Seattle’s Left Coast Formula

Seattle’s Left Coast Formula

Will tech billionaires overwhelm the city’s resurgent progressive tradition?

Downtown Seattle, as seen from Amazon’s former headquarters (Wonderlane / Flickr)

Contemporary Seattle is a city with a dual personality. On one hand, a dramatic building boom is underway. Towering cranes crowd the skyline as scores of new office and apartment buildings race to accommodate the thousands of code warriors whom Amazon and other tech companies are hiring. Since the start of the twenty-first century, the city’s population has grown by 14 percent and its workforce by at least that amount. Median income is now the third highest in the nation among big cities, behind only San Jose and San Francisco. New restaurants, trendy stores, massive new transportation projects and waterfront developments add to the feeling that a new Seattle is taking shape—a richer, younger, denser, faster city that may loom larger in the world of commerce and culture than the old one. It is a Seattle re-engineered by billionaires, especially Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen.

But boomtown Seattle is also a progressive city, with loud echoes of a more radical past. The city council recently passed the most liberal minimum wage law in the country, raising the floor to $15 per hour in stages over the next several years. This followed the election of Ed Murray, the city’s first openly gay mayor, and passage of statewide ballot measures legalizing marijuana and supporting marriage equality. At the same time, Kshama Sawant, an Indian-born software engineer turned economist, won a seat on the city council running as a candidate of the Socialist Alternative party. Her stunning victory immediately made her a symbol of radical Seattle. Confrontational, edgy, and serious about her Trotskyist credentials, she is also media-savvy and knows how to strike a balance between what is radical and what is politically effective. The press can’t get enough of her, and her mystique helped convince the city council to pass the historic minimum wage measure.

The combination of resurgent radicalism and radical re-urbanization has existed since the final years of the last century, but it also belongs to a political tradition that Seattle shares with other West Coast cities, especially San Francisco. Linked together by business enterprise, migration, and geo-economic function, these cities share what we might call “the left coast formula,” a historically developed set of institutions and expectations that keep radicalism alive while allowing political elites identified as liberal or progressive to stay in power pretty consistently.

The current political era dates from November 30, 1999, when 40,000 unionists and environmentalists forced the cancelation of the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization. The Battle of Seattle lasted four days and changed the politics of the WTO. It also changed the political chemistry of the host city. Since then, the labor movement has been increasingly assertive in city and state politics, promoting living-wage campaigns along with a range of progressive issues including immigrant rights, LGBT rights, and affirmative action. Elected city and county officials have also learned to respond to a left mosaic of community action groups, eco-activists, progressive churches and synagogues, and, since the 2011 Occupy demonstrations, active contingents of socialists and anarchists.

But without missing a beat, these same elected officials have been eager participants in one of the most dramatic sequences of urban redesign that any major city has recorded in recent decades. It is largely the work of Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos who, with the full support of the city council and little public opposition, have re-engineered a huge section of the city not far from downtown, turning a half–square mile that had been devoted to warehouses and auto dealerships into a high-tech mecca. Allen began buying real estate in the area twenty years ago, originally in support of a public-private plan to build a massive park and residential complex. When voters rejected that idea, Allen’s firm, Vulcan Properties, began building office buildings and laboratories for biotech and software companies while demanding that the city provide costly transportation and infrastructure improvements. The city council, with a long history of saying “yes” to downtown developers, agreed.

In 2007 Bezos struck a deal with Allen, and what residents now call Amazonia began to take shape. It is an unprecedented development not just for Seattle but for any major American city. For the first time in generations, a major corporation is moving lock, stock, and cyber-barrel into the heart of a large city, creating a massive campus that will cover more than ten square blocks with high-rise and mid-rise office buildings, the work space for nearly 30,000 engineers, programmers, designers, and headquarters staff.

It is one of the symptoms of the left coast formula that these two Seattles have so far managed to peacefully co-exist. The billionaires have remained silent as the city council passes minimum wage and other social justice measures, and progressives have been almost equally quiet as Amazonia takes shape. In some ways, it is an old story. Seattle at various times in the past has managed the same dual personality, combining boomtown growth with an active radical political reputation.

