seattle-city-council-passes-amazon-jumpstart-tax
Cyclists took part in a May 1 protest at the Amazon Spheres to demand the city council pass tax on Seattle’s large businesses. (Jason Redmond / AFP / Getty Images)

By STEVE LEIGH

Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.

After years of organizing and threatening to take the issue to the polls, the Tax Amazon movement has pushed through a tax on the largest businesses in Seattle. The $200 million raised per year will go for affordable housing and COVID-19 relief.

This victory was especially sweet since the movement lost the last round in 2018. That year the movement proposed a much smaller tax. It was whittled down in city council negotiations to less than $50 million per year. Within two weeks of the passage of this tax, the city council caved to pressure from Amazon and other businesses and even some construction unions. The tax was repealed. (See: https://socialistworker.org/2018/05/14/amazon-puts-profits-ahead-of-seattle-homeless)

This year the movement, led by Socialist Alternative council member Kshama Sawant and Democratic Party council member Tammy Morales, at first proposed a $300 million tax with $200 million added for COVID-19 relief to the poorest families. The city council majority at first opposed it. (See: https://socialistresurgence.org/2020/05/18/seattle-liberals-ignore-corona-crisis-reject-tax-amazon-initiative/)

Under increased pressure from the population and especially from the movement, city council member Teresa Mosqueda presented an alternative to the Tax Amazon proposal. It was labeled “Jump Start.” In further negotiations on the council, under continued mass pressure, Jump Start was improved. It passed the council by a 7-2 margin in early July.

This majority is veto-proof. The council can override a mayor’s veto by a 6-3 vote. There is no guarantee that intense business pressure could not reverse the result, as happened in 2018. However, the factors that led to the victory make this unlikely. Why did it pass this time?

  • In 2019, Amazon and other businesses dumped millions into a campaign to unseat Sawant and liberal Democrats. In spite of their efforts, they won only one fully contested council election out of seven that were run. This put the business coalition on its back foot. (See: https://newpol.org/election-victory-in-seattle/)
  • The political climate has shifted tremendously. The COVID crisis pushed more people to favor government intervention in the economy to secure the health and safety of people. The temporary moratorium on evictions has highlighted the housing issue. Thousands of people understood that they too could lose their homes if something wasn’t done.
  • Even more importantly, the uprising against racist police brutality has radicalized large sections of the Seattle population. Opposition to the police has grown exponentially. Defunding the police was not even on the agenda on May 24. Now it is common sense. Even a majority of the city council now says it supports a 50% cut in the police budget. The Seattle police have aided this shift by early use of tear gas, pepper spray, and large-scale arrests. They were forced to abandon the East Precinct on June 8. In its place, Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) was set up. Though the police have since shut it down, anti-police sentiment still runs high. (See: https://socialistresurgence.org/2020/07/01/seattle-police-shut-down-chop/)
  • The Tax Amazon movement enrolled the support of hundreds of organizations and over 1000 volunteers. In the face of COVID, it still collected 30,000 signatures by early July. It was a very well organized movement, which tapped into the sentiment of thousands of people in Seattle.
  • In the face of mass anger and delegitimization of the repressive arm of the government, even city council members who want a friendly business climate understood that they had to grant this concession to maintain stability. They understood that failure to act would create more unrest down the road. This could be more threatening to business interests than this relatively modest tax. As is often the case, they understood the needs of the system more than the private capitalists who are only thinking of their own immediate bottom line. Just as many capitalists hated FDR during the Great Depression, many capitalists in Seattle today hate the city council even though it may be saving their bacon in the long run. These liberal council members could say, just as FDR did: “ I am the best friend the free enterprise system ever had.”

Jump Start went a long way toward achieving the goals of the Tax Amazon movement. Because of this, on July 8, the movement in a democratic Action Conference voted not to take the initiative to the ballot in November. Instead, it would declare victory and keep up the pressure for further improvements later. Tax Amazon put out the following assessment:

“Our movement just won a historic victory! On Monday, Seattle City Council took the final vote to pass an Amazon Tax that will raise well over $200 million per year to fund affordable housing.

“This is a huge win, entirely due to the pressure of our grassroots movement, which collected 30,000 signatures in just one month to take our Amazon Tax to the ballot! It will raise over four times the amount than the Amazon Tax that City Council passed and then shamefully repealed in 2018. Still, it is not everything that the movement fought for. We need to come together and discuss what to do next.”

This is definitely a victory for the movement and for anyone who wants to put human needs ahead of profit. But this is no time to rest. The mayor, the Downtown Seattle Association, and business generally vehemently oppose the tax. They will do what they can to undermine or repeal it. As is often the case, there will continue to be a fight between those capitalists who understand their long-term interests and those who only care about short-term profit.

Mass movements under capitalism can never reorient the fundamental drive of the system for profit over human need. As long as capitalism exists, exploitation will create poverty. However, the Tax Amazon movement shows that we can win major reforms through mass struggle. It is not backroom dealing but street and workplace action that gets the goods. The same lesson is shown by the uprising against racist police brutality all across the U.S. today.