This article appeared originally in Jacobin.
If you want a preview of how corporate America intends to play in the 2020 elections, look no farther than what’s happening in Seattle’s municipal elections right now.
Amazon just dumped $1.45 million into the local Chamber of Commerce political action committee, a record political buy aimed at radically remaking city government to suit the desires of the behemoth that now dominates the region’s economy. The money bomb exceeds all independent expenditures in Seattle’s last municipal election cycle, and it comes to more than $3 for every single registered voter in the city—equivalent to Amazon dropping $480 million in the national election.
While Amazon’s spokesman offered blandishments about the company simply wanting “a council that delivers results,” in truth, the money aims to neutralize and destroy a growing social movement demanding that the city tax Amazon in order to build affordable housing, enact rent control and renters’ rights legislation, and institute Green New Deal policies. Amazon intends to mute the movement by defeating progressives and socialist candidates running in the city’s district elections. This includes Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidate Shaun Scott, and Democrats Tammy Morales and Councilmember Lisa Herbold.
But the biggest prize by far for Amazon is twice-elected socialist city councilmember, Kshama Sawant, a rank-and-file union member who through movement building in the last six years has pushed a reluctant City Council to adopt a $15 minimum wage—the first major US city to do so—enact landmark renters’ rights legislation, and take up issues like free public transit, indigenous rights, and anti-gentrification measures.
Sawant’s track record illustrates how a single socialist in city government, backed by a vibrant, diverse, outside movement, can change the entire political dynamic of a city. Previously staid City Council meetings have now become packed, boisterous affairs of diverse activists with occasional bursts of nonviolent direct action: Sawant and movement activists led a one-night takeover of City Hall two years ago to protest inaction on combating homelessness, helping set the stage for the Tax Amazon movement.
Amazon recognizes this sea change, which is why in addition to the record PAC contribution, at least eleven members of Amazon’s senior leadership team have donated to pro-corporate city council candidates and pro-big-business PACs.
Seattle is fast becoming a company town. From a relatively low profile when it opened its headquarters in Seattle in 2009, Amazon today employs more than 53,000 people in the region—plus another 10,000 open positions. It controls a staggering 25 percent of downtown Seattle real estate, and has gobbled up almost all available commercial space in nearby Bellevue.
Amazon’s meteoric growth, combined with a Democratic Party–dominated political establishment that approaches virtually any social problem with a “the-market-will-fix-it” mentality, has produced a housing crisis that is crushing working people. Average apartment rents—up 69 percent in the last eight years, three and a half times the inflation rate—are now well over $2,000 per month. Nearly half of all Seattle renters struggle to make rent payments along with other basic necessities. Countless workers—especially people of color and immigrants—have been economically evicted from the city, forcing them into long commutes, and a record number of people are dying homeless on the streets.
There are no limits on how much landlords can raise rents, because decades ago a bipartisan state legislature enacted a ban on local rent regulations.
Make no mistake, “the market” has produced plenty of housing in Seattle during this Amazon boom—but it’s luxury apartments and swanky condominiums with sticker prices upwards of $5 million that all too often serve not as residences but, as the Institute for Policy Studies recently documented, as expensive piggy banks for the ultra-wealthy.
Two years ago, Sawant and her Socialist Alternative organization assembled a community coalition to push a tax on Amazon and the top 3 percent superrich corporations. The money would go to build social housing in Seattle—built with union labor, publicly controlled, and permanently affordable.
Under pressure, the political establishment set up a task force of elected officials and community leaders to develop recommendations. The task force, while admitting that Seattle faced a shortage of at least 30,000 affordable homes, costing $5.1 billion to build, nonetheless only recommended a modest $75 million tax on Amazon and other big businesses. The mayor, elected the previous year thanks to $350,000 in political backing from Amazon, whittled the proposal down to $48 million—a tiny sum compared to the need, but at least a start.
In May 2018, the City Council unanimously adopted this modest Amazon tax, which would have cost the company less than one-one-hundredth of 1 percent of their revenue.
Apparently even this budget dust was too much for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to part with. Amazon, along with the Chamber of Commerce, Starbucks, and other big businesses, went to war.
They launched a tax-repeal campaign with swarms of paid petitioners, citywide advertisements, and editorials that blamed homeless people for their own problems, and claimed frontline social service workers and their agencies were wasting money. Big developers enlisted building trades union leaders to decry the attack on jobs, at one point shouting down Sawant and housing proponents. Right-wing talk radio lit up with red-baiting and baseless claims that the tax would force Amazon to leave Seattle.
This was not a campaign to win over hearts and minds. It was a show of brute force, the equivalent of a boss’s anti-union intimidation campaign scaled up from a workplace to encompass an entire city. Within weeks the City Council caved, repealing the Amazon tax 7–2.
