Amazon TAXED! Lessons of the Tax Amazon Victory in Seattle

By Logan Swan, Socialist Alternative (USA)

The Tax Amazon movement and Seattle’s working class won a historic victory on Monday, July 6. Following a three year struggle against the richest man in the world – Jeff Bezos – and his political establishment, we’ve won a tax on big business in the Seattle City Council that will raise an estimated $210-240 million a year, creating tens of thousands of green union jobs by building permanently affordable social housing.

This victory was entirely due to the power of our movement and our threat to take the Amazon Tax to the ballot if the City Council failed to act. This offensive win is a historic example of the power of class struggle, and it could not come at a better time. Cities and states across the country are pushing extreme austerity budgets in response to the pandemic-triggered budget shortfalls as we enter into another deep crisis of capitalism.

We’ve seen the ruling class attempting to again offload the costs of their recession onto working people as they did during the Great Recession of 2008-09, where big business got bailed out and workers got sold out. While trillions get pumped into Wall Street, we’ve only gotten a one-time check that doesn’t even cover half of your average Seattle rent, and the extra money on unemployment benefits is set to run out at the end of the month even though unemployment is at record highs. It doesn’t have to be like this, and our victory in Seattle illuminates that. 

I am a union ironworker and member of Socialist Alternative and I think that this pitched battle against Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and Seattle’s billionaire class has rich lessons for working people across the country. This article is an attempt at highlighting the most important lessons of this victory so that workers across the country can put up similar fights.

The Amazon Tax win runs completely counter to what the ruling class wants. Instead of playing defense against austerity, we went on the offense to force big business to pay for a major expansion of affordable housing and public services. Now, we need to spread the momentum from our victory across the country. Our rallying cry everywhere must be: say NO to underfunded housing, education, social services, and austerity! Tax big business and the rich, not working people!

How Did We Get Here?

Round one: In 2018, we launched the Tax Amazon movement, demanding that the big businesses which have long used Seattle as a corporate tax haven instead pay to fund affordable housing. Seattle has some of the nation’s fastest rising rents. It has been the site of shockingly rapid gentrification that has emptied out entire districts of working class people, particularly in the Central District and Capitol Hill areas, neighborhoods that were historically the home of Black and LGBTQ communities.

Socialist Alternative and our City Council Office of Kshama Sawant built a coalition of community groups and labor organizations to take up the campaign and build pressure on the City Council to pass a progressive tax on the largest companies in the city.

As a rank-and-file union ironworker, I wanted to be put to work building housing regular people can actually afford to live in, instead of the luxury condos and apartments that private developers are profiting from now. Too often these sit vacant as working people are pushed out to longer and longer commutes or into the streets. As a socialist, I understood that in order to address the failure of the private market to provide affordable housing it will mean taking on the bosses and taxing big business to build permanently affordable public housing instead.

What I didn’t expect was that it would include taking on my own union leadership, which allowed construction workers to be used as cover for big business as they framed our tax on big business as a “tax on jobs.” This confrontation brought to the surface a divide in the labor movement between class struggle unionism vs business unionism. A class struggle approach is how we got our unions in the first place and what propelled them to win historic victories through the titanic battles in the 1930s and ‘40s. This business unionism model has utterly failed working people and has contributed to the last several decades of declining union membership, living standards, and labor in retreat.

At its core, these two models of unionism represent a difference in understanding about the relationship between the working class and the owning class. Understanding that the relationship between the worker and the employer is fundamentally exploitative points in the direction of collective organization of workers to defend themselves from the predation of the boss, which brings the reality of class struggle into light and shows how important labor unions are to every worker. 

Despite this public division in organized labor, our movement was able to pressure the City Council into unanimously passing a $47 million tax. This immediately came under heavy attack from big business, which launched and bankrolled a repeal campaign, while Amazon threatened behind closed doors and demanded the tax be rescinded. With this counter pressure of business, armed with the support of conservative union leaders, the majority of the Democrats on the City Council shamefully voted to repeal the tax just a month later.

This shows once again why the working class needs its own political representation – an independent mass party with real democratic structures and a consistently pro-worker program that elected representatives are required to actively support. At the end of the day, the Democratic Party represents one political wing of the capitalist class though less overtly than the Republicans.

Round Two: This betrayal of working people emboldened Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce, which saw an opening to overtake the City Council in the 2019 election and prevent a similar tax from ever seeing the light of day. They flooded the city’s elections with a record breaking tidal wave of corporate cash. With seven out of nine seats up for grabs, they wanted to buy more reliable representatives of their interests. As the Kshama Sawant campaign correctly framed the election, what was at stake was: “Who runs Seattle,Amazon and big business or working people?”

