Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.


By Jason Sibert

The early 20th century sewer socialist movement used socialist-oriented municipal politics to improve the lives of metropolitan residents. Sewer socialists fought for publicly owned sewers and electrical grids (so residents didn’t have to pay for the profit margins of a private systems), quality parks, quality education, quality public safety, quality infrastructure, a vibrant labor movement (sometimes achieved), and financially sound government.

A must issue for an updated sewer socialist movement is housing. Homelessness is present in our cities; rents are going up and putting pressure on the budgets of working people in metropolitan areas (in the rural areas as well); and buying seems out of reach for many.  Housing cooperatives are the answer to our housing affordability crises and should be a cause embraced by modern sewer socialists.

Back in 2013, I penned a story on coops during the great recession (Addressing Housing Affordability Using Cooperatives |  I detailed the efforts of Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt to expand homeownership and suggested federal involvement in housing cooperatives. According to the National Association of Housing Cooperatives, cooperative housing is defined as when “people join together on a democratic basis to own and control the housing or community facilities where they live.” According to the NAHC, 1.2 million families live in cooperative housing in the United States.

In my 2013 story, I suggested the creation of a Cooperative Housing Authority to promote coop housing. While I still think this is a good idea, creative sewer socialists could work to bring something similar about on the local level. Sewer socialist mayors and aldermen could allocate city funds to housing coop projects. Perhaps the coops could pay back the city funds within time. Housing coops usually charge so much to purchase a share in the cooperative and then a carrying charge (something like rent or mortgage in terms of monthly costs). Of course, each coop member is allowed a vote on the governing of the coop. By cutting an actual landlord out of the picture, housing coops offer working people cheaper housing. Keep in mind, housing coops could take the form of apartment complexes or single-family houses.

Low-wage workers in the restaurant, hotel and motel, healthcare, and retail sectors are currently attempting to organize unions, and these efforts have received attention in the media. In addition, Fight for Fifteen is a movement concentrated in low-wage sectors that fights for a higher minimum wage ($15 an hour). The movement has been successful, with California, Massachusetts, New York (downstate), Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, Florida, and Delaware passing $15 minimum wage laws. Cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City have raised their minimum wages to $15. These movements should work hand in hand with a movement for housing coops, as the low-wage sectors of our economy have many workers in need of affordable housing.

Perhaps the unions in these sectors could allocate some money for coops.  Remember, the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in New York City came about with the efforts of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union under the leadership of social democrat Sidney Hillman. It is the first co-op created by Founding President and Manager Abraham E. Kazan, known as “The father of cooperative housing in the United States.” New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the coop in a positive manner: “Amalgamated Cooperative Apartment House is a significant development in this comparatively new sphere. It signifies the economic soundness of the cooperative conception as well as the assured success of both these housing undertakings which were inspired by the splendid ideal of mutual good and reciprocal benefit.

Let’s not forget the possibility of tenants’ unions playing a role as well. Tenants’ unions have made a different in California’s metros, known for high rents. Tenants in cities in California are organizing tenants’ unions in their buildings and communities and have been influential in passing new rent control ordinances for the first time in over 30 years. Organization has made a difference in the fight against landlord lobbyists, corporate developers, and realtors. Perhaps an alliance amongst sewer socialists, labor unions, tenants’ unions, non-profits that represent low wage workers could make a dent in the problem of affordable housing.

The original sewer socialists brought certain economic activities into municipal ownership that were natural monopolies or at least very capital intensive. We can use some municipal funds to tame the power of the real estate industry. It’s unrealistic to think that workers in low-wage sectors would have enough money to start apartment complexes and housing developments on their own, but several entities acting cooperatively could make a big difference.

Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.


Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.

By Jason Sibert

The state of Wisconsin has long been called a progressive state due to the prominence of socialist and progressive politicians in the state. However, contemporary politics’ emphasis on social issues has turned the state into a swing state in presidential elections. Since the presidential election of 1988, it went for the Democrat except for Donald Trump in 2016 due to third party candidates (Green Party Candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson) and low turnout from Democrats. The closeness of presidential elections in Wisconsin, at least going back to the 1980s, means the Democrats must work hard to keep the state in their hands.

