An ugly fight in 2018 saw Amazon and other business interests strong-arm the Seattle City Council into repealing a small tax meant to alleviate the city’s homelessness crisis. Today, in a bold challenge to Jeff Bezos and other oligarchs of the Pacific Northwest who call Seattle their corporate home, Seattle council-member and avowed socialist Kshama Sawant unveiled a new bill that makes the same demands but is projected to reap more than six times as much income for the city.
The bill, broad outlines of which were announced several weeks ago, would only affect the top 3 percent of businesses in the city. It was initially estimated that those 800 or so firms would have paid a meager 0.7 percent payroll tax, which would raise an expected total of $300 million annually—funds that will address affordable housing—compared to the prior bill’s $48 million. Today, Sawant and co-sponsor Tammy Morales revealed the actual tax needed to generate that revenue would be a piddling 0.7 percent on applicable businesses.
Although Sawant supported the former bill, she told Gizmodo it was hamstrung by a series of compromises. “It was going to be grossly inadequate. And, given the fact that even in two years the scale of the problem has expanded, I think it’s important to at least have $300 million, if not more,” she said in a fiery interview with Gizmodo in which she lambasted corporations, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, and members of the city council and state legislature. A recent study on homelessness in King County (which is home to Seattle) concluded that “fully addressing the issue will cost an additional $450 million to $1.1 billion per year for the next ten years, above and beyond what is currently being spent.”
What made the fight so deeply acrimonious, according to Sawant, is big business’s insistence on maintaining the status quo in Washington, a state famous for having no personal or corporate income tax. And although many corporate giants call Seattle home, Amazon happens to be a fitting target as the largest, headed by the world’s richest man. “Amazon has its main headquarters located in Seattle, and that is not by coincidence,” Sawant said, “Jeff Bezos and other billionaires went about shopping for a location for the main headquarters of their company, they were specifically seeking out corporate tax havens.”
After the initial so-called “head tax” first passed, Amazon abruptly halted construction on two buildings. Then Amazon, Starbucks, and others propped up a political interest group call No Tax on Jobs, which burned through tens of thousands of dollars in a paid signature-gathering campaign meant to force a repeal in November 2018 as a ballot initiative. The city council members (except Sawant and Teresa Mosqueda) voted to repeal the tax less than a month later, only for Amazon to spend unprecedented funds attempting to influence the 2019 city council election.
“I said this in my speech when I was voting against the repeal in the summer of 2018, that, look, you politicians, some of you are well-meaning and you are genuinely doing this because you think this is the only way to react when big business is bearing down on you. And you think that if you give in now it’s going to make it OK tomorrow. But that’s exactly the wrong strategy to use because if you give in now, these billionaires will smell blood in the water and they will come after all progressives next year when we are running for election,” Sawant said, “their goal was to defeat as many progressive candidates as possible.”
Her own reelection was won by an extremely narrow margin against challenger Egan Orion, who had the backing of the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy—a concern that received $1.5 million from Amazon. In part, that victory is what Sawant says is propelling her towards an even brasher version of 2018's gambit. “We literally had the richest man in the world against us in the election and we defeated him. That took a lot of hard work and sacrifice on the part of hundreds, if not thousands. But we were able to do it,” she said. “It’s that spirit that’s fueling the Tax Amazon movement.”
Almost exclusively, Sawant refers to Tax Amazon pluralistically, not as a piece of legislation but as a grassroots effort—one she says includes many of Amazon’s own workers. And so, having once been beaten by the possibility of a ballot initiative, this attempt will be a two-pronged approach that will include a corresponding ballot initiative, meant as much to scare businesses as her fellow legislators. “The moment Jeff Bezos threatened [the other council-members] in the back rooms, they immediately folded,” she said. “I am extremely optimistic, but not because of politicians.”
Her close involvement in the ballot initiative has, however, landed her in trouble with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission for allegedly using her office to directly support the ballot initiative, in violation of city laws.
Sawant has no doubt businesses will attempt to stifle this round of legislation or challenge it in court. But more concerning is what she believes is an effort to leverage the state legislature into a superseding compromise. “As soon as the Tax Amazon movement was launched, they started maneuvering at the state level,” she claimed. “They are now hellbent on passing a law out of the state legislature, which will give a very small amount of taxing authority to King County, which is 10 to 25 percent of the needs of the region. But in return for that small concession: winning a big prize of a statewide ban on any other big business taxes.”
