Seattle Buckles Under Corporate Pressure, Repeals ‘Amazon Tax’ to Fight Homelessness

Socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant says that as long as corporate Democrats run government, we should expect them to buckle under Amazon’s and Starbucks’ pressure

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert.

Seattle City Council caved in to Amazon and other major corporations on Tuesday when the council voted to repeal a $275 per employee tax on corporations with at least $20 million in annual revenue. The tax was intended to collect at least $40 million to help address Seattle’s growing homelessness problem. The city council’s reversal came as a shock to activists, because the tax had been passed unanimously only a month earlier. But city council members changed their minds when Amazon and other corporations launched a ballot measure to repeal the tax. Here’s what City Council member Kshama Sawant, who was one of the few to vote against the repeal, had to say urging other council members to keep the tax.

KSHAMA SAWANT: This tax that we are talking about, the Amazon tax, is, from an economist standpoint, and I’m speaking as an economist, it’s completely progressive. It is a progressive tax. It is a progressive tax. And if we are tired of regressive taxation in the state, then any progressive tax is the perfect solution. So let us not, as a movement, cede that ground. Don’t go door knocking and say this is not a perfect solution, but will you be with me? No, say this is the perfect solution because it is a progressive tax in a state with regressive taxes; are you with me so that we can make the lives of working people like yourselves better?

GREG WILPERT: Joining me now is Kshama Sawant. Kshama is the first socialist to be elected to the Seattle City Council in over a century. She is an economics professor at Seattle Central Community College, and a member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 1789. Thanks for being here today, Kshama.

KSHAMA SAWANT: Thank you for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So, tell us what happened here. Why did your fellow city council members vote in a 7-2 vote to repeal the tax? Is it that they were really afraid of putting the issue to referendum? And if so, why be afraid of that if this tax is targeted to corporations and not individuals?

KSHAMA SAWANT: So, just to make sure your viewers know what’s happening in Seattle, just like in every other city, metropolitan area in the United States, Seattle has been reeling for more than a decade with an affordable housing crisis and homelessness crisis. The Democratic Party establishment which populates the city council and the mayor’s office, and has overseen this crisis for decades in Seattle, has failed to do anything as a solution. And so our movement for housing justice put this forward. We really fought for it for months, to tax big businesses like Amazon, Starbucks, and Facebook, so that we can begin to build social housing, which is publicly owned, permanently affordable housing. And as you said, less than a month ago the entire city council, which is primarily composed of corporate Democrats, and other, somewhat well-meaning Democrats, but I’m the only socialist on the council. They voted unanimously because they felt the pressure from the movement. But now, less than a month later, they completely caved into Amazon and other big businesses.

The reason being that the political strategy of the Democratic Party is that you’ll do what you can if you can get the agreement of big business, the billionaire class, and corporate politicians. But if they don’t agree with you then you’re left without a strategy. So in other words, it’s a politically bankrupt strategy that our movement needs to break away from. We need to see why this happened, why this debacle happened. It happened because these politicians are unwilling to base themselves in the strength of the movement. And that is why our movement needs our own independent candidates and our own parties that will have the courage to stand up to big businesses like Amazon and billionaires like Jeff Bezos.

GREG WILPERT: I want to get back to that point. But before, let’s dig a little bit more into the context that you also started talking about. The tax was earmarked to address Seattle’s homelessness problem by constructing affordable public housing. Give us a little background as to why homelessness has become such a big problem in Seattle, a city that regularly wins top spot, the top 10 spots, of the most livable cities in the United States.

KSHAMA SAWANT: That’s a very important point, Greg. I mean, Seattle really is an absolutely beautiful city. And it could be an affordable and livable city, but it isn’t right now. As a matter of fact, even though the crisis is more acute in cities like Seattle, this is a crisis that’s being experienced by working people in every city in the United States. And even across the world, you see this issue coming up. Really it poses the fundamental question, who has the right to occupy our urban spaces? Is it only the billionaires and the millionaires and the super wealthy, or is it the backbone of our city that makes the city run?

So right now, not only are we seeing a statistical, statistical correlation, you know, homelessness is very much related to skyrocketing rents, which has been a phenomenon in Seattle. Rents have skyrocketed and exploded beyond imagination, and that has directly impacted the increases in homelessness. And so the only solution to this is to build affordable housing. But under capitalism, the housing market does not cater to our needs. It caters to maximizing profits for big developers, Wall Street speculators, and landlords. Which is why we need social housing which is publicly owned, permanently affordable housing. Which is exactly what this tax was going to do, which is raise money by taxing big businesses which have paid nothing close to their fair share, and using those revenues, building social housing, city-owned housing that can be affordable to the tens of thousands of working families that are getting pushed out, either out of the city, or into homelessness.

GREG WILPERT: So, in a Fox News discussion of the tax repeal, the panel on Fox News had the following to say about the attacks on the homelessness problem.

FOX NEWS PANELIST: I love this quote from the Amazon Vice President and spokesman Drew Herdener, who said the city does not have a revenue problem. It has a spending efficiency problem. Now, that, that pretty much says it all. Doesn’t it, Steve?

FOX NEWS PANELIST: I think that’s right. And I think that, frankly, nobody comes out of this well. What a ridiculous way of trying to solve the problem of homelessness with this stupid tax. The reason that you’ve got this homeless problem is because of their stupid policies that make housing so expensive. The regulations that make it so expensive to build a house, the environmental regulations, the zoning regulations. It’s their own policies that contribute to homelessness. So the idea of slapping a tax on Amazon is going to solve the problem is ridiculous.

