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Published Friday, May 11, 2018 at

Head Tax Debate Divides Labor and Trade Groups

Labor groups that normally stand united on issues are divided on the Seattle head tax.

By Natalie Brand

The Seattle head tax debate seemingly divided the city, as well as labor groups who usually stand united.

Politically powerful unions representing home and healthcare workers, grocery workers and nurses wrote the city council in support of the tax, while key trades groups across building, shipping and the food industry sent letters in opposition.

“This is about our ability to work,” Monty Anderson of the Seattle Building Trades testified on Friday, ahead of the council committee vote.

“The ability for us to work is based on companies wanting to come here and build, and that's just a fact for us,” he continued.

Tensions over the proposed head tax escalated last week after Amazon announced it would pause construction on one of its new buildings downtown, pending a vote.

According to Anderson, Amazon would move forward with the project, if Mayor Jenny Durkan’s compromise proposal to cut the head tax in half passes, instead of the original proposal to charge $500 per full-time employee for Seattle’s largest companies.

Both Anderson and Dale Bright of Laborers International Local 242 support the Mayor’s more moderate proposal saying it strikes the right balance between protecting jobs and helping to address the homelessness crisis.

“We will support a tax, as long as it doesn't negatively impact our members. The original head tax—we have developers threatening to walk away from projects in Seattle. We build these buildings,” said Bright.

Bright says he doesn’t blame Amazon for pausing its project, but rather believes it opens the door to a compromise before it’s too late.
“I don’t really see it as bullying, they just stated their position, and it’s a fair position,” said Bright.

“They’re looking for a second headquarters, they’re looking for a place to put more employees. They’re just stating a fact that they cannot continually make it hard to do business in Seattle, or business will start to look elsewhere.”

However, supporters of the original proposal accuse Amazon of holding the city hostage. The activist labor group Working Washington even asked Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson to charge Amazon with a felony charge of “intimidating a public servant.”

Ferguson responded to the group on Friday, writing his office finds “no legal basis” for the charge.

“I think it's clear that Amazon has succeeded in driving a wedge in the labor movement, and it's sort of an age-old tactic of pitting workers against workers, and in this case pitting workers against people experiencing homelessness,” said Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union. She argues results will take resources to effectively tackle the multi-faceted issue of homelessness.

Nallely Flores of Office of Professional Employees International Union Local 8 agrees. Her union represents some of the workers at affordable housing agencies, including case managers.

“We're asking for $75 million which is already not enough, and they're already trying to water that down which would really limit the affordable housing buildings that would be built,” said Flores. “It would limit the funds that would be going back to some of these services, and it would of course limit getting increases for some of our workers as well.”

While her union's members would potentially benefit from the new funds, others who showed up to city hall this week worry about their work projects slowing down in a city trying to balance booming growth with an affordability crisis very visible on the streets.

“We do understand there's a homeless crisis, we do understand we need to find funding,” said Dale Bright. “We just didn't want it to be on the backs of our members and the city. We don't want the city can shut down. Something that I'm very cognizant of, this city's economy can be fickle.”