Minn. $15 supporters hear Kshama Sawant

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 MINNEAPOLIS—Two hundred and fifty enthusiastic supporters of a $15 an hour minimum wage in this city crowded into the Minneapolis Labor Center on Sunday, Feb. 15, to hear from organizers and supporters including socialist Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant. It was Sawant’s upset election a little over a year ago that really put the 15 Now campaign on the map and led to Seattle’s successful fight for $15 just over a year ago, St. Paul Union Advocate editor Michael Moore reported.

“Minneapolis is one of the cities that is poised to win $15 this year,” Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, told activists. “Let the fight for $15 in Seattle be your guide, that with only one member of the City Council (initially supportive), we were able to get this done.”

“Ultimately, what we are talking about are real people,” she said. “These are the people who make this city run. Just imagine if all of them decided not to go to work on one day. The city would shut down.”

Success in Minneapolis, as in Seattle, will depend on 15 Now’s ability to build a broad coalition of support, Sawant said. That means participation by faith groups, community organizations and, of course, labor unions.

Sawant, a delegate to Seattle’s central labor council, said that local unions in her city supported 15 Now out of a shared belief that a rising tide lifts all boats. Most union members in Seattle earn much more than $15 per hour, she pointed out. “They have pensions, they have health care, but they were there in solidarity with their sisters and brothers anyway.”

Ty Moore, a national organizer for 15 Now, pointed to an already-successful 15 Now campaign at Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) International Airport—where a worker-led rally briefly shut down traffic on a roadway to Terminal 1 in December—as helping “boost the credibility” of 15 Now locally. “The debate is alive, and big campaigns are moving to help raise up working people’s wages and working conditions,” Moore said. “We need (Minneapolis) city leaders to play the kind of role of … Kshama Sawant, to stand steadfastly in the interest of working-class policies.”

A recent report by Seattle Met magazine says that results of a new poll defy conventional wisdom. “If you thought Socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant was bugging people with her ‘Combat Rock’ rhetoric and is on her way out: Guess again!” The poll shows her popularity at 50%, only 1% behind the “council all-star,” a Democrat. This is at the city level. At the district level, though, Sawant has a 61 percent favorable rating.

The pollsters note, “Sawant has the strongest favorable rating at the district level—her favorable in her district is 11 points higher than it is citywide and her unfavorable is 9 points lower.”

Sawant has consistently explained her positions in terms of class against class. “A recent poll,” she told a local TV station, “shows that 60% of Americans are convinced that the two big-business parties system is not working for us and we need an alternative.”

No matter how broad a coalition 15 Now builds in Minneapolis, Sawant warned, opposition will be fierce and well-financed. In Seattle opponents lamented the impact of a $15 minimum wage on small businesses—a public relations campaign underwritten covertly and ironically by the city’s biggest corporations. “Suddenly, you found Starbucks lamenting the fate of local coffee shops,” Sawant said.

In response, 15 Now tapped into popular frustration with a global economy and political structures that seem rigged in favor of corporations and the very wealthy. In that sense, Sawant said, 15 Now builds on the message of Occupy Wall Street and the resistance of fast-food and retail strikers, offering a plan of political action to combat the growth of income inequality. “We have been on the retreat, on the defensive,” she said. “That’s the beautiful thing about 15 Now—it’s the beginning of an offense. … When we organize collectively around concrete political demands, we can absolutely win.”

Other speakers included CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha) leader and fast-food worker Guillermo Lindsay, and MSP airport organizer Kip Hedges, who spoke to the effects of poverty wages on their co-workers and the dramatic impact $15 would have on their lives.

“I want to invite everyone here into a transformational struggle for $15, like the campaign for the eight-hour day was for workers 100 years ago,” said Kip Hedges, a 26-year baggage handler who will soon file a federal lawsuit against his illegal firing by Delta airlines—a case that sparked outrage and galvanized support for the $15 demand at MSP airport. The company claims Hedges made a “disparaging” comment about the company when he said in an on-line interview in December that a lot of workers at Delta earn less than $15.

The fight to reinstate Hedges has won broad labor support. The Minnesota AFL-CIO recently presented Hedges with a $5000 contribution to the fight to get his job back. Non-union Delta’s takeover of Minneapolis-based Northwest Airlines in 2008 led to a union decertification vote engineered by management. The maneuver stripped former Northwest workers of their collective bargaining rights and reduced them to so-called “at will” employees. Hedges and others, including mechanics and flight attendants, have been working to reorganize the union in collaboration with the International Association of Machinists.

After a spirited fund-raising appeal at the close of the meeting, 15 NOW organizers reported that $10,000 had been raised or pledged for the campaign.

Photo: Kip Hedges, a baggage handler and labor activist at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport who was fired by Delta Airlines, speaks to the Feb. 15 meeting. Michael Moore / Union Advocate

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