The election now underway in Seattle is a continuation of the war that Amazon declared eighteen months ago. Mail ballots were sent out last week, and are collected through November 5.
Last Saturday, with a steady drizzle and temperatures in the upper forties, some eighty-five people gathered at Cal Anderson Park. Renters, union members, socialists, low-wage workers, students, and left-wing Democrats were there to canvass for Sawant, whose diverse, majority renter district encompasses working-class communities of color, the historic home of Seattle’s LGBTQ community, and also some of the uber-wealthy, including Starbucks founder and failed presidential candidate Howard Schultz. (Sawant has quipped, “Billionaire Howard Schultz lives in my district—I don’t represent him!”)
Calibrating their smartphones to a door-knocking app, they headed out to talk to residents after reviewing the core campaign messages. Sawant and Socialist Alternative recognize that the best defense against Amazon is to stay on the offensive. From her City Council post, Sawant has launched a grassroots movement to win rent control, is fighting for a Green New Deal in Seattle, including free public transit, for police accountability in black and brown communities, and of course for renewal of the Amazon tax to fund social housing.
Canvassers also got briefed on Sawant’s signal organizing victories in past months—building a movement to win restoration of a neighborhood Post Office, blocking huge public housing rent increases, organizing with low-income tenants to win relocation guarantees and more than $100,000 in cash from a developer, stopping another developer from evicting seniors in a nearby mobile home park, and securing new funding for a high school LGBTQ health center.
Some canvassers headed out to single-family home neighborhoods, while others went to the denser apartment blocks, including places that have identified pro-Sawant “building captains” that have been organizing their neighbors.
It’s the combination of this powerful ground-game, strong grassroots fundraising with 5,800 donors—more than double any other City Council candidate—and a fighting message and strategy that provide the hope for Sawant and the movement to overcome Amazon’s tsunami and hold onto the socialist beachhead in City Hall.
Facing off against Sawant on the ballot is Egan Orion, a local businessman, organizer of the annual LGBTQ Pridefest celebration, and first-time political candidate. Orion boasts of progressive values in his literature and in candidate forums, claiming he is “almost completely aligned” with Sawant politically but will be less “divisive.” Yet he has flipped-flopped on core issues, telling community groups he’s for progressive taxation, and telling the Chamber of Commerce—whose PAC money he eagerly sought out—that he opposes taxes on big business. He’s also come out squarely against rent control, calling it a “horrible policy.”
Behind Orion’s campaign gloss lurks a more menacing reality: He is one of the largest beneficiaries of corporate PAC money in Seattle history, and his own campaign donor list is filled with a who’s who of top corporate executives, venture capitalists, high-end developers, union-busters, and several major Trump donors.
While Sawant has the large majority of union support, with twenty unions endorsing, Orion has managed to peel off a number of unions—like the building trades, police, firefighters, and Teamsters—whose leaders shamefully see their interests more aligned with the political establishment and big developers. But Orion has struggled to establish progressive bona fides. King County Young Democrats and the local Democratic legislative district committee, Sierra Club, and a broad number of progressive community organizations and publications have endorsed socialist Sawant over him.
Yet as with the “tax Amazon” fight, Orion’s corporate backers aren’t trying to win hearts and minds as much as shock and overwhelm the electorate with a brute-force anti-Sawant blitz. For the executives, this election is about disciplining an unruly working class that is questioning their political and economic hegemony.
The backlash to Amazon’s money bomb has drawn sharp reaction in national progressive circles. Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have denounced the company’s hostile takeover attempt of the Seattle election. Robert Reich has weighed in. In Seattle, local electeds have spoken out and two additional Democratic councilmembers, Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda, have now endorsed Sawant. Homemade posters—one featuring the face of Bezos with the words, “All I ever wanted was everything, including city council”—have been showing up on telephone polls, and Sawant’s canvassers report that voters are enraged. Significantly, some Amazon tech and logistics workers have begun to speak out, organizing a rally at the headquarters to denounce the election buy.
The coming days in Seattle will be a test of the movement’s resilience, what labor author and organizer Jane McAlevey calls a “structure test.” It will be the biggest challenge that Sawant’s movement has faced in Seattle, and the results will reverberate nationally.
But it can be won: New York activists proved in the last year that strong organizations deeply embedded in working-class communities can overcome even the most powerful corporation on the planet. A victory in Seattle will push back against the corporate power-grab, and just as significantly demonstrate that notwithstanding the efforts of the richest man in the world, support for socialism and socialist elected leaders is on the rise.
About the Author
Jonathan Rosenblum is a writer and union and community organizer based in Seattle, WA. He is the author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement (Beacon Press, 2017), and a member of the National Writers Union/UAW 1981. Find him online at https://jonathanrosenblum.org/ or Twitter: @jonathan4212.