However, let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at a time when Wisconsin’s largest city – Milwaukee – was a hotbed of sewer socialists, people who were elected to office in major and mini-metropolitan areas and tried to make life better for the urban working class by the municipalization of natural monopolies (parks, sewers, utility companies, etc.), the quality delivery of public services, and quality management of taxpayers’ money. Milwaukee elected its first socialist mayor, Emil Seidel, in 1910. Mayor Seidel went to work to correct years of corruption in the Democratic and Republican parties, as he advocated strongly for the municipalization of utilities, but his most significant achievement was the reorganization of the city government. Seidel streamlined city administration by eliminating several departments and creating the Bureau of Economy and Efficiency, arguing that there would be fewer opportunities for politicians to skim the city budget. He also established the first municipal public works department and police and fire commissions in an American city and worked with the common council to raise the minimum wage for city laborers from $1.75 to $2.50 per day. In addition, the Milwaukee mayor made the 8-hour day standard for municipal crews, strengthened local Health Department inspections, and created the city’s park system. Although his two years as mayor had been quite productive and transformative, it made Democrats and Republicans more determined to unseat him. Another interesting fact: Seidel employed noted American poet Carl Sandberg as his personal secretary.

In his 1912 bid for reelecton, Seidel went up against a fusion Democratic-Republican ticket and was defeated by doctor, public health commissioner, and medical school professor named Gerhard Bading. However, Seidel would remain active in politics for the next several years. Socialist Party of America Presidential Candidate Eugene Debs chose him as a running mate in 1912. The Debs/Seidel ticket won six percent of the vote, the best for a socialist party presidential candidate in US history. Seidel was soundly defeated in another run for mayor in 1914. He won reelection as alderman in 1916 and continued in the job until 1920. He ran for Senate in 1932 and won six percent of the vote there as well. The sewer socialist once again returned to the office of Milwaukee alderman from 1932 to 1936.

Seidel died in Milwaukee on June 24, 1947, following an illness of several months’ duration related to complications from a heart condition. He was 82 years old. The legacy of sewer socialism would continue in Milwaukee after Seidel’s tenure as mayor, with Daniel Hoan and Frank Zeidler being elected to serve on as mayor after him.

Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.


By Sheldon Ranz

As the political chaos of redistricting finally, mercifully, comes to an end in New York State with the Democratic primaries for Congress and the State Senate on August 23, a new order of progressive leadership could emerge. There’s State Senator Alessandra Biaggi running for House District 17 (against Sean Maloney), Brittany Ramos DeBarros taking on Max Rose and possibly incumbent Nicole Malliotakis in House District 11; and Melanie D’arrigo running for House District 3 (Nassau County). There’s a rush of new enthusiasm for re-electing Rep. Jamaal Bowman because, with the albatross of his old Riverdale constituency no longer hanging around his neck, he was freed up to endorse the Palestinian Right of Return (BDS Demand #3) at the behest of Rep. Rashida Tlaib several months ago.

The most important August 23rd contest is the Democratic primary for U.S. House District 10. In a solidly blue new (no incumbent) district, the winner of the primary is all but certain to represent the District in Congress. The District reflects the 2020 Census results, consisting of Manhattan’s Chinatown, Greenwich Village, Wall Street and the Financial District, and the Lower East Side; as well as Brooklyn’s Park Slope, Sunset Park (Brooklyn’s Chinatown) and Borough Park. The latter two areas have large Latino and Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. There are over 12 candidates vying for this seat, and Social Democrats USA endorses the only consistent progressive in the race, Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou.

She has been advocating for New Yorkers in government for over a decade, first as Chief of Staff to Assemblymember Ron Kim. In 2016, she was elected in a historic landslide victory to represent New York’s 65th Assembly District, becoming the first AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) woman in the NYS Assembly and the first Asian-American to represent Manhattan’s Chinatown in the State Legislature. Yuh-Line helped form New York State’s first-ever Asian Pacific- American Legislative Task Force.

As SDUSA noted in our prior endorsement of Assemblymember Niou in Nine for New York, she secured a record $550 million in funding for the NYC Housing Authority for capital repairs to its crippling infrastructure and voted for the successful repeal of Bill 50-A, which shielded police misconduct and police brutality from public scrutiny. As an Elizabeth Warren endorser in 2020, she helped maintain the working alliance between Warren supporters and Berniecrats within the sex work decriminalization movement. Niou was one of the first public figures to speak out against then-NY Governor Andrew Cuomo when news of his abusive conduct was revealed. In the past six years, she has been the prime sponsor of 15 bills that became law, including one establishing a toll-free hotline for complaints of workplace sexual harassment.

