In-depth interview: “All working people need a path forward”

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Margaret Viggiani, manager of the Freedom Socialist newspaper, sat down in March with Steve Hoffman, who is running for U.S. Senate from Washington state. Below is their wide-ranging discussion, lightly edited.

Viggiani: You are running as the FSP senate candidate, what is your background and experience?

Hoffman: I grew up in Ohio. When I got out of high school I joined the Navy. I remember going to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. There are these huge ships lined up on the pier, towering over you, making you feel so small. It looked like they went clear out to the horizon, grey metal and guns. I kept thinking of all the money and labor that went into constructing those massive weapons of war.

Here I was thinking that all this was a lot of wasted effort that could be used for something better, and that was before I became a political activist. Since I got out of the military I have opposed and marched against every war.

After the military, I got into the workforce. I have been working for the past 27 years as a maintenance technician to keep the lights on at North Seattle College. I am also a union shop steward. As a steward you represent workers and the union on the job.

As a shop steward, I spend a lot of time defending workers, especially women, against bullies on the job, and standing up for the rights of my fellow workers. Those efforts have given me good experience on how to represent working people. Facing off with the bosses, after the bosses have treated people unfairly, has given me knowledge on how to stand with, and defend, workers.

I am the recording secretary of my union, WFSE Local 304 (Washington Federal of State Employees). In 2009, at the beginning of the Great Recession, I organized with my union a rally against the budget cuts in Olympia when no one else would.  

I also organized a rally in front of Amazon to demand they pay their fair share of taxes. Did you know that Amazon pays an effective tax rate, which means all of their taxes combined, which is half of what Walmart pays? And it’s not like Walmart’s losing money.

These are a few examples of what I have done to organize working people. I am involved in community struggles as a member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and also of Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS). OWLS’ motto is “We do a lot of kicking ass for the working class.” That is what I would do, if I became a senator. Go to Washington, D.C. and kick some ass for the working class.

Viggiani: You are running for U.S. Senate. Why do you want to go to DC? Why not run for a local position?

Hoffman: This is a high-level office, as opposed to a local office and I think the problems we face stem from a system that is global. You can’t solve them on a local level. Let’s think about war. Politicians drain money away from health care and services. They should be tripling public housing, not pouring money down the drain into military contracts.

And look at the recent tax cuts. That was a boondoggle. Congress gave tax breaks to corporations making record profits, instead of taxing them to provide services and health care that people need. This is what we voters get when there are two parties that represent the bosses. So I want to go in and address these bigger picture issues that are really effecting the lives of working people both here in this country and around the world.

Viggiani: Why did you pick Senator Maria Cantwell to run against?

Hoffman: I see myself as running as a labor candidate, representing unions and working people. I aim to really represent the working class.

The incumbent Maria Cantwell is the opposite of a labor candidate. Look at Cantwell’s record. She voted for the North American Trade Agreement and the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Free trade agreements pit working people against each other around the world. They create a vicious race to the bottom of the economic ladder. Cantwell supports corporate interests.

She also voted for the Iraq war and keeps voting to fund all the wars.

Cantwell is part of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. She supported Bill Clinton’s “Third Wave Movement” back in the 1990s. That was based on the privatization of public services. In other words, giving publicly owned services to private organizations to run. Privatization means the loss of a public service or utility and is also a form of union busting since most public workers are unionized. That is what the free trade agreements she voted for do.

And let’s not forget the “tough on crime” component which the resulted in the 1994 crime bill. Maria Cantwell voted for it when she was in the House of Representatives. That bill put mass incarceration on steroids. Cantwell is not any kind of liberal, and is certainly not a labor candidate.  

Viggiani: As a union activist you know that union participation is at an all-time low in the country. What should be done to change this and why is it important to working people?

Hoffman: Unions are important, and that is why I am a labor candidate. It’s part of my main platform that we need to have stronger unions.

It’s time to provide everyone with free health care, education and social services. All working people need a path forward.  

And if you really want to improve wages, improve working conditions, protect yourself on the job, you need unions. They are the organizations that can exercise working people’s power, as a class, to really make change. So we need to organize more people into unions.