On paper, an unprecedented legislative defeat and a nail-bitingly close reelection would not be cause to celebrate for the majority of politicians. It goes without saying that Sawant is not most politicians. But in her view, the more transparent opposition from corporations manifests, the more class consciousness it’s likely to build among her constituents. “A lot of people come into movements not wanting confrontation, but then they learn the lesson that, well, wait a second, big business certainly treats this as a confrontation,” she said. “It is class war by them against us, and so if we want to have something different then we’re going to have to fight back, and fight hard enough to overcome their opposition.”
Amazon’s return fire won’t be a matter of if, but when. And in a sense, Bezos himself has already waded into a public relations war by finally (if with maximal opacity) agreeing to earmark some of his wealth towards charitable causes—specifically homelessness, education, and climate change initiatives. “These are not just arbitrary moments of largesse from secretly goodhearted millionaires. These are concessions that they’re forced to make because they’re being called out publicly,” Sawant said. And although corporate philanthropy might do a small amount of good in the short term, Sawant is right to be skeptical of relying on billionaire largesse as a structural solution. “When you add up all the needs of society, it is going to go so far beyond any little drop that this Bill Gates or this Jeff Bezos decides [to give] on a given day as a concession to the mood and to the movement. That is why we are talking about taxing.”
Read our full interview with Sawant, conducted on February 19, below.
Gizmodo: Can you can you give me a sense of sort of the scale of the problem that you’re looking to solve with this bill?
Kshama Sawant: Yes. And I don’t know if I can give you ever every statistic that you asked for and I’m happy to send more information on e-mail, but just overall situation is extremely bleak as far as the majority of ordinary people are concerned. Certainly the homelessness crisis unexploded, and you may know Seattle is one of the many metropolitan regions that is facing a brunt of this crisis. And what stands out about this is the sharpness of the contrast between the kind of wealth the city has made for a few at the top—because it’s a booming city—and the struggle that the most vulnerable and marginalized are facing. Partly exemplified by those who are currently homeless and on top of that unsheltered today. But that does not fully capture the scale of the crisis. I think to capture the scale of the crisis, we have to understand that Seattle has now become a city that is not affordable. We’re talking about [it] in present tense. It’s not like it’s about to be unaffordable.
It is, right now, not affordable to the vast majority of people. So one one gauge of the extent of the crisis is to see that there are forty six thousand renting families that are unable to afford their rent burden—meaning they’re paying anything from 40 percent of the income in rent or 50 percent of their income in rent. So I’m specifically mentioning that because when you look at homelessness, as you know, studies after studies have shown, the region is chasing a moving target, meaning you’re talking about people who are homeless today. But you’re also talking about people who aren’t homeless today, but are predictably going to become homeless or go on the path towards homelessness tomorrow because they face a financially unsustainable situation in their lives. And that’s why it’s important to talk about the tens of thousands of families that are unsustainably paying their rent. They are one rent increase or one financial calamity, one accident that gives you massive medical bills, one job loss, one bad thing happening and you are couch surfing. And the next thing you know, you’re out on the streets. And if you’re lucky, you don’t become homeless, you just get pushed out of the city and you face unsustainable daily lives in terms of commutes and expenses.
The McKinsey study that just came out, which is not a socialist study by any means, it was originally a study sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, who wanted to prove that the problem is bad that enough. But the problem was so bad that even their study shows that if it’s a dire situation. [00:04:39]So the updated version of that study that just came out last month, just weeks ago, shows that to deal with today’s problem without even thinking about the moving target of rebuilding the region to King County as a whole, where Seattle is will need anywhere from 450 million dollars to one billion dollars each year for the next 10 years to begin to solve the problem as it exists today. [28.6s] And so now I’m saying on top of that. Think about how tomorrow the problem is going to be even worse. That’s the scale of the crisis.
To people that may be reading this that don’t live in Seattle and aren’t closely involved with the socioeconomic realities of that, the initiative you’ve been working on is specifically called Tax Amazon, so, could you briefly explain what Amazon has to do with these problems?
Amazon has as a global footprint. It’s a trillion dollar corporation headed by the richest man in the world. And Amazon has its main headquarters located in Seattle. And that is not by coincidence. If you look at the published documented history of how Jeff Bezos and other billionaires went about shopping for a location for the main headquarters of their company, they were specifically seeking out corporate tax havens. There’s a history that shows you how we didn’t really they wanted some sort of tax haven in California. But as it turned out, the government said, well, that’s against the law because it’s native land. And then so they came to Seattle. And again, as I said, it’s not a coincidence because Seattle and Washington state have the nation’s most regressive tax system. So what we have is not just Amazon—Amazon obviously has a big presence here, the land prices have shot through the roof since Amazon and other corporations have come here.