Big business’ primary objective was to unseat Sawant, who had served for six years as an unapologetic representative of working people. Mainstream politicking advised dialing down the class struggle message, to try and win over “undecided voters” by obscuring the divisions of inequality under capitalism rather than speaking to them. We correctly stayed the course politically. Our framing of the election and warnings about corporate cash prepared people to see clearly what was being attempted when Amazon dropped a $1 million money bomb the week that ballots dropped: a blatant power grab by the bosses (in total, Amazon spent $1.5 million and big business spent over $4 million on the Seattle local election, smashing records).

With our re-election victory, a sharp rebuke was served to the ruling class: they can’t buy their way out of class struggle. The class war dogfight of mobilizing working people to knock on over 200,000 doors and parry every attack and maneuver by big business proved in experience what a fight against the richest man on earth would take. Using our electoral campaign to put forward a pro-worker program to Tax Amazon for green union jobs and housing not only made a class appeal directly to workers hard pressed by skyrocketing rents, but it developed the momentum that would carry through to kicking off Tax Amazon in January of 2020 when Councilmember Sawant was sworn in.

Round Three: Following an explosive rally of over 500 people to celebrate the start of Sawant’s third term and launch the Tax Amazon movement, Socialist Alternative and Councilmember Sawant’s office organized and built for a first mass democratic “Action Conference” in coordination with progressive unions and community organizations, as well as Democratic Socialists of America and environmental, tenant, and homeless advocacy groups. These large public assemblies discussed, debated and voted on the direction and activity of the movement, creating a grassroots democratic process for workers to engage in and have real ownership over.

The first Action Conference elected a Coordinating Committee and debated key features of the movement’s approach, putting forward a dual strategy — we would fight for City Council to pass a tax on big business while bringing pressure with a ballot initiative from our movement. We needed to make clear that while it would be far more expedient to pass this tax through the City Council, if they were not prepared to take that step we would go directly to voters on the November ballot. 

At this Action Conference, we also debated what we should call our campaign and whether we should call it “Tax Amazon.” Some had heard concerns from Councilmembers like Lisa Herbold, who penned an op-ed and letters to Kshama’s office saying she wouldn’t support our campaign, mistakenly claiming that singling out Amazon would be seen as punitive or divisive. 

We argued that the aggressively hostile role Amazon played in Seattle and elsewhere, using its immense weight to crush workers’ demands for safer workplaces, viciously fight all attempts to unionize, dodge taxes and bully cities for handouts, as well as their much publicized ploy to buy the Seattle City Council after buying its mayor, had generated tremendous working class anger against this 21st century robber baron. 

This was agreed by the majority at the Action Conference in the first resolution passed almost unanimously. It was also proven completely correct: when collecting signatures thousands of workers and youth were ready to sign immediately upon hearing the words “Tax Amazon,” sometimes even lining up to do so! Our second Action Conference democratically decided on the key features of our ballot initiative, putting forward a progressive tax with 75% of the funds going towards new, affordable social housing, and 25% going towards green jobs programs.

In response to the growing pressure of our movement, which had hundreds participating, the political establishment and media rolled out their practiced diversion of cobbling together a proposal for a “regional approach” as an attempt to block the Amazon Tax in Seattle. This deflection of cynically saying a reform isn’t large enough is meant to distract from the inaction of local politicians while moving the terrain of struggle to a larger battlefield where the movement can be outflanked by support from the wider political establishment.

But the ruling class wasn’t going to grant concessions right off the bat. Democrats maneuvered to try to insert preemption — a state ban on big business taxes — into a bill that would allow King County to raise a modest big business tax to insufficiently address the housing crisis while stopping Seattle from passing any. This was an attempt to override the far more substantial big business tax that was looking likely to come out of Seattle. 

In Washington State, the Democratic Party controls the governor’s mansion and both legislatures. Washington State has the nation’s most regressive tax structure, but this was what they were offering as an olive branch to the movement! Our campaign refused to accept these crumbs, mobilized against preemption with a rally in the State Capitol, and successfully pressured a number of liberal Democrats to come out publicly against preemption. Without the poison pill of preemption, the House Bill died for lack of support from big business and their politicians.

We had just finalized the ballot language of the Amazon Tax, Initiative 131, when the pandemic hit. 

Washington and the Stay-At-Home orders were put in place which immediately became a tremendous hurdle to getting the signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot. We rapidly developed a labor intensive phone banking operation for digital signatures, coordinated with an expensive mass mailing operation for paper petitions. Scandalously, the state refused to allow electronic signatures despite other states like Ohio, Massachusetts, and New Jersey moving to accept them, and with the limits of collecting signatures under social distancing.

Eventually, as COVID-19 cases declined, and restrictions began to lift, we were able to move towards a socially-distanced and COVID-19-conscious door knocking and tabling effort, to begin ramping up our face-to-face signature gathering effort.

