The luxury housing market in Chicago was “red hot” last year, with over 60 property sales valued at five million dollars or more. But in the up-is-down, black-is-white logic of capitalism, booming profits for the real estate industry have come alongside displacement and homelessness for thousands of Chicago residents, as rents and home prices become increasingly unaffordable.
Businesses compound this problem by paying poverty wages and busting unions. Amazon, the largest private employer in the Chicago area, is particularly infamous for driving down wages in the logistics industry, making it that much harder for workers in the city to afford a place to live.
But none of this is inevitable. Big businesses operating in Chicago could easily afford to pay for high-quality affordable housing and other vital public services.
Socialists in Chicago have introduced an Amazon Tax in the city council which would tax Amazon and other businesses that have fifty or more employees. The legislation is inspired by the fighting, movement-based approach spearheaded by Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative which won a similar tax in Seattle in 2020. The legislation, introduced by 25th Ward Alderman and independent socialist Byron Sigcho-Lopez, would provide at least half a billion dollars every year for affordable housing, education funding, mental health care, and community-based violence prevention.
Lessons From Chicago’s History
Chicago previously implemented a tax on big businesses, the so-called corporate head tax, in 1973, with revenue used partly to fund raises for city employees. This victory did not come from generosity on the part of the city’s ruling elite. Instead, it reflected the power of mass movements at the time, and especially the nationwide strike wave by government employees at all levels.
But as labor and social movements weakened in the years that followed, the political establishment became emboldened to roll back the victories of the past. The big business tax was phased out by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his allies in 2014.
In recent years, progressives in Chicago have proposed legislation for a new tax on big businesses. But in the absence of significant public pressure, the legislation has gone nowhere.
Under capitalism, politics typically consists of backroom deals between establishment figures, but these methods cannot win meaningful victories for workers, because the political establishment itself is invested in an economic system that can only survive by exploiting the working class. To win, workers need to build movements independent of the corporate-backed Democratic and Republican parties.
How the Amazon Tax Was Won in Seattle
The 2020 victory in Seattle stands as an example of how residents in other cities can win a tax on big businesses today. Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative’s member on the Seattle City Council, spearheaded the movement that won the Amazon Tax by organizing the working class against the political establishment, and by never backing down.
After the Seattle City Council repealed an initial attempt at a big business tax in 2018, Socialist Alternative organized a series of rallies and mass action conferences in which attendees debated and voted on next steps. The resulting campaign of mass political education and mobilization made it possible to successfully counter corporate misinformation about the Amazon Tax, and defeat a $4 million effort by big business (with $1.5 million from Amazon alone) to remove Sawant and others from office.
At the same time, Sawant used her position in elected office as a megaphone, exposing the role of the Democratic Party establishment in serving the interests of the wealthy. In the process, and in full view of the public, Sawant and Socialist Alternative forced the City Council to choose: would they side with working-class residents who need affordable housing, or with greedy billionaires like Jeff Bezos? By framing the issue this way and relying on the power of a mass movement, Socialist Alternative forced the Seattle City Council to pass the Amazon Tax, which now raises over $200 million every year to fund affordable housing.
Independent Socialist Alderman Introduces Amazon Tax in Chicago!
Byron Sigcho-Lopez, the independent socialist and alderman representing Chicago’s 25th ward, who introduced the Amazon Tax legislation in Chicago, has distinguished himself as a fighter for the working class. In contrast to many so-called progressives, he has stood up to the city’s Democratic Party establishment, consistently voting against the corporate budgets put forward by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
He has also used his office to build movements, including leading a rally with Starbucks workers that helped push the City Council to adopt a resolution condemning the coffee chain’s union-busting, and fighting to win 280 new units of affordable housing last year. Because of these victories, Socialist Alternative is proud to support Sigcho-Lopez’ campaign for re-election. By doubling down on a fighting, movement-based approach, Sigcho-Lopez can help spearhead an even larger victory with the passing of the Amazon Tax in Chicago.