SENT PACKING Unions plus citizen action make NYC too hot for Amazon HQ2

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PISSING OFF THE UNIONS DIDN’T HELP. But that wasn’t the only problem with the deal to bring the second Amazon headquarters (HQ2) to New York City. Amazon expected unanimous support and universal praise. They didn’t get it. Popular opposition turned the whole thing into a public relations shitshow. So, the largest corporation the world has ever known ran away. They just took their headquarters and ran back home.


This was a clear possibility from the start. Small protests greeted the initial announcement of the Amazon plan in November. At the NYC council meeting in December protesters filled the seats, unfurled banners and chanted against the company. Not a single council member spoke up in defense of the deal or the company. Then Amazon made things worse.


Proudly anti-union

At a January 30 city council meeting Amazon vice president Brian Huseman proclaimed his company to be proudly anti-union.


Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked Huseman: “Would you agree to neutrality if workers at Amazon wanted to unionize?”


“No, sir,” said Huseman.


Not an answer likely to go down well in the most pro-union city in the USA. Also a little curious as some of the 5000 Amazon workers in NYC are union members. A contradiction that only led to more friction and confusion in the mushrooming fight over the Amazon plan.


The blunt anti-union declaration by the Amazon v-p was a surprise for NYC mayor Bill Di Blasio. He said the deal he helped to negotiate provided for Amazon recognition and acceptance of the workers right to join unions.


His reaction to the Amazon anti-union declaration was equally blunt. He said: “This is my message to Amazon: Welcome to New York City; this is a union town. There’s gonna be tremendous pressure on Amazon to allow unionization, and I will be one of the people bringing that pressure.”


Unions divided

But hopes for a union united front against the deal were never that solid. The building trade unions, along with 32BJ SEIU (Service Employees International Union)—one of the city’s strongest and most aggressive unions—announced early support for the HQ2 project.


Amazon had agreed to use union construction workers, and to uphold an existing agreement that 32BJ had in place to use unionized security and building workers on its site, although, crucially, none of those workers would be direct employees of Amazon itself.


On the other side is the RWDSU (Retail Wholesale Department Store Union), which has launched a campaign to unionize a new Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. The RWDSU, the Teamsters and a broad coalition of community and labor groups, were loud opponents of the Amazon deal—in particular the gift of almost $3 billion in public subsidies to a company with a terrible record of opposing unions and treating workers poorly.


The RWDSU, is running campaigns to unionize Amazon’s New York warehouse and the workers of Amazon-owned Whole Foods.


The divide in the city’s unions came to a head in early February when 32BJ held a pro-Amazon rally and the RWDSU and its allies held an anti-Amazon rally, all while an Amazon executive was telling the city council that the company planned to oppose any union campaigns it encounters.


Amazon plays favourites

The Amazon agreement to favour some unions and not others was actually an attack on all workers, said city councillor Johnson. “You picked a couple of unions, so some workers were valued, and other workers were not valued. And you’re pitting some workers against other workers, which isn’t right.”


This suggests that Amazon believes that administrative and retail labour—jobs usually filled by women—are less valuable than construction and property service labor.


“Shame on you. Shame on you, shame on your corporation ... I believe you have made a distinction somehow that because this is a headquarters, those people working in those buildings don’t need representation, don’t deserve to be in a union,” city councillor Van Bramer said. “All workers should have the right to be in a union, all workers should have the right.”


Hector Figueroa, the head of 32BJ, said the time to press political leaders to make being pro-union a part of the deal would have been before Amazon chose NYC for HQ2. All in all, “The good outweighs the bad.” he said.


That assessment is definitively not shared by RWDSU leader Stuart Appelbaum. “The bad far outweighs the good,” he says. “Unless Amazon changes the way it operates, generations of New Yorkers are going to end up regretting this deal.”


A grassroots coalition of local advocates including Make the Road, the Tech Workers Coalition, and the Democratic Socialists of America joined the RWDSU and the Teamsters to lead the popular resistence to the deal.


David Mertz, New York City Director of RWDSU, told reporters the people have a right to be angry. “[Amazon] flipped off the city of New York. That makes me angry,” he said, “All we were asking, was for them to try to be a responsible corporate citizen. That’s it. And they told us to go to hell.”


Subsidies no more than bribes

State Senator Mike Gianaris said New York’s effective rejection of HQ2 “should be a launching point to discuss the logic of these corporate subsidies. There’s a reason Europe bans subsidies like this and we should take a long, hard look at whether or not we should do the same thing.”


There are currently over 5,000 Amazon employees in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island. The company says it plans to continue “growing these teams.”


Gianaris noted: “Even by their own words Amazon admits they will grow their presence in New York without their promised subsidies. So what was all this really about?”


The Amazon statement of it’s decision to abandon NYC states: “We do not intend to reopen the HQ2 search at this time. We will proceed as planned in Northern Virginia and Nashville, and we will continue to hire and grow across our 17 corporate offices and tech hubs in the U.S. and Canada.”


Pitting workers against other workers is an employer’s union busting tactic as old as the union movement itself. Does the promise of more jobs outweigh the fact those jobs will never be union jobs?


What happened with Amazon in NYC only reveals once again that there are no easy answers when it comes to balancing the individual need to make a living against the recognition of universal workers rights. But that does not mean we should stop working to create a solidarity that will make lasting answers possible.


This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.  

Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.