But I want to be clear, we reject the corporate media’s attempts to portray this as a struggle between jobs and housing, as if those who are fighting for affordable housing are against jobs. That’s just ludicrous because many of the people fighting for affordable housing are there the warehouse workers themselves. In fact, one of the lead organizers of the Tax Amazon movement here, his name is Matthew Smith, he’s an Amazon warehouse worker right here in the Seattle area. And many of the Amazon tech workers are part of this movement, because we reject this idea that a few corporations headed by a few billionaires can make untold amounts of profit for creating a few jobs, but in return, they’re completely going to denude the city of ordinary working people. Because that’s where the city is headed. It’s going to become a playground for the wealthy if we don’t fight for affordable housing.
So the framing of the Amazon tax captures one, the existing situation of inequality between the richest and the rest of us. But also to explain that it’s a tax only on the biggest corporations of the city, because everyone else is already overburdened with tax. You know, that includes small businesses as well.
Obviously, the homelessness crisis in Seattle is not a new development. What would you say have been the challenges so far to solving this. Is it a monetary issue? Is a legislative issue? A lack of will?
Well, I would say that regardless of which region or area you’re talking about, actually, the fundamental problem is the lack of political will. Because most of politics is dominated by the two parties, Democratic and Republican parties, which have crucial differences between them, agree on one thing, which is where the establishment of both parties are unshakably loyal to Wall Street interests. Not just in the US Congress, but that translates into corporate politics dominating at the city and regional level as well. And so I would say that no matter how the problem manifests itself, whether it is a zoning question or revenue question, ultimately, it reveals the fact that most of politics, as it is delivered by the Democrats and Republicans, is completely out of touch with the needs of the vast majority of ordinary people.
And Seattle is a good example for that, because the Seattle political establishment has no Republicans. There’s no Republican Party presence at all whatsoever. It’s all the Democratic establishment. And so whatever has gone wrong in Seattle in the last two decades in terms of inequality, homelessness crisis, mass incarceration, and racism, and also the affordability crisis—that falls at the doorstep of the Democratic establishment. We’re talking not only about housing for those who are homeless today, but we’re talking about social housing, because we’re talking about arresting the pipeline to watch homelessness. In other words, working people as a whole need affordable housing. The private, for-profit market has boomed, it has flourished in Seattle in the last many years. Seattle has been the construction crane capital of the country for four years running. That’s how much construction is booming.
Corporate developers and other corporations have made hand-over-fist profit at the expense of the people who work for them in their companies, and the whole community that is struggling in this lack of affordability. And so, when you talk about social housing, it obviously is a question of revenues, because if you want to actually provide affordable housing, they cannot just hold our breath and wait and they believe that mysteriously in someday in the future, the for-profit market will start working for us. Construction has boomed and there’s a double-digit vacancy rate in many parts of the city. And rents are too high for people to me to afford to live in. So you have this perverse situation where there’s empty apartments, a bunch of people at the top have made enormous profits, and people can’t afford to live in the homes. So that is the result of the for-profit market. And it’s not coincidental. That’s the way it works. It doesn’t build for affordability. It builds for profit. And that’s what you need: publicly owned or controlled housing that will be mandated as affordable. But to construct housing, you need revenues. And in those in the most recursively taxed state in the nation, clearly, it brings up the question of big businesses and the wealthiest people—who are right now getting a free ride at the expense of ordinary people who are taxpayers—beginning to pay their fair share. And so to make that happen, you run into this wall of corporate politicians who are absolutely the obstacle to making this happen.
So I don’t care what the starting point is of obstacles. Fundamentally, the obstacles are of political establishment that is aligned with big business and wealthy interests and not loyal to ordinary people’s needs.
Anybody who’s noticed any of the headlines about a potential tax on Amazon in Seattle might be feeling a bit of deja vu. What exactly happened last time and why were other council members so quick to repeal the former legislation that was designed for this the same purpose?
Well, that’s a very important political question, because when you’re building movements for social change, you will have victories, but you will also have setbacks. And it’s our duty as a movement to learn lessons from setbacks. And I think the 2018 repeal of the Amazon tax—the unanimous vote, and then the repeal—I think, has the rich lessons for everybody who wants to understand how can we really build powerful enough movements to win victories, because it shows that it is about building a grassroots power, because every battle for social change under capitalism, because capitalism is inherently a system that creates extreme inequalities, not only of wealth, but, you know, inequality of wealth creates inequality of political power or clout.