That reputation dates back to the city’s first boom era in the 1890s, not long after Washington earned statehood. Among those joining the rush for opportunities in Puget Sound were members of Eugene Debs’s Social Democracy of America, who advertised a plan for socialists to move to Washington and take over the lightly populated state. Elected as a Populist, the state’s third governor, John Rogers, also helped build the reputation for radicalism. By 1912, the state had one of the largest branches of the Socialist Party in the nation. This early experience reveals one of the dynamics of the left coast formula, the interplay between reputation and political migration. The story that something was happening in Puget Sound became self-fulfilling as members of first one generation of Reds, then other generations, moved across the country or north from California to participate.

Strong unions have long been another part of left coast history. The city’s early growth coincided with the breakout period for the American Federation of Labor. By the 1910s, Seattle shared with San Francisco a reputation as a solid union town. Seattle’s first era of radicalism reached its apex with the general strike of 1919, the event that put the city on the map of international radicalism. When striking shipyard workers asked for support from the Central Labor Council more than one hundred local unions agreed to strike in sympathy, shutting down the city for five days. With talk of revolution circling the globe in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the strike took on meanings that went beyond the limited demands of the shipyard workers, contributing to a law-and-order backlash that undermined the strike and, for the moment, the cause of radicalism.

But the left won an even bigger foothold in the city in the 1930s, working within the Democratic Party and the structures of opportunity created under the New Deal. The region’s reputation for radicalism was certified in a widely read 1936 article about Washington state politics, which featured a playful quote from FDR’s campaign chairman James Farley that “there are forty-seven states in the union and the Soviet of Washington.”

The 1930s and ’40s established two new pieces of the left coast formula: Democratic parties in Washington and California that could, at times, be used and moved by the left and a network of maritime unions that would be an enduring resource for the left in both Puget Sound and the San Francisco Bay Area. Born out of the 1934 maritime strike and led by Harry Bridges and others with close ties to the Communist Party, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has remained for more than seven decades a source of funds and political muscle for progressive causes. It can also be a source of inspiration, notably when the union stages politically motivated port shutdowns as it did during the WTO meeting.

Seattle’s New Left of the 1960s and ’70s was not as famous as its counterparts in the Bay Area or Madison, but the campaigns of that era made a deep impact on the city and, in doing so, set up the current pattern of blue-state liberalism mixed with occasional flashes of radicalism. A left-coast demography shaped the city’s 1960s radical movements. Seattle has always been multiracial, with Asian Americans outnumbering African Americans except in the forty-year period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s. The civil-rights left was of necessity a coalition enterprise. In a city dominated by white people (70 percent of the population today), activists of color both needed each other and needed to learn how to cultivate the support of the progressive white community. Even Seattle’s Black Panther Party operated that way, cleverly assembling a mixed-race coalition of support.

In 1969, the left helped elect a progressive mayor after a string of moderate conservatives in City Hall. Wesley Uhlman, a thirty-four-year-old in bell-bottoms, took office at a time of radical uprisings in a variety of locations—from the University of Washington campus to the Black Central District, to nearby Fort Lawton, briefly seized by United Indians of All Tribes in a dramatic confrontation with the U.S. Army. Uhlman handled the turmoil differently from mayors in many other cities, often negotiating with parties rather than confronting them. In one memorable decision, he refused to cooperate with a Justice Department plan to attack the Black Panther Party headquarters and threatened to reveal the Nixon administration’s intentions to the media.

None of this seemed adequate to leftists at the time, but Uhlman was paving the way for future progressive politicians and voters. Since the 1970s, it has been good to be a liberal candidate in Seattle. Even though affluent whites could have mobilized a politics of fear and turned things in a more conservative direction, they have not felt the need for a law-and-order mayor like Rudy Giuliani. Like San Francisco, Seattle settled into a politics that is relatively uncontentious, sometimes experimental, and proudly tolerant, while also remaining friendly to business and mostly blind to deep-seated inequalities.

In 1973, Seattle City Council passed one of the nation’s first gay rights measures, banning employment discrimination, which voters then supported in a referendum. In the decades that followed, support for affirmative action measures, a vigilant agency to field civil rights complaints, money for arts, and heritage organizations in the different communities of color showed the continuing liberalism of city officials and voters. As in other left-coast cities, African-American and Asian-American politicians were able to win office in Seattle with a good many white votes. In the 1990s, the city elected a black mayor, while King County (which includes Seattle) chose a black chief executive, and Washington elected the first Asian-American governor outside of Hawaii. All were liberals who looked favorably on corporate interests.