There was an opportunity to make it a bit easier for unions to organize after a long stretch of time during which the courts kept ruling against them. The courts have passed injunctions against strikes, and made ridiculous rules such as there can only be two people picket at a time. Back in the day, the 1930s, organized labor stopped production of the whole factory by mass pickets. Now we are stopped from exercising our full collective bargaining rights. The rights of workers have been eroded away by courts and by laws.

Back to my main point about making it better for unions, in 2010 there was the Employee Free Choice Act coming up for a vote. It would cut down on some of the retaliation that employers use to stop people from unionizing. The Employee Free Choice Act came before Congress while a Democrat was in the White House and there were Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. And despite promising the labor movement to pass this reform it didn’t happen. The Democrats just couldn’t manage to get it done. This tells me which class they really represent.

In Wisconsin, my union, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and others stood up to Scott Walker when he attacked collective bargaining rights. There were huge protests and the occupation of the capitol with students and community and workers united. But Barack Obama never showed up. He never showed up to support the workers. And in the end, the Wisconsin Democrats decided to run a recall. They ran some guy who dumped the whole collective bargaining issue right in the middle of the campaign and they lost.

Unions also need to shake things up. They need to be much more democratic and actually fight for rank and file workers. The problem is that some union leaders make deals with the bosses or are too closely tied to politicians in the Democratic Party. These union leaders keep things from getting out of hand.

And right now there is a case, Janus vs AFSCME, that threatens to make right-to-work the law of the land for all public sector workers. Right to work is where a union can’t require people to pay for representation that the union provides or for benefits the union negotiates. Where right to work is the law, unions are really underfunded.

In right to work states the poverty rates are much higher and the unionization rates are much lower. So in times like these the unions need to get more out of hand. They cannot worry about keeping things under control.

Viggiani: What do you think about the West Virginia teachers strike?

[Note: this interview took place while the strike was going on.]

Hoffman: I think it’s just great, what the West Virginia teachers are doing. They are showing the way to the rest of the union movement. These teachers are so low paid. And yet here they are, fighting for themselves and quality public education in West Virginia.

And they have been toughening it out despite the fact that their strike has been declared illegal. They did it anyway. They are not caving in, taking the lousy deal that everyone is telling them to take.

Who cares if the strike is illegal? The labor movement was built on illegal strikes. In the 1970s there was the growth of public-sector unions. There was a strike of public employees every 36 hours in this country. And every one of those strikes had one thing in common – they were all illegal. So I think the West Virginia teachers are reviving a great tradition in the labor movement. And we should be supporting them every inch of the way.

Viggiani: You’ve talked about your union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Your local, WFSE 304, was the first to go to the Washington state capital in Olympia to protest for much-needed changes in tax structure to fully fund social services, education and health care. Tell me more about that organizing.

Hoffman: It was after the Great Recession of 2008. The next year big budget cuts were happening. State employees, many who were already 25-50 percent below the market rate for what they do, were told that they would not get pay raises.

My local decided that we needed to fight against this. We put out the call to other unions. We focused on unions that represent people like AFSCME does, women, people of color, low-paid workers who are always the first to fight. These workers are ready to fight because they most need to fight for their own survival.

I contacted student groups from Evergreen State College, a liberal arts college near Olympia. And we got several hundred people to come out to a rally.

We had help from Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity, the Freedom Socialist Party, and Radical Women in Seattle, a sister organization with FSP. They all helped organize unionists and other community members to go down to protest these massive cuts.

The basic demand was a call to fund education, health care and services by taxing the wealthy and corporate profits. The press picked up on it. We were the first ones to fight, and we had logical, concrete demands and we got very positive press.  

My statewide union had told us not to rally because they were worried about the negative press we would get. But, as it turns out, when you are the first to fight, and you have logical demands, the press likes it, and the people come out in support.

Later on a couple years later, there was a rally of thousands that the statewide labor leadership organized against these austerity measures that continued. At that point the state leaders had to admit they were wrong to tell us not to organize in 2009.

Viggiani: You call yourself a feminist and yet you are running against a woman. How do you respond to that?

