People power wins Amazon tax and makes it stick


JEFF BEZOS THINKS HE’S SPECIAL. HE’S NOT. The people of Seattle have seen to that. The richest man in the world is finally going to have to pay taxes just like the rest of us.

Jeff Bezos is the founder and CEO of Amazon. He is used to doing business in a virtual tax-free world. In 2018 Amazon paid zero federal taxes on $11 billion in profits. In 2019 the federal government was able to squeeze out a 1.2% tax rate on over $13 billion in profits. It was legal—but hardly fair. The people of Seattle decided to do something about it.

First-time-ever tax on Amazon

The Seattle City Council adopted a first-time-ever tax on Amazon and other big businesses, on July 6. The tax measure will bring in at least $214 million a year to fund affordable housing, Green New Deal projects, and union jobs.

It was a stunning upset win for citizen activists. Just two years earlier, Amazon, the Chamber of Commerce, and the corporate-backed mayor, had beaten them and forced the city council to rescind an existing tax on big business.

The brutal 2018 corporate beat-down centered on attacking socialist Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, whose organization had led the grassroots push for the tax.

Big business deployed attack ads, push polling, a tax repeal campaign that paid signature-gatherers up to $6 for each signature, and a capital strike in which Amazon threatened to stop expanding in Seattle, its main headquarters.

The Amazon-led business coalition spent an unprecedented $4.1 million in last November’s city council elections against Sawant and other progressive and socialist candidates. “What’s at stake this year is who runs Seattle,” said Sawant, “Amazon and big business, or working people.” The election result left no doubt.

Sawant was re-elected. Five out of seven business-backed candidates were defeated.

‘Class struggle is what gets the goods’

After she was re-elected, Sawant convened a series of Tax Amazon Action Conferences beginning in January, where hundreds of activists discussed, debated, and voted on a strategy and the elements of a new proposal.

Not trusting the city council to enact the measure, they also launched a petition drive to place the measure on the ballot.

As the COVID crisis deepened, organizers set up socially-distanced signature stations in working-class neighborhoods, complete with hand sanitizer and pens cleaned after every use. The Justice for George Floyd movement also strengthened the drive. The result was 30,000 signatures.

On July 6 the city council adopted the tax ordinance, which will bring in at least $214 million a year—less than the movement’s $300 million initial demand but more than four times the tax that big business repealed in 2018.

“We know that our power comes from the self-organization of the working class not from negotiation with the elite,” said Eva Metz is a lead organizer for the Tax Amazon ballot initiative. “The key lesson of Tax Amazon is the same as so many of our past victories: Class struggle is what gets the goods.”

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