Rev. Angela Ying and Emily MacArthur stood, appropriately distanced, on a gravel turnout in front of the Bethany United Church of Christ, waiting for their first volunteer.
Ying stood behind a card table with rows of medical masks, disposable gloves and small, reusable bottles filled with hand sanitizer that MacArthur had sourced on multiple trips to big box stores. For her part, MacArthur prepped stacks of envelopes that read “Tax Amazon,” a clipboard with a sign-in sheet and a spray bottle filled with sanitizing solution, ready for the next hands to affix a signature.
Next to her station was a pink plastic box, as large as their ambitions.
That Saturday, Ying and MacArthur were running one of the first socially distanced signature collection drives for the Tax Amazon initiative, the newest iteration of a years-old idea to squeeze money for housing and jobs out of the most lucrative company in the world.
For a grassroots organization, getting an initiative on the ballot is a tough undertaking in the best of times.
Groups with deep pockets can hire signature-gathering firms to ensure that their issue du jour gets in front of the voters. Lacking that, Tax Amazon needs volunteers to gather the minimum 22,000 signatures to give Seattle voters the opportunity to pass legislation that the City Council will not — a 0.7 percent tax on payroll for companies that spend more than $7 million in compensation, excluding nonprofits and grocery stores, among others.
Normally, volunteers would hang out in crowded places, talking to strangers and encouraging them to sign the petition even if they were curious; a signature was not a vote, after all — just an opportunity to vote.
But the deadly and communicable coronavirus made that strategy unworkable, and elections officials have stated they will not waive or reduce the signature requirement nor will they accept them digitally.
“We are forced to take this step because the political establishment will not lift a finger,” Councilmember Kshama Sawant told supporters on a May 16 Zoom video call.
The next week, stations like the one MacArthur and Ying helmed popped up in Council Districts 2 and 3 to begin the hunt for signatures.
The strategy sounds straightforward.
Volunteers come to a station and may acquire personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves. Then, they move to a second table where a stack of envelopes containing petitions are waiting, along with a packet of information including a route. Each route covers roughly 50 to 60 houses. Volunteers approach the house, stuff an envelope in the door jamb and move on to the next place.
It’s unlike other door-knocking efforts, which often involve staying and talking to the occupant, informing them on the issues and convincing them to get on board.
“This is uncharted territory,” MacArthur said.
Two volunteers, Molly Whittaker and Jordan Lewis, approached the two card tables. Whittaker is in a construction union. She’s one of many people building the luxury apartments that the average Seattleite can’t afford to rent, and she’s sick of it.
“None of us can afford to live in the places we’re building,” Whittaker said. “Seattle is so expensive.”
Taxing Amazon and putting that money toward social housing, not to mention jobs that people like her could fill, would be a substantial step toward making the city a more welcoming, equitable place.
Amazon needs to pay back what it’s taking from Seattle, Lewis said. He’s currently unemployed but is part of a deep-sea fisherman’s union.
The pair went off, petitions in hand, ready to scour the neighborhood for potential supporters.
It was a good day for canvassing. The sun shone, the skies were clear and, given the stay-at-home-order, many people were stuck in their homes.
Ying was prepared for bad weather, as anyone who lives, works or plays in Seattle must be. They were ready to move the outfit under the eave of the church, in case of rain.
“I checked the weather and I’m like, come on, God,” Ying said.
While the volunteers canvassed, Ying worked to get signatures of her own. She waved at passing cars and busses, invited pedestrians to come learn about the movement and passed out protective gear to whoever would take it.
“How are you!” she called out, explaining that she wanted to tax Amazon, but she needed their help. Those who came in received a squirt of hand sanitizer and a pen to sign the petition. MacArthur used sanitizer to rub down each pen for safety’s sake.
Taxing large corporations to pay for social goods was not just a personal principle, but a religious one for Ying. She mobilized 72 faith leaders to sign a letter encouraging the City Council to pass the tax when they had the chance.
“It’s so important that the rich pay their fair share,” Ying said.
Seattle has tried to get corporations to pay more taxes before. In 2018, they passed a $47 million tax that required employers who brought in more than $20 million in gross revenue to pay $275 per employee. That was repealed within a month as the City Council faced polling that showed an opposition campaign could win the day.
Sawant tried again this year, but her council colleagues agreed that the measure didn’t fall under Gov. Jay Inslee’s coronavirus order that governs remote public hearings. Taxing Amazon, even to get money into the pockets of low-income Seattleites and build affordable housing, was neither routine nor connected to the virus, City Council President Lorena Gonzalez decided.
The initiative is the third attempt to get the tax through by putting the matter straight to the people.
By the end of the Memorial Day weekend, more than 5,000 signatures had been gathered from 78 volunteers, MacArthur said.
“It’s a pretty exciting start, from our perspective,” MacArthur said. “There is still a steep hill to climb.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more of the June 3-9, 2020 issue.