GREG WILPERT: What’s your reaction to this argument, that Seattle’s regulations are causing a housing problem and homelessness problem, and that the spending in general just spends too much as it is?

KSHAMA SAWANT: Actually, if you look at the facts, you can see that the city is spending very little compared to what it needs to spend. I mean, when you talk about whether it’s very little or too much, that has to be based on the scale of the problem itself. And right now what we’ve seen, and this is, as I said, fundamentally linked to the way capitalism works, because it does not provide housing as a human need, that everybody has the right to have affordable housing, but how the housing market functions in order to maximize profits to a very tiny elite at the top.

So when you have those conditions you have what we have now, which is a moving target. If the city spends a few resources to bring a few people out of homelessness, new people are being made homeless. And contrary to these deeply right-wing, anti-homeless and anti-poor ideas, homeless people for the most part are not people who simply didn’t get their lives together and are personally responsible. No, homelessness is a social crisis which is directly a result of skyrocketing rents. A recent nationwide study from the Journal of Urban Studies showed that for every hundred dollar median increase in rent, you had a double digit increase in homelessness. So as a matter of fact, these commentators on Fox News are not only ideologically on the wrong side of history, but they also don’t know their ABCs of economics.

The reality is that the homelessness crisis is a direct result of skyrocketing rents in many different cities across North America, but we’re also seeing that crisis across the Atlantic in Western Europe, as well. And as far as taxing Amazon and that being a problem, let’s face it, Amazon is making so much profit that this tax would been mere pocket change for Jeff Bezos and his billionaire cronies. And as far as Drew Herdener from Amazon saying that Seattle has a spending efficiency problem, well, capitalism has a wealth concentration problem. And when you, when you have Jeff Bezos saying I have so much money, I don’t know what to do with it; I think I’m going to dabble in space travel, and two days later threatening Seattle with taking away thousands of construction jobs if we pass a modest pocket change tax on him, that is a fundamental problem of capitalism.

And I think the statements of Drew Herdener and these arrogant statements that you heard from Fox News should be a reminder to us that there is no way that we are going to make any change for the better, to make our cities affordable and to make the society work for the vast majority of humanity, by expecting that the billionaires and their political operatives and commentators will somehow get on our side someday. No, Jeff Bezos and the billionaires, and Amazon and Starbucks and Facebook executives, they’re never going to be on our side, and the politicians who kowtow to them are never going to be on our side. We’re going to have to build social movements to the fierce opposition of big business, and come to terms with the fact that we are on opposite sides because our goals are antagonistic to one another. We want a humane society. They want capitalism.

So what are we going to do? We’re going to have to build movements that take on the opposition of big business, that are courageous enough to stand up to the ferocious opposition of big business. And yes, it’s a David versus Goliath struggle. But the only way we can really win is to build and prevail beyond big business opposition. And that’s exactly how we won $15 an hour. Four years ago we won the historic $15 minimum wage. At that time these business executives were not on our side. The billionaires were not on our side. We won only because we had the courage to stand up against them. And the city council, what city council has shown, the majority of the city council has shown, which is that the Democratic Party and its politicians do not have that courage. They will never stand up to big business. Amazon and Jeff Bezos just have to snap their fingers, and the highest legislative body of the city came down on its knees and said, OK we’re not going to fight against Amazon. But we can’t stop then. We have to build our movement.

GREG WILPERT: So what now? I want to address exactly what if this movement were to push for something different? In the clip that we had earlier of you speaking just before the vote took place, you said that Seattle has one of the most regressive local tax systems in the U.S. Couldn’t the taxes be raised some other way, by changing Seattle’s regressive tax system more generally?

KSHAMA SAWANT: Well, the reality is Seattle as a municipality, Washington state, is under the control of Washington state law. And in fact, and I’m really glad you’ve mentioned, because the caving in by the Democratic politicians of the Seattle City Council is nothing new. The reality is that Washington state as a whole has the most regressive tax system in the entire nation, and we got there in the first place because of this same kind of timidity and betrayal by the Democratic Party at the state level. I mean, they have presided over this really dismal state of affairs, where you have powerful corporations like Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks in this state, and yet this state has the most regressive tax system in the entire nation. We have poverty levels soaring, homelessness levels soaring, the public education funding is in complete disarray, and the affordable housing crisis in multiple cities in Washington state.

So this giving in has to remind us that the first next step, really, is for our movement to draw the correct lessons, historical lessons. One of the main lessons here is that you cannot go, you’re not going to win affordable housing, much less a livable city, by putting your faith in the Democratic Party and its politicians and its representatives. Our movement will need its own independent parties and candidates. And concretely, next year, seven of the nine city council members in Seattle are up for re-election, and the vast majority of them-. I’m also up for re-election, but I’m one of the two who voted against the repeal and fought for the tax. So for the vast majority of city council members, they’re up for re-election next year. That this concrete question for our movement. Are we going to build a real fighting alliance that will run candidates on a program of demands, and run candidates who have the courage to fight against big business? And will we build a movement strong enough to hold our representatives accountable and really teach a lesson to the Democratic Party? And also, most importantly, teach a lesson to our movement that the way forward cannot be and will never be through the Democratic Party. The way forward, if we want social and economic justice, if we want affordable and livable cities, we are going to have to fight for it independent of the Democratic Party, not by putting our fate in them.

GREG WILPERT: I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant. Thanks again, Kshama, for having joined us today.

KSHAMA SAWANT: Thank you for having me.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network. Also, keep in mind we recently started a summer fundraiser, and need your help to reach our goal of raising $200,000. Every dollar that you donate will be matched. Unlike practically all other news outlets, we do not accept money from governments or corporations. Please do what you can today.