In July Seattle’s working class won a historic victory, winning a tax on Seattle’s big business that will transfer over $2 billion over the next decade to fund permanently affordable housing and vital social programs, creating thousands of union jobs in the process.
The Amazon Tax represents perhaps the most important progressive advance in Seattle since socialists and trade unions led the way on the $15 minimum wage movement in 2014, which passed first in Seattle and then spread to cities and states around the country. As the coronavirus pandemic and a failing system of capitalism push record numbers of working class people, especially immigrants and people of color, into unemployment, Tax Amazon is an example of how cities can take initiatives to combat inequality and the billionaire class.
Seattle’s working people vs. Jeff Bezos
For years, Seattle’s working class has been in a pitched battle with big business and the corporate elite for the very soul of our city. This recent victory represents the culmination of a three year struggle against the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, and his political establishment. As rents skyrocket, shockingly rapid gentrification 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. The Seattle area — a corporate tax haven with one of the country’s most regressive tax structures — is home to the world’s two richest men at the same time that it has the highest rate of homelessness in the United States.
Like most major cities in the United States, Seattle is controlled top to bottom by the Democratic Party. But despite declaring a homeless “state of emergency” five years ago, the Democratic Party establishment has completely failed to address the crisis.
In response to this rampant inequality, Socialist Alternative and our City Council member Kshama Sawant first launched the movement to Tax Amazon in 2018. While our coalition successfully pressured City Council to unanimously pass a $47 million tax, unsurprisingly, this immediately came under heavy attack from big business. Shamefully, Democrats on the City Council voted to repeal the tax just a month later. As we said at the time, we don’t win by backing down to corporate bullies!
In round two of the Tax Amazon struggle, Amazon and big business unleashed unprecedented sums of corporate cash during the 2019 City Council elections, directing the brunt of their fire against Councilmember Sawant. Our re-election victory served as a sharp rebuke to the ruling class.
We built off this momentum to launch round three with a powerful rally of over 500 people at the start of this year. Determined to erase the crucial role of our movement, the corporate media and the political establishment have tried to give all credit to Democratic Party politicians for “bringing everyone to the table” and working out a “smart policy.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Our victory came not from shady negotiations between corporate giants and their paid-for politicians, but from the self-organization of working people around a class struggle strategy led by socialists.
When we fight, we can win
Together, Socialist Alternative and a coalition of progressive labour and community organizations organized a series of mass “action conferences,” which debated and decided the direction of the movement, creating a grassroots democratic process for workers to engage in and have real ownership over. At our first action conference, we adopted 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. 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.
We faced many obstacles in this struggle, including an attempt by the Democratic Party to pass a statewide ban on big business taxes; an unprecedented pandemic that delayed in-person signature collection; and a relentless onslaught of lies and attacks from the corporate media and political establishment. But the demand to Tax Amazon only resonated more 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 working people.
In a virtually unprecedented feat, and demonstrating the solidarity of working people to smash obstacles, we collected 30,000 signatures on our initiative in just one month. This was crucial in forcing the City Council to finally take action. In an attempt at damage control, the political establishment brought forward a version of our Amazon Tax that was smaller, yet still raises over four times as much as 2018’s short-lived tax.
The Amazon Tax is also a victory for the Black Lives Matter movement, building thousands of affordable homes and creating thousands of jobs as a step towards addressing racist gentrification. We collected the majority of our signatures, 20,000, in just 20 days of the explosive Justice for George Floyd movement. While these protests were a response to the racist violence of police, as the tremendous support for the Tax Amazon demand highlighted, systemic racism isn’t limited to police brutality. Many see that racism also denies affordable housing, jobs, decent wages, and basic dignity.
The Role of Socialist Alternative
This three year battle has not simply been about the billionaire class refusing to hand over a single tax — in just one day, Jeff Bezos makes enough to pay the entirety of our annual Amazon Tax for all of Seattle’s big businesses! Our movement has been so viciously opposed because big business and the billionaire class saw how our victory in Seattle for the $15 minimum wage swept across the country after 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, and even across the world.
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.
Another critical factor in this victory was the presence of a Marxist on the Seattle City Council who uses her seat for every possible gain for working people. Unlike most politicians — even many who claim to be “progressive” — Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant recognizes that consistently standing with working people means consistently standing up to big business and the establishment.
Tax Amazon’s fighting strategy, as well six years of struggle with a socialist in Seattle’s City Hall, can provide important lessons for movements everywhere. As working people face a long and brutal global depression, Tax Amazon provides an example of a powerful offensive victory, completely flying in the face of the capitalists’ plan to deal with this recession by making the working class pay for their crisis through increased austerity. In these upcoming battles, working people will need to recognize that corporate parties and their representatives are not on our side. We need to actively build our own power and organization in order to challenge the rotten and inhumane system of capitalism and fight for a better society, a socialist society.