When Amazon unleashed its bidding war for a second headquarters, more than 200 cities offered mind-blowing sums of money to lure the e-commerce giant. Crystal City in Virginia “won” at a cost of $23 million in perks, on top of $75 million more from the state.
“Loser” Long Island City in New York had offered $3 billion in incentives. But Amazon, which is ferociously anti-union, backed out after being asked to sign a “neutrality” agreement making it possible for its warehouse workers to organize. This was seen as a victory for community members who had militantly organized against Amazon coming to town, arguing that the social costs would be too high.
Seattle offers a sobering story about just what those costs are.
A city remade. In the 1990s, when Jeff Bezos was founding Amazon from his garage, Seattle was known for things like its great musicians and natural beauty. For the poor, life was hard, but the poverty rate was low compared to other large cities. For many residents, Seattle deserved its reputation as a “most livable city.”
That was then. Now Seattle is famous for its multiple corporate Goliaths — Amazon, Boeing, Starbucks, etc. And with growth has come inequality on steroids.
Since 2010, rents have spiked 63 percent. Many Seattleites with deep roots have been forced to move, sometimes by being evicted. People of color are the majority of those ousted. And of those kicked out for owing $100 or less, female single tenants are the majority. Soaring taxes on homeowners also push residents out.
If those leaving find cheaper housing out of town, they often must still work in the city, with hours-long commutes.
But ever-greater numbers of people in Seattle’s King County — now more than 12,000 — don’t have a home at all. Once it was shocking to see someone homeless; now people walk by with seeming indifference.
Meanwhile, as traffic snarls, neighborhood density skyrockets, and green spaces disappear, more construction cranes dot the skyline than in any other U.S. city.
South Lake Union, once a district of small businesses and warehouses, is now Amazon’s campus. With 40 buildings and 45,000 employees, Amazon has as much office space in Seattle as the next 40 biggest employers combined. To accommodate Amazonia, Seattle has sunk $638 million into new infrastructure.
Riding a gravy train. Washington state has one of the country’s most regressive tax codes. It puts the lion’s share of taxes on those less able to pay, with huge loopholes for big tech. And titans like Boeing and Amazon continually use extortion to get even more perks.
In 2013 Boeing demanded — and got — a record $8.2 billion in state subsidies by threatening to take production elsewhere. At the same time, it rammed a concessionary contract down the throat of its blue-collar workforce. Machinists Local 751 fought valiantly but ultimately lost against a coalition that included Boeing bosses and politicians of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
After all this, Boeing still moved its headquarters to Chicago, shrunk its workforce, and sent major production to the South. The power this company wields is a huge factor in the 737 Max catastrophe, given that the Federal Aviation Administration allowed it to sign off on parts of its own flight-control software without outside inspection.
Amazon, which paid no federal taxes in 2018, also uses bully tactics. Last year, activists tried to levy a “head tax” on businesses making over $20 million per year. An ordinance adopted unanimously by the Seattle City Council would have charged such businesses $275 per employee annually for three years. Its purpose was to fund services for the homeless.
The law fired the wrath of Seattle’s biggest corporations, especially Amazon, which threatened to pause construction. The labor movement quickly split, with the building trades and iron worker unions opposing the levy and service workers defending it.
Amazon’s intimidation worked. Seattle’s “progressive,” Democratic Party-controlled City Council rescinded the tax in a 7-2 vote, urged on by Mayor Jenny Durkan. Now Seattle’s wealthiest are funding efforts to defeat Kshama Sawant, one of the two council holdouts, in her bid for reelection this year.
Propagandized in Seattle. Hanging like smog over Seattle these days is a “corporatist” outlook not unlike what fascists promoted during the 1930s.
Corporatism pushes the notion that workers, big business, billionaires, and politicians can unite to create prosperity for all. Unspoken is the scapegoating and disenfranchisement of those considered expendable. In Nazi Germany, that encompassed dissenters and non-Aryans.
Seattle is a far cry from Hitler’s Germany. But the city’s billionaire class is trying to mask their economic crimes by demonizing the poor and marginalized. As one example, local TV station KOMO aired a propaganda piece in March called “Seattle is Dying.” It broad-brushed homeless people as crazy, drug-addicted, and dangerous. Absent was discussion of things like poverty, obscene rents, and the role of corporate power in dislocating thousands of residents, especially Blacks.
Shake off the corporate chokehold! Long Island City showed that a community can stand up against big business bullies. In light of the havoc Amazon has wreaked in Seattle, New York doesn’t look like much of a “loser.”
But Seattle doesn’t have to be a loser either. With the “privilege” of living amid wealth comes the opportunity of confronting it. And the Emerald City has a long tradition of rebellion it can draw upon. When labor, community, and radical activists united to shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization in 1999, the ensuing “Battle of Seattle” inspired upsurges around the globe.
Today, the city has a new opportunity to put itself on the map by building solidarity with Amazon employees who are trying to organize for better wages and against wretched workplace practices in warehouses from Minnesota to New York and Spain. Imagine how protests in Seattle could boost their efforts and embolden local organizing!
Meanwhile, members of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 751 are setting an example of solidarity by supporting their co-workers in South Carolina, where flight techs voted to join the union. But the company refuses to negotiate a first contract and recently fired three of the techs in a thinly veiled retaliatory move. Local 751 initiated a petition calling on Boeing to reinstate them. (See IAM751.org for details.)
In the end, it is labor solidarity like this, on a grand and international scale, that can defeat the corporatist mindset and shake loose the inhuman grip of the 1 percent.
Send feedback to author Linda Averill, a lifelong Seattleite, at email@example.com.