That also means that any desire for progressive social change is automatically posed as a battle between the wealthy and the rest of us, whether we like it or not. A lot of people come into movements not wanting confrontation, but then they learn the lesson that, well, wait a second, big business certainly treats this as a confrontation. It is class war by them against us, and so if we want to have something different then we’re going to have to fight back, and fight hard enough to overcome their opposition. So when you have any prospect of social change, whether you like it or not, automatically posed as a battleground, and on top of that, as a battleground that starts as a David versus Goliath fight where they have all this money, they have all these politicians in their pocket, they own the corporate media, which means they can put all the spin that they want, and not only spin but outright lies, then what are you left with? You know, what do you have with you? You have the people with you, but you need to get organized and you need to bring that collective power in an organized way onto the streets, into the workplaces, into city hall, into [the] U.S. Congress.
So I think the whole process of fighting for the Amazon tax in 2018 gratified a lot of the things that I just said were for people who are directly involved in it. Hey, I would have preferred if there was no confrontation, but it was not posed that way at all. It is a confrontation, and I have to fight for my rights and the rights of everybody who is marginalized. And I should be proud of it. Let’s not be apologetic. We should be proud of fighting for justice. And those big business and billionaires, they should be ashamed of their meanness and their greed.
That was one of the things that allowed us to build a movement that was powerful enough in the first place to force a unanimous vote. And I use the word ‘force’ because the vast majority of the city council was not on our side. And they gave eloquent speeches when they voted yes. But it was absolutely the power of the movement that they feared and voted yes. It showed that actually building a powerful movement makes a huge difference. You can win victories.
But then the repeal that happened less than a month later. But only myself and another council voted against the repeal. And most of the council and certainly the corporate mayor, Jenny Durkan made a historically shameful decision of repealing the tax. That showed, on the flip side, that the movement was not powerful enough to overcome it. And it also, I think for some people also, clarified the lessons that, well, you can’t believe that most of these politicians are on your side, because if they’re on your side, how could they have engaged in such a historic betrayal? It stunned people at first. But then it forced a lot of activists in the movement to think more seriously about it and understand that this is how it goes.
These politicians are not on our side. And the moment Jeff Bezos threatened them in the back rooms, they immediately folded. It also showed how far big business will go to get their way. At first, there was this idea that when should we make it about Amazonia? Should we make it about Jeff Bezos? And isn’t it just a question of talking to billionaires nicely? Not only do they not want to talk to us nicely, they will maneuver behind the movement’s back, they will bully and threaten and engage in every possible dirty trick, from bullying to extortion, in order to get their way. And that’s hardly the only example of what they did.
Three days after I was first elected, the Democratic-dominated state legislature in Washington sold out Boeing workers by getting Boeing Corporation the single, largest ever corporate tax handout in U.S. history, and sold out the workers’ pensions. And so, you know, we see example after example. I think the main lessons are about political strategy. I think that having learned those lessons, the movement is far more prepared this year. And one of the strategies we’re using is what we had done to the $15 Now movement in 2014 where we’re not just going to bring forward an ordinance, we also are preparing for a ballot initiative.
Could you maybe provide a little more detail in terms of, you reference extortion and threats and dirty tricks that turned a lot of the city council around from, I guess, fearing the grassroots movement to instead fearing corporate interests. What exactly were those actions and what were the other council members afraid of?
I think it would be worth it if you have time to look at some of the articles that came out soon after that where it was proven that these council members actually violated the city laws in what kind of private conversations they can have. Because when you are an elected official, you have actual legal obligations to transparency. And it was proven that they violated aspects of the Open Public Meetings Act by having private text messages flying across all of them to decide what to do. And I consider it a badge of honor that when they had their little spreadsheet of which council-members they were going to contact, against my name, they said something like ‘no point in asking her because we know what her position will be.’ That’s a badge of honor for me. I did not know until the day they made it public. I found out at the moment they made public.
As far as the specific threats are concerned, again, it’s nothing new. These are threats that we’ve seen decade after decade in state after state. And that’s the threat that: ‘we are billionaires. We already have sweetheart deals in the city, in the state, and in Congress. But if you have the temerity to stand against yet another sweetheart deal that we want, then we will punish you by taking away jobs.’ So pretty much that was the thrust—all related to jobs. I think the Boeing example is relevant here as well, because that handout that I mentioned to you, which was nearly a 9 billion dollar handout, which is the single largest handout in U.S. history to a corporation, that handout was also given by the Democrats in the state level. In the same vein, they said, ‘I don’t like this any more than you do. But look, we have to give this to them because they’ve threatened they will take away jobs.’ So that deal was given to Boeing. What happened after that? Boeing took away 13,000 jobs.
