Jess Spear, socialist of the Sawant persuasion

Jess Spear was at socialist candidate Kshama Sawant’s elbow when Sawant announced her plans to oust incumbent Seattle city councilman Richard Conlin in 2013. And, as volunteer coordinator for the campaign, she was there again when Sawant gave her victory speech eight months later, becoming the first socialist elected in a major US city in decades. But on May 21 of this year, the roles were reversed. With Sawant at her elbow, Spear announced her own socialist campaign for Washington State Representative. 

Spear, a climate scientist by trade, spoke with Working In These Times about how she helped win a $15 minimum wage for workers in Seattle, which passed by city ordinance on June 2, as well as about the challenge she’s mounting against Democratic Speaker of Washington’s State House, Frank Chopp and why union support will be critical to her campaign. 

How were you involved in winning a $15 an hour minimum wage for Seattle workers? What are the next steps if you win this coming election? 

I was the organizing director for 15 Now, and I was involved with getting people active in pressuring city officials, pressuring the mayor’s committee to really deliver for workers. We had a week of action in March where people did different things like banner drops along highways and ride buses in order to talk to people about 15 Now. That culminated with the March for 15 on March 15. 

We have 15 Now chapters in 17 other cities or states. There’s movement already in the New York City council, there’s a number of Chicago aldermen that are pushing 15 forward, there’s a ballot initiative in San Francisco for 15. So we’re already seeing movement on a national scale. We think it’s important to spread 15 Now nationally and use the same type of grassroots movement building nationally to really push these different cities to adopt a $15 an hour minimum wage. 

You’ve said the Seattle ordinance is different from what 15 Now was pushing for. Could you explain? 

The mayor’s proposal that came to the City Council on May 1 had a number of corporate loopholes, as did the version he eventually passed. It allowed a three- to 4-year phase-in for big businesses and a 5- to 7-year phase-in for smaller businesses, which they define as businesses with less than 500 employees. It includes what is essentially a 10-year pathway, because after 7 years, the small businesses have to phase-in to $15. At that point, they’re still going to be paying less than what big businesses pay because the cost-of-living adjustment doesn’t occur until you get to $15. So for another 3 years, they will be paying sub-minimum wages compared to big businesses.

To us, these loopholes were completely unnecessary, and it’s unfair to workers to make them wait even another day for relief. So we did what we could to close them, but the Democratic Party majority in the City Council—we only have one socialist sitting there—allowed these corporate loopholes, and actually added a few more.

In the end, councilmember Kshama Sawant voted for the package, and 15 Now is celebrating because for us, this is a step forward. We’re now covering all workers—it’s not just a handful in a few industries. It is a major step out of poverty for many workers. One out of 4 in Seattle are going to see 15, so we’re very excited about it.

You’re running against Frank Chopp, who is a Democratic State Representative. Why did you choose to run against a Democrat?

Washington State is completely controlled by the Democratic Party. We’re challenging the Speaker of the House because he represents everything that is broken in our state, everything that is broken with the whole idea that we have to give corporate tax handouts for jobs, but [that] if we want to fund social services, we have to tax ordinary working people. That type of leadership doesn’t get us anywhere.

A lot of people talk about how [Frank Chopp] is generally progressive. He supports raising the minimum wage, he supports helping homeless people, he supports most of the same issues that we care about. But it’s not just about supporting something; it’s about whether or not you’re going to fight for it. We are showing through Sawant on the City Council how it’s possible, even with just a single seat in government, to win real gains for working people.

Both the Democrats and Republicans talk a lot about the “middle class.” You and Sawant talk more about “working people” and the “working class.” What’s the difference, and why is it important for socialists?

Anybody that has to work for a living, has to labor [or] is paid a salary or a wage is part of the working class. This can mean people who consider themselves middle class, like professionals, teachers, scientists, engineers, and the like, as well as those that work in retail all the way up [to management].

Democrats and Republicans like to talk about the middle class versus the upper-middle class, and the 1%, and then those below the middle class. We would challenge the notion that there is separate middle class, lower class, upper-middle class, and instead look at all workers as being in the same boat together, being affected by [capitalist policies]—in different ways, but affected by them in a negative way as compared to those that are in the capitalist class, those that own what we would call the means of production. And so, as socialists we would say that it’s in the interests of all workers to be in solidarity with one another and fight for a world in which the economy is organized to meet our needs.

Over the course of the 20th century the word “socialist” cycled through many different meanings and elicited a range of reactions, many of them negative. But recently it seems that socialism has been making something of a comeback. Do you think Americans are coming around to socialism—or is socialism coming around to Americans?

I think it’s both. I think that the economic recession we experienced in the United States [and] globally has really shaken the foundations for a lot of people and made them question their once deeply held belief that the system works as a meritocracy. That if you work really hard, if you go to school, if you get good grades, you’ll get a good job, you’ll be successful, you’ll be able to get a home, you’ll have a good life. Because the economic recession has caused a lot of people to question that, they start to look for alternatives, and one of those alternatives is socialism.

Socialist Alternative has taken the initiative to show what a socialist is, explain the ideas, get out there and talk to people about this alternative. It’s one thing to say socialism is more favorable than capitalism, but it’s another to really understand what we mean by that, and what it means to have a socialist elected to office. Here in Seattle, electing the first socialist [to Seattle public office] in a hundred years, and then six months later seeing a $15 an hour minimum wage pass, I think it’s been demonstrated for people what it looks like to elect somebody that unambiguously stands on the side of working people.

A big part of your platform is environmental issues. Were you an environmentalist first or a socialist, and how do these come together for you?

I guess I called myself an environmentalist first. I got involved in climate science when I was an undergrad in college. I think a lot of people were quite demoralized by the time I got to graduate school. It was 2005 and people felt by that point we really were headed towards a tipping point, and we didn’t see any political action.

I studied, got a degree, and went on to work in the US Geological Survey. I was working there in 2011 when the uprisings occurred in Tunisia, then Egypt. Just watching the toppling of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was life-shaking. And the uprising in Wisconsin, which was inspired by the Egyptian uprising, then of course Occupy Wall Street breaking out—[it] was incredibly inspiring and made me feel optimistic and hopeful for the first time.

I was living in Seattle at that point, and so I went down to the Occupy encampment in Seattle and had a conversation with [Socialist Alternative] about the root of global warming, the economic recession. I got involved with Socialist Alternative and have been ever since.

So in general, yeah, I started off as an environmentalist and now I call myself a socialist. But I think any environmentalist could [identify] a socialist at this point.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission