Right now in Seattle, Washington, Amazon — arguably the company positioned to profit the most from COVID-19 — is fighting to suppress a movement for a progressive tax. Amazon’s biggest ally in the fight: so-called progressive Democrats.
No matter what, the economy is going to transform. The question is: What kind of transformation will benefit the working class, not just now in this current inflection point of the COVID-19 crisis but into the future, through the likely recession and beyond?
As with any recession, the choices governments make now will have long-lasting repercussions. If citizens let neoliberal politicians have their way, recession will be a convenient excuse to cut government programs and pave the way for more privatization and tax giveaways to corporations. That’s precisely what organizers in Seattle are trying to stop.
The organizers are made up of a coalition of socialists, environmentalists, unions and community groups. What they’re demanding is a progressive tax on the top 2 percent of businesses in the city. It wasn’t just the idea of a progressive tax that brought these groups together but what it would pay for: First, COVID-19 relief for front-line communities, and second, affordable housing and a Green New Deal for Seattle. Specifically, the Green New Deal would fund thousands of union jobs retrofitting houses and building new public housing to both combat the rise of homelessness and stem the flow of Seattle workers to suburbs farther and farther away where commutes drive up carbon footprints.
The opponents of the tax are the usual grouping of Chamber of Commerce members and right-wing radio talk show hosts, but there’s a bigger roadblock: self-described “progressive Democrats” in key positions of power, one city councilmember and the city’s “anti-Trump” mayor.
The city councilmember, Alex Pedersen, published an op-ed in The Seattle Times that stakes out the ideological territory of the opposition. In the piece, Pedersen argues that progressive taxes kill jobs, wealth trickles down, the current federal COVID-19 relief package is sufficient for the scale of the crisis, and that what Seattle needs now more than ever is budget cuts. Apparently, “progressive Democrat” is an umbrella term big enough to include “Reaganomics fanboy” and “austerity zealot.” Maybe the term is just a politically necessary lie to get elected in a liberal city like Seattle.
Mayor Jenny Durkan has placed herself in that opposition camp, telling the same story about herself as a progressive. But Durkan is more careful than Pedersen in guarding her image. She says she supports a big business tax in theory but that now is not the time to implement such a tax. In 2018, when she signed a similar tax passed by city council only to help kill it before it went into effect, she vaguely suggested it was because she wanted to work on “real partnerships” with Seattle’s business community. When it comes to economic policy, Durkan is progressive in theory more than in practice. But for Seattleites who have suffered the most from skyrocketing rents and now suffer the most from the COVID-19 crisis, there’s no difference. When local news station KING5 asked Durkan about the payroll tax, she said that, “[It] is never going to happen.”
The biggest irony of Durkan’s maneuvering is her strong anti-Trump rhetoric. In her campaign for office and in subsequent interviews and op-eds, she has often called out the president and claimed that as a progressive city, Seattle can #resist. Yet, by holding the line against progressive taxes, she effectively supports the Trump administration’s keystone achievement: tax cuts for the wealthy. In fact, one of the pro-tax slogans in the city has been “Trump-proof Seattle,” referring to the austerity likely to follow tax cuts.
Washington State already has the most regressive tax structure in the country, so the imperative to pass the tax is even greater. But despite claiming to care about the backward tax structure and wanting to combat the impacts of the Trump presidency, “progressive Democrats,” city- and state-wide, have yet to coalesce around any real progress on the issue (Washington State, for instance, doesn’t have an income tax despite perennial promises from state Democrats). They just continue to pass sales taxes and property taxes — the one-two punch that won our state the regressive tax gold medal in the first place.
While the mayor’s position is disheartening, organizers continue to push. Before the stay-at-home order, groups mobilized their membership in a signature-gathering campaign to get the tax on the ballot in November. Because in-person signature gathering has become more difficult, the fight has largely moved to an inside-politics strategy, with two city councilors, Tammy Morales and Kshama Sawant, putting forward the legislation and backing certain organizations’ control of the narrative. When other council members moved to push discussion of the legislation until after the end of stay-at-home orders — May 31 — organizations quickly coordinated and blasted out a response. For instance, 350 Seattle said in a statement: “We can’t wait until social distancing requirements fully are lifted— possibly many months or even years from now — to address the multiple and overlapping crises that make communities vulnerable to COVID-19 in the first place.”
This can feel like a lot of armchair activism: letter writing, phone banking and amplifying messages on social media — even giving public testimony to city council is just a matter of calling in from the couch. But on May Day, organizers launched a socially distanced protest down a main drag of the city, ending in front of Amazon headquarters.
What’s at stake isn’t just the health of Seattle. One of the main targets of this tax is Amazon, the global anti-tax leviathan that is seeing record profits during the COVID-19 crisis. In location after location, Amazon has negotiated tax breaks for its warehouses and offices. Across the globe, it keeps tax structures tilted in its favor under threat of moving jobs elsewhere. Passing a tax here in the home of the company’s first headquarters could serve as a signal that local governments don’t have to put up with this anymore. A win here would mean that Amazon isn’t invincible.