Niou advocates single-payer health care, the Green New Deal, investment in public housing and eliminating the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. If elected to Congress, she intends to make predatory lending a target, based on feedback from her constituents. Unlike her fellow Democratic candidates Carlina Rivera or Dan Goldman, she doesn’t take huge gobs of real estate contributions; unlike Liz Holtzman, she wants to cancel student loan debt. If she wins, Niou — whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan when she was a child — would become only the second Asian-American elected to Congress from New York, after Grace Meng.

Of all the major candidates running for this Congressional seat, Niou is the only one who has brought up foreign policy in a serious manner – she didn’t have to, but she did anyway – by announcing her support for BDS. She did this not just in terms of supporting someone having a civil right to engage in a boycott per se, but stated her agreement with the overall stance of the movement in support of Palestinian human rights. Unsurprisingly, she has been deluged with attacks from the other candidates and the print media on this matter, but has stood firm. Both in her policies and in her outlook, Yuh-Line Niou is very much the social democrat. She has used government to direct resources toward the needy and the marginalized in order to achieve a more egalitarian society, and is willing to take risks on the diplomatic front to achieve the same goal on a more global scale.

Sheldon Ranz is Director of Special Projects for Social Democrats USA and the editor of Socialist Currents.


SDUSA’S National Executive Committee unanimously (6-0) passed the following resolution last evening:

SDUSA resoundingly, profoundly, and robustly condemns the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 Dobbs decision to overturn Roe V Wade that destroys women’s reproductive rights in our lifetime.  By taking away the right to privacy for all childbearing-aged women in America and by removing away their right to control their own bodies, their futures and the futures of their families the court has made Americans who might become pregnant – and their partners if they have them – into second-class citizens. By arguing that ths right to privacy does not exist in the U.S. Constitution, the court is also setting up millions of Americans to lose the rights they have had to equality in marriage, sexuality and possibly even education.  Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion leaves the argument open to overturn Griswald, Lawrence, Obergerfeld and even Brown v. Board of Education. Pro-life zealotry may be a motivating factor, but really we are being put on notice that it is time to say goodbye to all those Supreme Court decisions since the 1950s that have made us a fairer, freer and more equal society.

The question of when life begins – whether at conception or after “quickening” (i.e. after the baby starts to kick) or at the point of viability is one for theologians and lay people alike to debate for all time.  And to be sure there are members of the Court who deeply believe that abortion of any kind is murder, but these “pro-life” zealots are not now, nor do they ever take into consideration the lives that these “saved” babies might have or the damage that their mothers might suffer by having to bear unwanted pregnancies.  This ruling and the laws that enshrine this gutting of Roe have no exceptions for victims of rape, or rape-incest, or even if the life of the mother is at stake.  And the immature and frankly silly notion that all problems associated with unwanted pregnancies and birth are solved by “safe harbor” laws and/or the ability to adopt out solves very little.

The foster care systems which exist in our different states are woefully inadequate, and do not begin to take care of the children of all races in their charge, and unfortunately people are not exactly tripping over themselves to adopt black and brown children anywhere in the country.  Even when the system encourages adoption it takes a long time for qualified parents to be united with the children they want to adopt, and too often these children languish in one foster care home after another never going through proper stages of development which would allow them to thrive as they grow up.

By the same token the damage that women who are forced to carry unwanted babies to term is immeasurable – not only for the women but also for other children in the family and for the unwanted children themselves.  The economic consequences of having unwanted children can play out over more that two generations, and the damage done to teenage girls who are victims or rape or rape-incest are immeasurable.  But the people who have championed these laws are not concerned with the quality of life that these ‘saved” babies or their parents or their siblings might have, nor do they care about the cost to society.

The Right Wing of American politics started organizing around the anti-abortion position in 1978 when Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell realized the power that they could amass by doing so.  Up until then abortion was seen as an issue for Catholics and one that could (and would) split the working class and drive conservative Catholics from the Democratic Party.  In 1980 Reagan realized how he could attract Catholics and Evangelicals by taking an anti-abortion stand, even though he had not held that position while he was the governor of California.  And the Bushes (Barbara and George H.W. and Prescott) had all been big supporters of Planned Parenthood.