If ever there was a case of insanity being, using a strategy that has failed over and over again and expecting different results, it is this. Falling for the threats and bullying and extortion by big corporations and the wealthiest when they say ‘if you don’t give me this, that or the other, I’m going to take away jobs.’ Well, they’re going to do whatever they’re going to do anyway because they are the capitalist class, and as long as they have disproportionate power in society to do it when we don’t oppose them, they’re going to do it anyway. As long as there is another group of workers in another state or in another country or another continent that is poorer and more desperate than the workers here who would be willing because they’re also accepting the same kind of defeatist strategy that we are, but they say, OK, I’ll settle for no union, we’ll settle for special economic zones where all our rights can be stripped away from us, just give us a job so that we can have two pennies to rub together. That’s when you have a global race to the bottom. And instead, we have to flip that race to the bottom on its head and ‘say no more.’ And in fact, the intellectual backbone on which a reversal of the race to the bottom has to be solidarity among workers across cities, across states, across nations and globally, and where we say that, no, actually, none of us should be accepting a race to the bottom. And the only way to reverse it is for workers to fight everywhere and not fight against [ourselves].
And so concrete examples exist. When we fought for $15 an hour, we had the same threats. These politicians come in telling you ‘if pass $15 gonna be nothing less than lights out in Seattle.’ Utter nonsense. Our movement was strong enough where we absolutely refuse to believe it. People in the movement educated one another and explained that, look, we should not be falling for the lies by the Seattle Times editorial board, that we should continue fighting. We were threatened with closures of restaurants and closures of businesses in the hotel industry and so on. None of that happened. They were forced to raise the wages of the workers because it was the law. And actually what ended up happening is as $15 spread in city after city, state after state—and there’s a real prospect, especially if Bernie becomes the Democratic nominee that we will have $15 an hour at the federal level—in fact, workers in other countries have emulated Seattle’s victory as well. A city in Belgium has just launched a similar campaign there. Their demand is different but along the same vein. So that’s a really inspiring example of a rejection of the race to the bottom on the basis of solidarity among workers across borders.
If I could get into the specifics of the legislation that you’re proposing: First would be why payroll as opposed to working hours, which was the target of it last time? My understanding is that the 2018 bill would have generated something like $47 million in revenue each year versus what you’re proposing now, which is projected to get something closer to $300 million. If there was any specific reason why you felt you should try for this drastic increase?
I would not use the word ‘drastic’ in connection with this, because as you know from the numbers I just gave you, a $300 million dollars per year is lower than the lower-end estimate of what McKinsey thinks we need to raise in King County—and obviously, granted, this is at the city level, but the bulk of the homelessness problem exists at the city level because the city also has more services and more of a community to help homeless people. $300 million for the city level is very much in line with what McKinsey says and in fact, at the lower end of it. It’s a bold number that has captured the imagination of ordinary people and they want to fight around it. But by no means in any way a number that reflects the full problem either. In fact, it’s a modest number. And the proposal that we made for payroll is something that’s going to affect 0.3 percent of the total revenues of the corporations that would be liable to pay for this. So, you know, when you look at it from the lens of the amount of wealth they take home, privately, it’s just an absolutely... it’s pocket change compared to what they take home. So in that sense, I think it’s an entirely reasonable number.
But why so much greater than 2018? It’s very simple. We feel the only rational way for policymaking to happen is for the policy to be commensurate with the scale of the problem—because we’re not grandstanding here, we actually want to address the problem. So that’s one aspect of it.
The other aspect of it that if you look at the way everything unfolded in 2017 and 2018, what was passed by the council, like $48 million, that are our number from the movement. We were talking about $210 million dollars, that that whittled down $150 million dollars, and that got whittled down to something like $85 [million] or something like that. And then that got whittled down to what was eventually passed. And by the way, when it was passed, the mayor, all these corporate politicians, hailed it as ‘Oh I know you don’t think it is enough, but look, it is with real partnership from big business, the Chamber of Commerce. It’s a deal we’ve worked out. So it’s safe. It’s not antagonistic to big business.’ And the next thing you know, big business completely undermined it, not only by personal appeal but forced by immediately launching a referendum to defeat the law that was just passed by the city council. So, so much for the supposed deal that can be worked out with these mysteriously kind billionaires who secretly want to do the right thing but just can’t get there because the movement is an obstacle to them.