Hoffman: Ideas, what you stand for, don’t have a gender. Or a color, for that matter. It’s who you stand with over the years, and who you represent and fight with that matters.

As I mentioned before, I’ve been a strong advocate for women on the job. When women workers are bullied by management I am the shop steward that represents them. I’ve become the “go-to” shop steward for people being harassed.

And I have also worked closely with Seattle Radical Women, a socialist feminist organization that works to combine the issues of labor and unions with community issues and women’s issues and bring them all together in a strong, united front. I’ve helped to build labor support for those efforts, so we can bring people together across barriers. I have a record of fighting for women, on the job, and in the community.

Maria Cantwell pursues policies that are very damaging to women. Think of the wars she supports. Women bear the brunt of the devastation caused by war. Women and children are the majority of casualties of these wars.

Look at the free trade agreements Cantwell supports. Women, or mostly women, end up working in maquiladora-type factories, getting viciously exploited. So when if comes to who has a better record on women’s issues, I think I do.

Viggiani: Where do you stand on reproductive rights?

Hoffman: I am for abortion on demand, period. It’s up to women to decide. It’s their body. Women deserve to control their bodies and lives without the state or religious bigots telling them what to do.

Viggiani: Where do you stand on issues of transgender rights?

Hoffman: I am for transgender rights. I am totally opposed to any kind of discrimination or mistreatment of anyone based on race, gender, gender identity, age, ability, immigration or anything like that. We have got to fight against any kind of discrimination. If we allow discrimination against any group, like transgender people, it just divides us as working people.

The right wing tries to pick people off, divide the working class. They say you shouldn’t support this group, or that one. That breaks down our solidarity and we can’t fight together. And so, I am against all forms of discrimination period. And I feel very strongly about including transgender rights.

Viggiani: Do you think we should put up walls to stop people from coming to this country?

Hoffman: Hell no! Ask yourself, what is the wall? I think the borders should be open.

The bosses under capitalism have this right to move their capital and their factories, capital and money and our jobs and anybody else’s jobs across the border at will. And that is a sacred right for them. But a worker crosses the border to follow the work to survive, and that person is a criminal. We have got to change that. Open the borders! Disband ICE! All workers, including all immigrants, have to have full civil rights and labor rights.

I supported the mass of demonstrations that started happening in 2006 when there was a terrible immigration bill called the Sensenbrenner Bill. The immigrant communities held what was basically a general strike. Workers were in the streets by the hundreds of thousands. I saw signs that said, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” And that is really what happened. I’ll say it again, the borders should be open.

Viggiani: As a government worker, do you think the Democrats were right to hold out for a DACA fix and to shut down the government to do it?

Hoffman: Well, sure, if the Democrats had held out for it. But they didn’t hold out. They caved.

When it comes to getting a big tax cut for the rich and those kinds of things, somehow the politicians manage to get together and get it done. But when it comes to standing up for working people, and the rights of immigrant workers, not so much.

The Democrats didn’t stick to their guns. But are they really representing workers and immigrants? They worry too much about how the right wing is going to attack them politically. They are too affected by the anti-immigrant hysteria. The Democrats should have held out for more if that was sincerely what they were doing.

Now, in the aftermath, the immigration reform proposals that are on the table say that yes, maybe we’ll give some Dreamers legal status, but we are going to make it way easier to deport their parents. What kind of viciously cruel alternative is that?

We need a different economic system. One that doesn’t pit people against each other based on things like what country you came from.

Viggiani: You talked a little bit about the rising right wing and the Democrats’ response to it. In Washington state Joey Gibson, who is the head of the Patriot Prayer, has also thrown his hat into the ring against Maria Cantwell. What do you think about Gibson?

Hoffman: I don’t have a lot of good things to say about him. The guy is a hyper nationalist. When you look at his videos they represent nationalistic pride, not progressive solutions for working people especially for those who get the rawest deals, like women and people of color and differently abled people.

So this guy he says he is not a racist, or misogynist, or a reactionary. Just some kind of populist who is really advocating for the working man. But it’ not true.

Last summer I was with a lot of young people, students, and workers and we tried to march to his rally to make clear that we didn’t support Gibson or his reactionary politics. We, the counter protesters, were prevented from doing that by the police and their liberal use of tear gas and concussion grenades.