A truly new left, no longer led by baby boomers, has emerged since the WTO protests in 1999. Granted, it is an amorphous left—an assemblage of networks more than organizations, which share no ideology or agenda. Numbers of young activists mobilize for immigrant rights, others battle sweatshops, still others work against police brutality and new jails. Marriage equality and the legalization of marijuana were big causes for the left, until both became law. The faces and voices of this twenty-first-century left have become visible in the boisterous annual May Day marches that now focus largely on immigrant rights.

In today’s resurgent progressive politics, the labor movement plays a pivotal role. Leaders of the state federation and King County Labor Council pursue an aggressive social justice agenda centered on living wage campaigns, while with equal vigor lend support to development projects that promise jobs—a combination mirrored by the city council. Labor’s left turn began to yield results in 1996 when the State Labor Council funded a successful statewide ballot measure that gave Washington the highest minimum wage in the nation. Teachers unions and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) followed with other ballot measures. In 2001, Washington voters gave home care workers the right to join a union and to bargain collectively with the state. Today, 40,000 home care and day care workers are members of SEIU. Meanwhile, Seattle unions launched a campaign for a sick leave ordinance. In 2011, the city council agreed, making Seattle just the third city in the country to require all employers to provide sick leave benefits.

All this was a prelude to the push for a $15 minimum wage which began not in Seattle itself but in the nearby city of SeaTac, where the airport is located. SEIU, with support from other unions, crafted a SeaTac ballot measure raising the minimum wage for employees of the airlines and airport-related businesses. When residents of the suburb voted yes in a tight 2013 election, the stage was set to move the campaign into Seattle itself.

Labor also supported the Occupy movement in 2011, which launched the political career of Kshama Sawant. The Seattle Central Community College instructor had joined Socialist Alternative, a tiny Trotskyist group, soon after she moved to Seattle in 2006 and helped move the Occupy encampment from its initial base next to City Hall to her college campus. She gained more attention the following year when she ran an unsuccessful race for a seat in the state legislature. That campaign set up her attempt to unseat a liberal member of the city council in 2013.

It was a unique election, marked by a tone of almost gleeful experimentalism. City voters had recently overpowered rural conservatives to enact marriage equality and legalize marijuana in the state. At the top of the 2013 ticket, the two mayoral candidates battled over who was most progressive, both pledging to support a $15 minimum wage. Running as an avowed socialist, Sawant stood out—albeit not starkly—in a field of progressive options. Her platform targeted hyper-gentrification and called for a “millionaire’s tax,” but she got the most traction by pointing out that her otherwise liberal opponent, Richard Conlin, had voted against the paid sick leave ordinance recently passed by the city council. Even so, her victory was a huge surprise and shouldn’t be understood as an endorsement of Trotskyism. Most of her voters were taking a chance on someone new and daring, or thought it might be fun to support a socialist. “I don’t think socialism makes most people in Seattle afraid,” defeated councilmember Conlin noted in his concession speech. Not afraid of a little radicalism, the voting majority seems at this moment to embrace Seattle’s reputation as the city of the general strike, the city that taught the WTO a lesson, the city that is committed to a $15 dollar minimum wage, the city that now has a headline-grabbing socialist serving in its governing body.

No one can say how long this moment will last. The billionaires’ Seattle may soon overwhelm progressive Seattle. Rents are soaring as Amazonians, Microsofties, and other well-paid tech workers pour into the city. The lack of affordable housing has long been one of the failings of progressive Seattle. A state law passed in the 1981 prevents Washington cities from enacting any form of rent control. The city does devote resources to affordable housing, but without rent control, it is hard to sweep back the tide of rising costs. Sawant and others have called for action, and protests against gentrification are becoming common. But all the while people with modest incomes are leaving, forced out of Seattle into cheaper suburbs to the south. The exodus has racial as well as class dimensions. The historically African-American Central District is now a majority white area.

So Seattle is going in two directions, much like its big sister, San Francisco, which is dealing with its own chronicle of Nerdia, as Silicon Valley techies take over what had once been mixed-income neighborhoods. Can the progressive reputations of these cities and the radicalism woven into their history endure in the face of these economic and demographic transformations? Can cities rebuilt by billionaires continue to support progressives and occasional socialists?

James N. Gregory is a professor of History at the University of Washington and director of the Pacific Northwest Labor and Civil Rights Projects. His most recent book is The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America.