That’s how that number was arrived at. That was not something that our movement was proposing, and it was going to be grossly inadequate. And, given the fact that even in two years the scale of the problem has expanded, I think it’s important to at least have $300 million, if not more. And in fact, in the movement, there were many who were saying, what about what McKinsey’s saying? And so that’s one thing.
Why payroll tax? If you look at the 2018 law, it was actually going to transition in a couple of years to payroll, and the reason they ended up writing the law like that was because all these city departments told us it’s going to take a couple of years to transition to payroll because the city does not currently collect a payroll tax, so they would need infrastructure, which is true. They would need infrastructure. My office certainly never accepted that it, why would it take two years? I didn’t understand. But now we are hearing in my office, the extraordinary help and talent of the city staff have now done further research in the last two months—which is why it took us a couple of months to come up with a proposal because we were trying to be thorough with our research—we believe that that transition can be done much more easily and so we’re straightforwardly going to the payroll tax rather than having a more convoluted route towards it.
Do you have an estimate of what amount of that $300 million annually would be coming directly from Amazon?
I think we do have an estimate, although I think the problem is that the city is not privy to actual company details. So we can have an estimate of it. And you mind if I have my staff members share whatever we have. We’re happy to share it, but I don’t have the number off the top of my head.
Given your remarks prior about other council members’ willingness to act on fear of whichever group happened to be more frightening to them at that moment, whether it was grassroots Seattleites that were organized or were big business or what have you, do you have any optimism that this is something that will successfully pass the council?
I am extremely optimistic, but not because of politicians. It’s because of the consciousness of ordinary people in Seattle and because of how, politically, events have played out since the repeal in 2018. We talked about the 2018 repeal and what lessons the movement had to learn from that setback, but much more has happened since then. A whole election year happened between then and now. And as we had correctly predicted, and I said this in my speech when I was voting against the repeal in the summer of 2018, that, look, you politicians, some of you are well-meaning and you are genuinely doing this because you think this is the only way to react when big business is bearing down on you. And you think that if you give in now it’s going to make it OK tomorrow. But that’s exactly the wrong strategy to use because if you give in now these billionaires will smell blood in the water and they will come after all progressives next year when we are running for election.
That’s precisely what happened in 2019, which was last year where the Chamber of Commerce, Amazon executives, and the whole spectrum of anti-worker and anti-ordinary people—rich people, big business lobbies—went on the attack. And their goal was to defeat as many progressive candidates as possible. So they didn’t just go after my reelection campaign, but obviously, for them—they understood now that they won’t succeed in bullying me, scaring me, or buying me out, because that’s not going to happen. And on top of that, I’m not alone. I come with an organization, a political organization and a political movement— it was a primary objective for them. Get rid of my office. But they overwhelmingly failed in their project last year. I mean, they basically wanted to do a corporate takeover of city hall. It was disgusting. And the reason they failed is because voters spoke up and said, look, we’re not necessarily in agreement on everything with every person on the left, but we do agree strongly that Seattle needs to be affordable for all working people who make it run, who make the city run. We don’t agree that this should be a playground for the wealthy.
And when we campaigned in my reelection campaign, it’s not our political approach to be coy about our politics. We’re very open about our politics. So everybody who voted for me knew exactly what they were voting for and what they were voting against. And the Amazon tax was the principal demand on our campaign platform. And then also rent control and [the] green new deal. So every vote that we got was a conscious vote that we need Seattle to go in a more progressive direction.
And then if the election results themselves weren’t enough of a referendum on what direction voters think our city should go, in which it was a referendum, after the election labor ended up doing a poll in which an immense majority of Seattle voters said that they think large corporations should be taxed to fund affordable housing. It is incredible how much their spirits have risen from the fact that we defeated the richest man in the world. We literally had the richest man in the world against us in the election and we defeated him. That took a lot of hard work and sacrifice on the part of hundreds, if not thousands. But we were able to do it. And it shows that it can be done and shows that when you fight, you can win.
And it’s that spirit that’s fueling the Tax Amazon movement. The biggest testament to how powerful our movement is right now is exactly how big business has already reacted. I don’t know if you heard that as soon as the Tax Amazon movement was launched, they started maneuvering at the state level. And now, the big business lobby, and not just Amazon, other businesses as well, they are now hellbent on passing a law out of the state legislature, which will give a very small amount of taxing authority to King County, which is 10 to 25 percent of the needs of the region. But in return for that small concession, winning a big prize of a statewide ban on any other big business taxes. So in other words, they’re maneuvering to attempt to kill the Tax Amazon movement. That tells you which side they’re on. And also that tells you how much momentum we have for the movement.