Meanwhile, he is up there yammering and is surrounded by people in Nazi regalia and Klan and white supremacist-type symbols. And I was thinking this guy looks more like a fascist than a populist.

I do not think GIbson is a good alternative for people. He has allied himself with different groups like the Proud Boys who are fascistic thugs. They do the security at his rallies. The Proud Boys go out into the crowd and provoke fights with young people. I’ve witnessed this myself. They are super-hyper masculine jerks who are thugs and that is who Gibson has for security.

Viggiani: You’ve talked about wanting to close U.S. military bases around the world. Won’t that just cause chaos? How does that help working people here or abroad?

Hoffman: We have to really look at what those military bases are for. And there are an awful lot of them, over 800, if you don’t count the smaller ones, in 80 different countries. The U.S. already spends more on our military then the next eight countries combined.

Most countries have, at most, a few bases in other countries. We have hundreds. What is the U.S. trying to achieve with all these military bases?

Our troops were in Afghanistan when the Russians were there. And we helped build the Taliban. First we supported Saddam, then he was the arch enemy. There are terrible consequences when the U.S. mucks around in things.

Look at our support for Israel. The U.S government supports Israel no matter what. No matter that the Israelis are developing nuclear weapons and everyone else in the region is afraid. Regardless of the fact that Israel has been occupying Palestinian territory for decades and oppressing the Palestinians. No matter what Israel does, the U.S. shields Israel from criticism.

It’s no surprise that the United States government is hated throughout the Middle East. I really think that it gets down to what Martin Luther King Jr. said in a 1967 speech against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York. He said that “the U.S. government is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” And I would say that 50 years later that is certainly still true. I don’t believe that the 186,000 U.S. troops abroad are on a humanitarian mission. They are on a mission to protect the interests of U.S. corporations. It’s called imperialism.

Viggiani: There has been a lot of talk in recent years on how the U.S. is not doing great by our vets. What would you say to that?

Hoffman: That is certainly true. There all these military personnel that get bad paper discharges, maybe you’ve heard of this term. These are many veterans that get discharged because they go into combat and as a result develop PTSD and act out. Maybe they take some drugs, or drink too much alcohol, or get in a fight and they are disciplined for that.

So these vets get a bad conduct discharge. Mind you, this bad conduct discharge is a result of what happened to the soldiers while in the Army. But now they can’t access the health care and other benefits that they need. This has got to come to an immediate stop.

The bad conduct is the old men who send the soldiers over there to fight for corporate profits. That’s the bad conduct. When these vets come back they need to receive treatment. And the treatment needs to be much better funded, without any kind of privatization. Keep the VA intact and expand its services. It’s just ridiculous that a soldier has to go through what they do overseas and they get a bad conduct, or dishonorable discharge. That is not honorable to do that to them.

Viggiani: You’ve raised the issue of privatization. What exactly does that mean?

Hoffman: Privatization is taking public services that are publicly provided, like education, and turning them into privately provided entities. An example of this is the charter schools. Many school districts are taking money out of the public-school system to pay for privately run charter schools. And most of these charter schools are not unionized. So privatization is also about union-busting, like busting teachers’ unions. And charter schools are not as accountable to the community. Public schools are run by elected school boards. Charter schools are not. And public schools are required to educate all children even if English is their second language or they have disabilities, charter schools are not. That is one example of privatization.

My job at North Seattle College is subject to privatization. I am a maintenance worker and they could take my job and contract it out to some company that does maintenance. Studies have shown that once services are contracted out, or privatized, the cost goes way up and the accountability goes way down.

Viggiani: You’ve talked a little bit about corporate bosses and the economic system. You call yourself a socialist. What are the problems with capitalism and why you are a socialist? What does socialism mean to you?

Hoffman: Under capitalism everything is geared towards making profit. Decisions are not based on what people or the environment need. They are based on what will make some corporation or capitalist more money. So there is a lot of waste and bad decision making on what gets produced. Capitalism also pits workers against each other in the race to the bottom. Employers try to pay their employees the least to maximize their profits. And many bust their unions trying to drive down wages and take away worker benefits.

