By STEVE LEIGH
Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.
SEATTLE, May 17—In the face of the corona crisis and ensuing economic collapse, liberals on the Seattle city council have turned their back on the boldest legislative attempt to help the working class.
Even before the current crisis, Seattle had an officially declared “Homelessness Emergency.” In January, 13,000 people were counted as homeless in King County, in and around Seattle (http://allhomekc.org/data-overview/).
This crisis has persisted for years, even as the city has gone through a massive building boom and population explosion. The average rent in Seattle goes for nearly $2000 a month, well out of reach of the tens of thousands here who still make minimum wage (over $16 in Seattle). Rents have increased significantly in Seattle over the last few years. Every average rent increase also increases homelessness.
In response to this, city councilor Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, and councilor Tammy Morales, a liberal Democrat, proposed a plan to address homelessness. “Tax Amazon” would tax the top 2% of Seattle corporations .7% on their Seattle payroll. It would raise $200 million to pay the poorest 100,000 households in Seattle $500 each this year. In future years, it would raise $300 million a year to produce union-made, green affordable social housing.
The current economic crisis has driven hundreds of small businesses into bankruptcy or near bankruptcy. However the largest corporations that would be taxed have continued to make profit hand over fist. Amazon especially has profited from the corona crisis:
• Amazon gross profit for the quarter ending March 31, 2020, was $31.195B, a 21% increase year over year.
• Amazon gross profit for the 12 months ending March 31, 2020, was $120.401B, a 21.37% increase year over year.
• Amazon annual gross profit for 2019 was $114.986B, a 22.68% increase from 2018.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s major stockholder, is the richest man in the world. If current trends continue, he will be the world’s first trillionaire by the early 2020s. While raking in more money, Amazon is resisting safety demands from its employees. It has fired workers organizing in its warehouses. It has decided to suspend hazard pay.
The Tax Amazon initiative would create thousands of decent-paying union jobs. It would make a serious dent in homelessness. It would redistribute billions of dollars in wealth from the capitalists to the workers. All this while only costing the top corporations a pittance.
Though the top corporations can well afford this, they are fighting it tooth and nail, fearing further taxes in the future. The Downtown Seattle Association has denounced it as a job killer—as they did Seattle’s $15 per hour minimum wage, passed in 2014. Their predictions of economic collapse from that measure were proven ridiculous as the Seattle economy boomed until hit by the corona crisis. The Seattle Times has editorialized against it.
Unfortunately, members of the Seattle city council and the mayor have sided with the big business attacks. Council member Alex Pedersen wrote an Op Ed in the Seattle Times echoing the job-killing hysteria. The city council was supposed to hold a full hearing on the proposal on May 13. At the last minute, Lorena Gonzalez, the CC president, along with others put this off. Since the state and local stay at home order, the city council hearings are now on line rather than in person, and the councilors are saying that this proposal can’t be discussed.
They say that during the emergency, only emergency measures can be discussed on-line. This is simply an excuse. According to lawyers, there is no ban on these discussions under the Open Meetings Law. The proposal is a direct response to the emergency. As one Tax Amazon supporter put it, “It’s an emergency, so we can’t deal with the emergency.”
This postponement has forced the Tax Amazon coalition into a difficult position. They will likely be forced to bring the proposal to the voters in November. The corona crisis has put bigger barriers in the way of collecting the 22,000 signatures needed to get it on the ballot. It will be difficult to collect the signatures during social distancing. On top of that the state and local governments have not allowed on-line signature collection. They have also not lowered the amount of signatures required for initiatives, even though Gov. Inslee has lowered the amount of signatures needed to get candidates on the ballot.
These are not accidental. They are deliberate efforts by state and local officials to prevent alleviating the suffering of working-class people.
To many people, the response of the majority of the city council is especially maddening. Last fall, Big Business, including Amazon, did everything it could to control the city council election. Of seven races, their preferred candidates only won two spots. The people elected were widely called “progressive.” Many liberals expected big things from this council.
Yet this time, three of the most well-known progressive council members—Teresa Mosqueda, Lorena Gonzalez, and Lisa Herbold—sided with two business-backed candidates and two other candidates backed by “progressives” to block the Tax Amazon resolution. They relied on the open meeting legal formality rather than admitting that they oppose the tax on its merits. Mosqueda is especially disappointing to many people because she stuck with another version of the Amazon Tax in 2018 after seven council members caved in to Amazon’s pressure (https://socialistworker.org/2018/05/14/amazon-puts-profits-ahead-of-seattle-homeless ).
The latest cave-in has disappointed and angered hundreds of Amazon Tax supporters, but they are not backing off. On May 16, Tax Amazon coalition had its third public Action Conference of 200 people, this time online. It passed a resolution laying out a plan to collect the necessary signatures with socially distant drop-offs. The deadline is July 1, but activists are determined.
The Tax Amazon movement is part of the general working-class fightback across the country. Since March 1, workers have gone on over 200 wildcat strikes across the U.S. for health and safety, hazard pay, and for closing unsafe facilities. Owners have fought back with public relations and firing of activists. Workers have won hazard pay and changes in health and safety, though much more needs to be done.
The resistance to the Tax Amazon movement is another example that working people can’t rely on elected officials, even those that Big Business runs candidates against. The economic power of Amazon and its business allies has been enough to dominate the decisions of even “progressive” elected officials.
It is also a sign that working people need their own political party committed to the interests of the working class. Seattle has been dominated by Democrats even in non-partisan elections like those for the city council. Besides Kshama Sawant, all the other city council members are self-identified Democrats. The opposition to Tax Amazon fits in well with the austerity politics of the Democratic Party generally. The Democratic Party dominance of Seattle has resulted in the most regressive tax structure and extreme distribution of wealth of any major U.S. city.
Those in and near Seattle can directly support the Tax Amazon movement. Those outside can contribute to it as well: https://www.taxamazon.net/ballot