So I’m sharing with you all this, because strategically, that is how we won victory after victory, even if the majority of the council didn’t start out on our side, they have had to contend with the power of the movement. And I think that one or two council members are actually very open at this moment to this. But the most immediate challenge we face is putting pressure on the Democrats at the state level to not engage in what, if the ballot passed, what would be a historic betrayal of working people. And really it would turn into a ‘protect Bezos’ bill.
We need to make sure we stop that and keep building our movement. And I have no doubt that we have every chance of winning. The victory obviously is not guaranteed. You have to keep fighting. When we were building $15 an hour, we had a ballot initiative ready to go and got ultimately served as the threat where council-members knew that as much pressure as they’re getting from big business, they knew if they didn’t pass something at the city level, there was something stronger that was going to go directly to the voters in November.
Does Amazon and other moneyed interests still have the option to write their own ballot initiative following that one to overturn it? I understand that the Mayor was concerned about a protracted legal fight with the last bill. And I just wonder what the outline of that fight might look like.
Just to give you some background every progressive victory that we have won, and we have won a lot of them in the six years that we’ve been in city hall, my understanding is every single one of them, or at least virtually every single one of them, has been taken to court by big business of every lender’s right to victory, where one has been challenged in the courts by the developers. And now he’s won a single one. So far, every single law that he fights for has been upheld, which is a tremendous track record and a testament to how much the majority of the city and the region supports our progressive policymaking. In that vein, I have no doubt that whatever we pass, whether it’s through the ballot initiative or the city council, they will attempt to legally challenge it.
I will say, though, that the motivation of mayor Durkan is not so much trying to prevent legal wrangling, it is more straight-up corporate politics. You ask anybody here, they will tell you she’s Amazon’s mayor, she’s not our mayor. She’s not the mayor of ordinary people. And she quite openly serves corporate interests. And so I have no doubt that she would like to prevent a victory for the movement, and she is doing everything in her power to do it. In fact, this ban, or it’s also called preemption, technically, the state-wide plan that I’m not telling you about which is threatened—she has been closely involved in it.
What we have heard, and I don’t know that it has been documented anywhere, or maybe The Seattle Times did report on this, actually. And I can find a link and send it to you. But that basically she and some other corporate politicians were behind a state bill with preemption. And at least the progressive Democrats who brought this bill forward, they at least stripped the preemption from the original version of the bill. So it’s not there yet. The ban is not in the bill yet, but it could come in the future, which is why we have to make sure to fight it successfully. But our understanding is that mayor Durkan was one of the people behind it, which is no surprise to me at all.
And in fact, Durkan has bitterly opposed every progressive victory that we have already won. It’s only mid-February in my office as won two very important and historic victories. One is a ban on winter evictions of renters in the month of December, January, and February. She bitterly opposed it with all kinds of lies and distortions. Also, the other bill that we won just yesterday was a land-use code change bill, which will allow tiny house villages, which have had a tremendous track record of moving homeless people to affordable housing, because it gives them dignity and case management, running water, toilets, kitchen, safe space for women and children. So, my land-use code bill that was passed yesterday that allows the tiny house villages to be zoned throughout the city and expands the number of legally allowed villages to 40—right now it’s just three. So it was a tremendous victory. And the mayor has opposed all this progressive legislation, and we won that despite all of that, because we’ve had support from other council members and because there’s a whole community that has been fighting for it. And that’s even more true about the Tax Amazon movement, which has had hundreds attending the three public meetings that we’ve already had since January.
This legislation that you’re proposing is intended to address homelessness and green energy. Jeff Bezos has quite publicly committed 2 billion and 10 billion dollars respectively to those causes. I imagine people might say, ‘why tax them if they’re if people like Jeff Bezos are already committing this amount of money?’
If you look closely at the way corporate philanthropy works, it’s more a scam than providing any real benefit to society. One, because it comes with a lot of strings attached and you have to look at the fine print of what exactly it is that they’re funding. For example, the Gates Foundation touts all kinds of programs in my home country, India, and Africa. And for example, their deal with Monsanto. That has had been an agent of death in my country. And so I think we have to develop a real skepticism of what corporate philanthropy really brings.
