“It’s a cold day in New York,” Stuart Applebaum told a crowd of shivering protesters that included members of Make the Road, the Tech Workers Coalition, the Democratic Socialists of America, Desis Rising Up and Moving, and the group he presides over, the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, “but it’s not as cold as Jeff Bezos’s heart.”
The occasion was the second city council hearing regarding Amazon’s plans to place a headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. These sessions are fast becoming a pastime for workers and elected officials alike to air their many grievances against one of the most valuable companies, and despite less than ideal weather, the crowd opposing HQ2 seems to only grow.
“Amazon wants to plant its flag in New York City—the most progressive city in the country—and they’re coming in here with this atrocious, atrocious labour history and think it’s business as usual. I’ve got a story to tell them: That’s not gonna happen here,” George Miranda, an international vice president at large with the Teamsters, said on behalf of the 1.4 million-member union.
“Either they sit down with us and resolve this problem or they’re gonna have a hell of a problem with us here in New York City,” he added.
Today’s hearing inside City Hall, which was intended to focus on the economic impacts of the HQ2 proposal, was no less forceful than the unions themselves in painting New York as a stronghold for workers’ rights, with many council members sharing their own or their family members’ experiences as part of organised labour. This reaction was mainly due to an incendiary response given by Amazon VP of Public Policy Brian Huseman, who was representing the company at the hearing.
“Would you agree to neutrality if workers wanted to unionize?” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked — a question he had asked and which the company’s reps had dodged at the previous hearing in December. Huseman’s response: “No sir, we wouldn’t.”
“It’s very tough for me to support this given the fact that all we’re really asking you to do [...] is just to stay neutral,” Council Member Barry Grodenchik told Huseman with audible disappointment. “You could be like Switzerland. It pains me that I can’t get that out of you.”
Answers to inquiries about the actual economic figures and impacts were, for the most part, as unsatisfactory as they were during the prior hearing. Doubt was cast as to the provenance of the touted 9-to-1 return on investment figure repeatedly touted by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, as the REMI study on which it appears to be based was paid for by the state itself.
(It’s possible the figure is derived from other information as well, but a public records request for such studies, filed to the Governor’s Office by Gizmodo, has not yet produced responsive documents.)
Council Members Corey Johnson and Jimmy van Bramer both criticised the REMI study for investigating potential windfalls for the state and city while calculating few, if any, of the incurred costs ranging from expanded infrastructure to damage to local businesses. Despite New York City already “winning” the HQ contest—which Johnson called “vulture monopolistic capitalism at its worst” — according to President and CEO of Economic Development Corporation James Patchett, a comprehensive study will be undertaken in the future.
Previous rallies — like one sponsored by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union where Seattle council members warned what would befall New York if it welcomed Amazon with open arms as their city had — suggested some strategies to undermine the deal. But with Amazon’s bluntly anti-union stance clearly striking a nerve among the council, Council Member van Bramer shifted tactics to suggest Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has repeatedly spoken out for the rights of workers, use the Amazon deal’s opt-out clause as leverage to force Bezos’s company to assent to a more union-friendly stance (or risk the public embarrassment of being told to take a hike.)
“Does the Mayor of the City of New York, today, have the ability to say to Amazon that ‘So long as you work with ICE, and so long as you remain anti-union, we will revoke and renege on this agreement at this point’?” van Bramer asked. Pratchett’s forgone reply was that, as it relates to the HQ2 deal, Bill de Blasio “has the authority to make whatever decisions he wants at any given time.”
While Amazon has attempted a charm offensive — filling the mailboxes of Long Island City residents with mailers which read “Happy New Year from your future neighbours,” and the inboxes of reporters with press releases promising New York education initiatives that will net a whopping 30 jobs — the hearings have largely been an opportunity for the corporation to plummet into the deep ideological chasm that separates those who favour of the deal and those it’s likely to impact.
“We don’t really build campuses, we build neighbourhoods,” Holly Sullivan, Amazon’s head of economic development, told the council to laughter from the audience. Western Queens already has a neighbourhood that nearly 70,000 people live in. With every word it’s increasingly clear what Amazon is actually looking to build is a company town.