None of the Democrats on the council backed our initiative, and only Councilmember Morales joined Councilmember Sawant to support the Tax Amazon legislation put forward in solidarity with our movement. Mayor Jenny Durkan, who was installed to her position with $350,000 Amazon dollars, had promised to veto our Amazon tax in 2018, and remarked on the new Amazon Tax: “This never will happen.”

The Sawant-Morales bill would raise $500 million a year to be spent exclusively on permanently affordable, publicly owned social housing. Built to Green New Deal standards, each decade would see 10,000 homes built by union labor, creating or supporting 34,000 jobs. The first year had $200 million redirected for immediate COVID-19 relief to working class families, which would have provided four months of $500 payments to 100,000 households.

In an effort to delay having to vote on the Sawant-Morales Amazon Tax, Lisa Herbold brought forward trumped-up legal concerns about potentially violating the Open Public Meetings Act in light of a governor’s order restricting non-pandemic related discussions without public input. Even the right wing Seattle Times had to concede in announcing this maneuver that “lawyers were divided” on this concern holding water. This was the same OPMA that Herbold and other Democrats flagrantly violated during closed door meetings to repeal the 2018 Amazon tax, where they were slapped with an ethics violation that taxpayers had to foot the bill for. This delay tactic came about for two reasons: 1) Democrats were under enough pressure from the movement that they couldn’t afford to pay the political price of voting the Amazon Tax down; 2) But at the same time, Tax Amazon was blocked from presenting a viable threat of a ballot initiative with the signature gathering effort stalled by the pandemic lockdown.

This kind of collusion by corporate politicians on behalf of big business demonstrates why working class representation is so important. It would be a critical mistake to ignore how every politician from city to state that we had to fight tooth and nail for this modest tax on big business is an elected Democrat. Contrast this selling out of workers to appease big business by the Democratic Party with how Kshama Sawant played an active and leading role in the Tax Amazon campaign by using our council position as a megaphone for workers’ demands at every stage, while exposing the other council members for their duplicity and forcing them to choose a side – us or our bosses.

It’s not by accident Washington State has the most regressive taxation structure of any state in the country, despite being solidly a “blue state.” Workers pay six times more in taxes than the wealthy, and Seattle acts as a tax haven for highly profitable companies while not having a single Republican elected to office. Working families are pressed with regressive taxes, and much needed social programs are constantly under the axe while the Seattle police budget has increased 42% in the last six years.

Upon launching our campaign, the corporate media busied itself publishing a series of hit pieces smearing our campaign. This isn’t anything new — the last seven years have been chock full of op-eds and articles attacking our 15 NOW campaign, our socialist council office, our election campaigns, and movements of working people. Business’ top mouthpieces even jumped in, with the Wall Street Journal editorial board dedicating two articles to raising the alarm that socialists, workers, and youth were fighting for a tax on big business.

Our demands to make the bosses pay for the failure of their private market to meet our needs were vindicated as COVID-19 spread rapidly and underscored the complete failure of capitalism, despite huge advances in technology and productivity, to provide for the health and basic needs of the workers who produce all of the wealth. This contradiction of capitalism’s fundamental need to profit at any cost to humanity when faced with a global public health emergency threw the system and the institutions that support it into deep crisis. Basic safety measures and quarantine were delayed because of the impact on productivity and profits. Taxpayer dollars flooded into the billionaire’s deep pockets on Wall Street, leaving only a trickle for the rest of us.

This accumulated tinder of growing unrest and radicalization was provided a spark — the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis. In cities across the country, millions poured into the streets in the largest protest movement in U.S. history, demanding justice and an end to police brutality, only to be met with shocking escalations of police violence. The struggle was focused on racism and the role of the police, but it is well understood by many that systemic racism isn’t limited to police brutality. Many see that racism’s expression also denies affordable housing, jobs, decent wages, and basic dignity.

The wider expression of working class and youth anger was extremely receptive to the demand of making Amazon and big business pay for a major expansion of affordable housing. In just 20 days, volunteers with Tax Amazon, and particularly Socialist Alternative, collected 20,000 signatures from the angry and hopeful thousands in the streets! Smashing the inequality and poverty of racism means taking from those who have benefited from this oppression – the capitalist class – to pay for affordable housing to reverse racist gentrification. This renewed momentum set us on the path to reach 30,000 signatures by early July, enough to qualify for the ballot, and the threat of our Tax Amazon ballot initiative quickly became a credible one again to the wealthy and their political establishment.

This major shift of the class forces in motion forced the Democratic establishment to the bargaining table, finally putting forward an offer for a $173 million Amazon Tax with a ten year expiration, or “sunset clause.” We understood clearly that other councilmembers less concerned with salvaging progressive credibility would introduce amendments to further water this down, and that when the bosses come back with a concession that you need to keep up the pressure. We doubled down on our signature gathering and mobilized people to the Council budget committee meeting where the tax would first be voted on.