And in fact, there are studies that show that ordinary people, you know, middle-class people and working-class people as a proportion of their income are far more generous in charity than the wealthiest people. You’ll hear routinely also from food service workers that ordinary people are very self-respecting and dignified tippers and the richest people offer the worst tips. These are just sundry facts that I’m sharing with you.
The bottom line of why we need a tax is because the problem that our state faces, being one of the wealthiest states in the history of humanity and, not to mention Seattle, which is an absolutely unbelievably wealthy city, except it’s deeply unequal. So a city and state that have [an] unprecedented amount of wealth, we have the funding for public education gutted to such a degree that the Washington State Supreme Court legally ruled the state legislature to be criminally underfunding public education. The infrastructure throughout the state is in disarray and in decay. There’s parts of the city that sidewalks don’t even exist. And many parts of the city, the sidewalks are not compliant with laws that will allow physically disabled people, elderly people, people with strollers, with babies, for them to be able to conveniently travel.
These are small issues, but everywhere from public education to public housing, all of the state needs are either not funded at all or sorely underfunded with previous funding having been gutted. This is the perversity of capitalism. Yes, our homeless neighbors are the ones that are on the front lines of this misery. But that misery is inflicted on the majority of us. So many people just struggling to pay their rent, holding down two jobs, most jobs paying really low wages, especially when you look at the plight of the younger generation. On top of that, being saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of student debt with public universities like the University of Washington becoming completely out of reach for ordinary people, even though these universities were meant for them. You don’t have to go by my political beliefs.
Yes, I am a socialist. I’m unabashedly fighting for and unapologetically fighting for ordinary people. And I don’t hide that. But this is not about my political opinions. What I’m sharing with you are statistics of how gravely underfunded our public services, our social services, our need for affordable housing, for public education... That there is a whole society that has misery inflicted on it for no other reason than this is the way capitalism functions. And this is the goal of the capitalist system, to maximize wealth for a few of the top while the rest of society, which is going to work every day and creating those profits for the people at the top, languishes at the bottom with more and more difficulties piled upon them.
When you look at the mathematical magnitude of this problem, you actually look at the dollars that are needed for fully funding quality public education: That means school buildings. That means school counselors. That means smaller class sizes. It means decent salaries for the teachers. It means not attacking teachers unions. You’re talking about a major expansion of affordable housing for the majority of the people, not only for the homeless and everybody else who is struggling or working people. If you want to make that green vote and union vote.
Add up all of the needs of our society. That goes so far beyond a billion here or a billion there that these billionaires might give—and which, by the way, those so-called philanthropic announcements that these billionaires make, what they really are concessions to a movement that is fighting hard for social justice. These are not just arbitrary moments of largesse from secretly goodhearted millionaires. These are concessions that they’re forced to make because they’re being called out publicly. And it’s a question of their political reputation for themselves. But my primary argument is mathematical. When you add up all the needs of society, it is going to go so far beyond any little drop that this Bill Gates or this Jeff Bezos decides gave on a given day as a concession to the mood and to the movement. That is why we are talking about taxing.
I will make a further point that even if corporations paid their fair share—which they are not, because, as I said, this is the most absurdly low tax region for big business. Well, if you look at the subsidies that they get on top of the low taxes that they pay, some of these corporations and in some of the years, they end up paying a negative tax rate. Tell me how absurd that is. But my point is that even if they started paying their fair share if we had a powerful enough movement to make it happen, and that’s not going to be easy. These reforms will be hard-fought for. Even if they did, that will still not completely address the deep imbalance in our society. That is why I am a socialist. That is why I don’t just fight for reforms. I also provide a vision for what our society should actually be. And it’s not capitalism.
And I think maybe illustrative of what you’re saying in terms of kind of corporate largesse. Nobody knows exactly what sort of timetable Jeff Bezos intends to give out these twelve billion dollars on or to the large part where he intends to donate them to. And to my knowledge, the only institutions that have actually received any money so far are Mary’s Place in FairStart in Seattle, which have both received about $100 million. I wonder if, as a resident of the city, if you’ve been aware of any operational improvements in either of those institutions.
I have not been aware of any operational improvements. I know that it temporarily creates more shelter beds. As a movement that is pushing for social change, we recognize whatever little these billionaires give is a victory for our movement. And so we are not rejecting that, but we also don’t think that it’s going anywhere far enough.
Correction: 7/7/2020, 8:52 a.m. ET: A previous version of this article misstated the amount of the proposed tax on Seattle’s largest businesses. The proposed bill would add a 0.7 percent tax on those companies.