds of organisations supporting us. And then, on the other side, who was it? It was the Hindu-American Foundation, the Coalition of Hindus of North America, and as you said, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which is obviously a far-right organisation. These are all Hindutva-based organisations.
So you want to roll it out to the rest of the country, then obviously, there will be some kind of pressure and pushback. Are you’re looking at a cultural war coming up?
It will. Some people may claim it’s a cultural war, but it’s a political battle of class interest, and it’s a battle on the ideas of a vision of our future society that we are fighting for. Do we want it to be based on solidarity and equality and a progressive vision? Or do we want it to go towards this worse situation of right-wing ideas where there is more oppression, more poverty, more inequality.
So I think that’s the battle going on here and, yes, absolutely, we want this to spread in other cities, but I will again say, I mean, in your point you’re exactly right. There will be opposition and we should expect that not only from the Hindu and Modi-aligned right-wing, but it will also come from like we saw in Seattle from the Democratic establishment.
And so if we are going to overcome that opposition, we will need the same kind of fighting movements in these other cities, as we are to build here in Seattle to win in the first place.
Okay, then I read somewhere that you have said you will leave politics at the end of this year, 2023. Is that true? And what comes next?
I wouldn’t say that I’m leaving politics because for me as a socialist and as an activist, politics doesn’t only mean electoral politics. Politics is also organising workers and mass movements. So what is true is that I announced in January that this year, [which is] the re-election year for the City Council. I’m not going to be contesting the election again because as I said, at the end of this year, I will have served on the council for 10 years, and we have used our office, fully, unflinchingly in the interests of the working class.
We have shown how it is possible to use an elected position as a genuine socialist, Marxist, fighter for the working class, by using your office as a platform to build social movements, not as somebody who goes and makes friendships with establishment politics or politicians. We’ve shown that example, but now it’s time to take this example on a much wider scale nationally. So that’s why rather than running yet another City Council election, locally, the Socialist Alternative and I are launching a nationwide movement called “Workers Strike Back”.
For your viewers and listeners, if they’re interested, please go to Workers Strike Back, all one word Workers Strike Back dot o r g. Find out more about it.
We are going to be having a big launch of this organisation on March 4 in Seattle at the University of Washington. Workers’ Strike Back will be fighting against the cost of living increases, for a $25 an hour minimum wage, for housing rights like rent control. It will also be fighting alongside South Asian activists to continue the fight on caste and religious discrimination, because we are hearing that from Muslims who are facing discrimination here in the United States.
So, a national politics is that what I’m hearing?
Yes. But it’s not only about electoral politics, like I said, we want to take these ideas of building a fighting strategy and building unity in the working class to the union movement as well, so that rank, and there we want to help reinvigorate, the labour movement, as well. And bring back some of the best and proudest ideas of militant rank-and-file organising.
So I want to wind up with this, but there is a question that actually has sprung up in my mind while we were talking. Are there youngsters who come up to you to say, “I want to become a socialist. What do I do?”
Yes, a lot actually happens all the time.
Okay. Well thank you very much there’s a lot more happening here and I’m sure you’re quite aware of it. That was Kshama Sawant, a city councilor in Seattle, who has just led a battle against caste discrimination in a city. And it’s the first time any city has outlawed, completely outlawed, caste discrimination. You heard what she said about how it shows up in very, very nasty, and sometimes not so, sometimes subtle ways. Yes, and she wants to take this battle elsewhere in the United States. Thank you Kshama for this.
Thank you so much, Sidharth.
Yeah. Thank you for joining us and again thank you for so quickly and so strongly agreeing to talk to us at The Wire. We will be back once again next week with another guest. Till then, from me, Sidharth Bhatia, and the rest of ‘The Wire Talks’ team, goodbye.
You can check out this podcast and other interesting ones on The Wire website, the IVM podcast website, app, or wherever else that you get your podcast. Goodbye from me, Sidharth Bhatia and ‘The Wire Talks’ podcast team.
Transcribed by Prashanthi Subbaiah.