That the power of our movement had created a situation where what was being conceded was not a discussion on whether or not to tax big business, but rather how much and for how long, is an indication of the effectiveness of Socialist Alternative’s leadership and how many workers and youth we have been able to organize into the struggle. That the proposal was for more than three times what was attacked and repealed in 2018 is as well. 

Backing the Democrats’ watered-down proposal, which was a concession from the ruling class were the same hostile business union leaders who had claimed 2018’s $47 million was a “tax on jobs” that would turn Seattle into the next Detroit as employers fled the city to dodge payment. A Seattle Times columnist effusively praised the Democrats’ Amazon Tax proposal (which they had neutrally named “Jumpstart” as part of their attempt to shift the narrative) despite the same publication having nothing but scathing criticism for Tax Amazon and Kshama Sawant. This was part of the ruling class’s attempt, having failed to stop the Amazon Tax, to rob the class struggle lesson to workers, while instead praising the class snuggle approach of the liberal Democrats who had collaborated with big business.

Socialist Alternative understood that with this alternative, the discussion was now focused on the Democrats’ Amazon Tax, and we had to fight to strengthen it. 

To fight for the strongest tax, our coalition built pressure around amendments introduced by Kshama Sawant: 1) An additional $50 million for Green New Deal Funding; 2) An additional $50 million for 1,000 homes in the Central District for black community members; 3) Striking the sunset clause, making the big business tax permanent. 

By quickly orienting the movement’s energy to the Democrats’ attempted sidestep, we were able to increase the tax by another $40 million and delay the sunset clause to not kick in for 20 years.

The Role of Socialist Alternative

This victory did not come from shady negotiations between corporate giants and their paid-for politicians. It happened entirely because of the self-organization of working people through the Tax Amazon movement around a class struggle strategy led by socialists. Every gain made by working people is won through collective organization like this, both through social struggles and particularly in our workplaces. By not relenting, by effectively responding to every attack, by exposing the lies of the bosses and corporate politicians, we were able to galvanize people to win a massive working class victory. 

Socialist Alternative members concretely brought out at every turn the failure of capitalism to meet human needs, its corruption, and its incompatibility with real democracy. Socialist Alternative played the central role in providing political leadership throughout the campaign, arming the movement to navigate and respond to employers’ ploys from the “regional solution” of the House Bill and it’s poison pill ban, to the bureaucratic distraction of the Open Public Meetings Act and Democratic politicians’ crocodile tears, to respondingto attacks in the corporate media to navigating the challenges of the pandemic. 

This three year battle has not simply been about the billionaire class refusing to hand over a single tax. Our movement has been so viciously opposed for the same reason that the corporate media and the Democratic Party establishment are now determined to hijack the narrative over who this victory belongs to and how it was won. Employers saw how our victory in Seattle for $15 an hour swept across the country by demonstrating what’s possible when we get organized and fight. They are terrified that our Tax Amazon movement can similarly ignite struggles to tax big business across the country. It is especially threatening to the capitalists in the context of unemployment and poverty in this pandemic and recession – because it is the exact opposite of what they’d prefer: to make the working class pay for their crisis through austerity. 

As socialists, we use these struggles for reforms both to win change that will have a substantial impact on the lives of thousands of working people, but also to build movements that point towards workers becoming conscious of our power and confident in our ability to use it to advance our interests, and to fight for a socialist world.

Members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have been elected to a number of local, state, and even federal seats across the country. In Chicago, six DSA members were elected to the City Council. In New York, both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Congressman) and Julia Salazar (State Representative) are all but set for reelection in the fall alongside several other DSA candidates who performed well in New York City primaries. These representatives should launch similar campaigns in their states and cities. 

There is nothing unique about Seattle that made this battle easier. The critical factor that contributed to this victory was the presence of a Marxist on the Seattle City Council who is determined to fight for every possible gain for working people with ferocity and whose preoccupation is building movements of working people not making friends with the establishment.

If any socialist elected officials across the country are looking to wage a similar battle against big business, Socialist Alternative and our council office would love to provide any and all support.

The lessons and this fighting strategy have to be drawn out and taken up by our movements. In Seattle, our next big fight is to Defund the Seattle Police Department by at least 50% and to win an independent, democratically elected community control board that has hiring and firing powers over the police. We will need to be every bit as determined and organized to win. We must also be prepared to defend against a big business repeal campaign or lawsuit against the Amazon Tax, which could potentially be announced in the coming weeks. Elsewhere, cities facing down major deficits will need to wage battles to win business taxes. The self-sacrificing working class and young people who wage these battles will be most effective if we recognize that neither corporate party is on our side, and that we need to actively build our own power and organization in order to win. 

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