The Right Wing of American politics started its assault on the rest of us in the late 1970’s and really went into high gear with the Reagan Administration and everyday thereafter.  They want power and they want control over our lives. and they do not want women, or minorities, or non-heterosexuals to have power over our politics, our laws, our courts or our own lives or bodies.  And now that they have control of the US Supreme Court (having stolen at least one seat) they are not done by making abortion illegal and guns of all kinds legal, they’re coming after reproductive rights/freedoms, and all the decisions which stem from the right to privacy.  And not only are they advocating stiff penalties for women who might get abortions they are going after any health professional or anyone who might perform an abortion or council a woman about her choices.  And furthermore they are deputizing individuals to become their armies of vigilantes to sue anyone who tries to get an abortion.  Fortunately, we have states which will provide access to abortion and contraception and help people to choose what’s best for them, but the chaos that will come to pass is unimaginable, and if the Republicans in the House and Senate take over there will be a national federal ban, and then who knows what? Underground abortion railroads?

It is up to us Social Democrats to do what we can to work with unions and health-care providers to hold the line, to prevent the worst-case scenarios from coming to pass!


Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.

By Jason Sibert

Sewer socialism was a municipal movement in early to mid-20th century America that sought to make the lives of big and mid-sized cities better in several ways. Advocates of sewer socialism municipalized natural monopolies like sewers, trash collection, and electrical grids, and they worked to deliver quality public services to the residents of the cities they served – public safety, fire, education, (public) hospitals, and infrastructure. In addition, they also sought to be good stewards of the people’s money and fought corruption, as this set of politicians knew working class and poor people couldn’t afford to have their money wasted. Sewer socialists also, although not always, supported organized labor.

Any 21st century sewer socialism should include pushes for municipal wi-fi, municipal retail brokerage companies, municipally subsidized housing co-ops, maybe municipally subsidized retail co-ops, and an emphasis on quality fire protection, infrastructure, public safety, and education. A modern version of sewer socialism, like its 20th century ancestor, should emphasize that it can use taxpayers’ money wisely, as many taxpayers have modest means.

Modern sewer socialist movements should promote the cause of a powerful labor movement, and it might not take the AFL-CIO form. Sure, sewer socialists can assure trade unions gain work from city contracts, but it must reach portions of the workforce that are not heavily unionized and not well paid. Amy Qin’s piece New York and California Experiment with Giving Workers a Say in Industry Standards gives those who believe in a modernized sewer socialism a guidebook for empowering working people. The story concentrates on service workers, a big part of our economy, and points out that less than three percent of fast-food workers and one percent of nail salon workers are unionized. California, a state with more than half a million fast food employees (more than any state in the county), is considering a bill to address the exploitation in that industry. The Fast-Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act (FFASRA) would make franchisers liable for labor violations of their franchisees and would also protect workers who speak up. The FFASRA introduces something even more interesting – a workers’ council. The 11-member Fast Food Sector Council, which includes workers, worker advocates, regulators, franchisees and franchisers would be appointed by the state to set sector-wide policy on wages, working hours, and health and safety regulations. The idea is that workers know what violations are occurring, and franchisees know how they’re being squeezed. In addition, the council would let them simultaneously bring their issues to corporate representatives and regulators, who have the power to change profit structures and working conditions.

Since 2018, four states and three localities have instituted workers’ councils in sectors from domestic work to agriculture. In Philadelphia, a domestic workers’ council is facilitating the country’s first portable paid leave system, so workers can accrue time off across multiple employers.  In New York, the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Act would create a workers’ council with business owners, government delegates, and workers in 15 voter seats. It has the power to recommend a statewide pricing model, addressing the race to the bottom that’s pushing salon owners to cut corners and wages. Sector-based councils aren’t new, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal featured them in the National Recovery Administration (NRA). There were problems with the NRA; some employers cheated on the established rules and the whole program was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Features of the NRA were later included in New Deal pro-labor legislation like the minimum wage and the Wagner Act as well as in the regulation of utility industries – airlines, trucking, and busses. Qin points out that such boards would be a boon to industries that are hard to unionize or where there are few unions.

Sewer socialist mayors, aldermen and alderwomen need to work on creating workers’ councils in their respective municipalities. This would make life easier for the urban, suburban, and rural working class. It might also serve as an example for bigger, federal programs down the road and strengthen social democratic tendencies in our country.

Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.