In the last 30 or 40 years the productivity of workers has more than doubled. So every time people go to work, they are producing twice as much wealth. But somehow working people’s standard of living keeps goes down. People in my workplace can’t afford to live in the city where they work. There is something wrong with this system.

There is something wrong if you work harder and produce more for the bosses and your standard of living goes down and your stress goes up. Enough of this!

We need a socialist system where the workers are in charge. Where everything, the enterprises, are owned by people collectively, the workers. They call the shots about what’s produced and only produce what’s needed. And we provide everyone health care instead of building B1 bombers. This is what socialism looks like. It’s run democratically by the workers. And representatives are democratically elected.

Everything is based to meet people’s needs and not to generate profits for a few people to become fabulously rich. Like the two richest dudes in the world that live in the Seattle area and pay almost no taxes. That’s not right.

Viggiani: Washington state does not have an income tax.

Hoffman: That’s right. We have the most regressive tax system in the nation which Maria Cantwell touted as a great tax system the last time I saw her during a debate with Republicans.

Viggiani: You mentioned the inability of working people to live in Seattle, where you reside, because affordable housing is almost non-existent in this region. How would you tackle housing and homelessness issues?

Hoffman: To begin with I would tax the corporations and the wealth, the accumulated wealth, of rich people. And I would end all that spending on the military, which is over 50 percent of the federal budget now. And defer that money to doing things like building a hell of a lot more public housing.

If we have lots of public housing, that is based on people’s income, and not having to pay more than 30 percent of your income, that is going to pull down the whole market too. We have to have an adequate amount of public housing.

Another thing that needs to happen is to pass laws like rent control. We also have to rein in the power of the greedy developers who just are speculating. Just look at rent in Seattle, it’s gone up so fast it’s got to be way beyond what developers are putting into it. So we have to put in laws that rein in their avarice and also create a lot more public housing.

On homelessness, we need to provide services. A housing first program. Homeless people can’t get out of homelessness until they have some stability in their lives. They might need social services, health care, drug treatment or whatever. Or maybe they just need a job that pays enough to live on. And access to education, so they can get those jobs. Instead of doing homeless sweeps.

You know there was a large social movement in the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement, and part of that become known as the war on poverty. We were all supposed to be waging a war on poverty. Over the years that has turned into the war on the poor. It’s time to reverse that by building a social movement to end poverty.

Viggiani: What do you think about estate taxes?

Hoffman: I am totally for estate taxes. For one thing, they already don’t apply to anybody that has an estate of less than several million dollars I believe. So it’s a very small number of very rich people who are getting large fortunes. These people didn’t work for their money, they are getting it from their parents. And they can’t pay a little taxes on that? Come on, the rest of us are paying property taxes and sales taxes. Some people can’t even afford to stay in their houses because property taxes jacked up a thousand dollars a year again. So yes, I think the rich can pay some taxes on these vast inherited fortunes.

Viggiani: Climate change is all over the news. And locally there is a fight by the Puyallup Tribe to stop the Liquid Natural Gas plant and holding center from going into Tacoma, Washington. Where do you stand on the question of fracking and liquid natural gas?

Hoffman: I am against fracking. Maria Cantwell has been a big supporter of it. Fracking has been an ecological catastrophe. You know those fracking companies won’t even say what chemicals they are pumping into the ground to break up the earth. They won’t say what chemicals are used and they are not required to. The whole concept is disastrous. We really need to get away from fossil fuels.

Climate change is already happening. Look at the native communities of Washington state. The Quileute tribe is moving their town because the sea water is rising. Whole nations are getting ready to evacuate in the South Pacific. It’s very real, the storms, intense hurricanes and wildfires. We have to deal with this crisis. We have to move away from the fossil fuels.

And that I why I support the Puyallup tribe. They’re putting this issue up front to fight it. They are also very concerned about the potentially devastating environmental effects that would happen on their land and near their land. And they have every right to look at what has happened to other communities as a result of fracking projects and say Hell No! We should all support the tribe.

