(The following was originally published in Social Policy.)
Like much labor rhetoric, past and present, Samuel Gompers’s warning to the Democrats and Republicans contained more bark than bite. When progressive labor activists tried to break with the two-party system in the early 1900s, the American Federation of Labor president rarely backed them, no matter how “unblemished” their union record, if they campaigned under the banner of the Socialist Party. He preferred, instead, to stick with mainstream politicians, often in need of “a stinging rebuke,” but rarely receiving one because of labor’s still strong tendency to embrace the “lesser evil” on any ballot.
In 2012–14, deepening labor disillusionment with the performance of Democratic office holders led “intelligent, honest, earnest trade unionists” around the country toenter the political arena themselves, as candidates for municipal office.2 Rather than being ignored as the work of marginal “spoilers,” some of these insurgent campaignsby shop stewards, local union officers, and rank-and-file activists actually won substantial union backing, while generating valuable publicity for key labor causes.
In Seattle, city council candidate Kshama Sawant, a community college professor who belongs to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), won support from a majority of central labor council delegates. Sawant used her campaign to promote the “Fight for Fifteen” in fast food, affordable housing for Seattle workers, and the anti-corporate agenda popularized by Occupy Wall Street. By defeating a well-connected centrist Democrat, who was a longtime incumbent, she became the first socialist elected to a Seattle municipal body in more than a century.3