The U.S. should get away from fossil fuels. That is why I propose that we nationalize the energy industry under workers’ control and make it accountable to the public. So the workers and the public can make decisions about how the energy infrastructure is built. We can make a swift transition to sustainable renewable energy sources and cut down the carbon emissions that are lousing up the planet.

There are some scary scenarios about how the carbon dioxide is hitting tipping points. The tundra is melting and releasing an enormous amount of carbon dioxide from the ground. It’s an escalating feedback loop that gets totally out of control pretty quick.

There is too much at stake. If we leave energy production in private corporations’ hands, they will keep pumping every well dry because they’ve invested a lot of money into drilling rights and equipment and they need to milk the maximum profits. That is what private corporations do, they generate more profits. The energy industry, and all the Congress people that they have bought and paid for, is addicted to fossil fuels and the only way to stop them is by nationalizing the whole industry.

Viggiani: And what does it mean when you say “nationalize the energy industry”?

Hoffman: You take all the different utilities and power generating facilities and all the current fossil fuel industries, oil, gas and all that, like Exxon, and the private utilities, those need to be taken over and transitioned away from oil and gas and coal.

The state would take them over and put them under the control of the workers. The workers would run it democratically with input from the community. There would be a rational decision-making process on how energy is produced. One that takes into consideration the consequences for the environment and the people and the critters who are on the planet.

Viggiani: I’d like to switch topics to voting rights. There has been a lot written on voting rights in the last few years, and how some people’s voting rights have been taken away through gerrymandering of districts or because they have a record as felons. What do you think is needed to help guarantee that every person has the ability to vote, has, actually, the right to vote?

Hoffman: I definitely think we need a ban on all those practices that you talk about, like gerrymandering that creates wacky voting district boundaries so that people of color are disenfranchised.

Gerrymandering and the voter ID laws should be struck down because they disproportionately affect communities of color. Who needs voting rights more than the people who are being most oppressed?

The Supreme Court shouldn’t have undone the Voting Rights Act. A lot of these voting systems in these states that have historic problems disenfranchising people of color, they were under court mandates and supervision of the federal government to make sure they didn’t engage in discriminatory practices. And they were let off the hook. That needs to end. The Voting Rights Act needs to be strengthened and applied vigorously by the federal government.

Viggiani: Do you think convicted felons should have the right to vote?

Hoffman: Yes, I do.

Viggiani: Even if they are in prison?

Hoffman: Yes. Their liberties have been taken away, and the majority of them are in for nonviolent crime. That’s a whole other issue. A lot of them should be let out of jail. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Many times more than supposedly repressive countries like China. So inmates should at least be given the right to vote, maybe they can help elect politicians who will end mass incarceration. Maybe they would vote for me.

Viggiani: What is your feeling on arming teachers?

Hoffman: That’s crazy. I think you better talk to students of color and ask them if they want armed teachers. The experience they have with people in authority with guns is not positive. Just look at the police shootings. Do students need to have so many guns held by authority figures? I doubt it. Anyway, I’m not for that. A lot of teachers are against that. It’s not in their job description to carry guns. Give them funding so they can adequately educate people.

Viggiani: Why should someone vote for you?


Hoffman: Vote for me if you want someone to go to Congress and fight for you. If you want to turn the tables on the rich, send a union militant like me to Congress.

Viggiani: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Hoffman: It’s time for Labor to declare their political independence from the capitalist class. They need to. They need to declare their independence and start organizing an independent labor party.  And get away from supporting these two capitalist political parties. One way to get started in the process of declaring political independence is by supporting me, a labor candidate and a socialist for congress.

Viggiani: Has a union already endorsed you?

Hoffman: Yes, my local, the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) Local 304 has endorsed my campaign, enthusiastically and unanimously I might add. Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity has also enthusiastically supported my campaign. So I do have labor support and I would like to get out there and talk to as many unions as possible. That is what I am trying to do now because I really want to carve out a path of political independence for labor and for working people and also want to talk to and hear from rank-and-file workers about what they think political independence means for them.

Note: Since this interview, Hoffman has secured the endorsements of two more WFSE locals and the Puget Sound Chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, among other organizations and individuals. See the complete list of endorsers to date.