After weeks of protest and public debate, Amazon executives representing the company’s plans to set up a headquarters in America’s largest city actually faced off against the masses on Wednesday. It was not pretty.
Members of the New York City Council, led by Speaker Corey Johnson, grilled the Amazon reps, as well as James Patchett, president of the New York Economic Development Corporation (EDC) contracted by the city that’s helping coordinate the project. This went on for several hours, interrupted a handful of times by protest chants and angry New Yorkers—hordes had assembled inside and outside of City Hall.
And it only got more heated for Amazon and its apologists when, a couple of hours into the questioning, council members turned the conversation to something people living in the city have coursing through their veins: class consciousness and love for organized labor.
The Amazon project is pitting two powerful forces against one another. The company itself is one of the fastest-growing enterprises in human history, but also one that has used stealthy, forceful, and downright bizarre tactics to discourage workers from organizing and unionizing in the past. Now it’s reckoning with a city that was built on unions, and struggling to change course.
At the hearing, Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, refuted the idea that his company was anti-labor, touting its new partnership with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the most powerful unions in America. In an announcement earlier this week, the city distributed a list of stakeholders on the community advisory board to the project that included Kyle Bragg, secretary treasurer of the 32BJ SEIU, the local representing 163,000 property-services members (doormen, maintenance workers, cleaners, security guards, etc.) across 11 states.
“New Yorkers of all walks of life know how to organize in their workplace and on the street to hold corporations and government accountable,” Hector Figueroa, president of the 32BJ SEIU, said in a statement, insisting the organization was proud of the work they planned to do at the Amazon HQ. Members of the union filled up the front rows at the hearing as well, donning their trademark purple shirts and beanies.
In many ways, this was an unprecedented step for Amazon, which, in the recent past, sent a 45-minute anti-union video to team leaders at its subsidiary grocery chain Whole Foods, instructing them to beware of language like “living wage.” But it was extremely difficult not to suspect Amazon was just trying to assuage left-leaning critics and grease the wheels of the Long Island City project, rather than suddenly becoming a friend to workers.
David Jimenez, an organizer for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), a 60,000-member organization based in New York, said the company had not reached out to his union, which represents many workers and residents in Long Island City—where the HQ was slated to be erected—while fashioning the deal. “What is this going to do if the same thing happening in Seattle and San Francisco happens here,” he asked me at a previous protest. “Look at the high rises, none of them are for my members.”
In fact, even as Amazon’s PR push—aided by high-powered lobbyists and Democratic Party political consultants—kicked into gear, across the river from City Hall, workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse were openly pushing for unionization, in tandem with the RWDSU. An organizing committee of employees cited 12-hour shifts with meager breaks, safety issues, and long, unpaid security checks as reasons for going union, according to Bloomberg.
One of the employees, Rashad Long, spoke out at City Hall on Wednesday. “The third and fourth floors are so hot that I sweat through my whole shift, even when it’s freezing cold outside. We have asked the company to provide air conditioning for us, but they told us that the robots inside can’t work in cold weather, so there’s nothing they can do about it.”
In a statement, the company defended its system for addressing issues raised by workers. "Amazon associates are the heart and soul of our operations, and we respect employees' right to choose to join or not join a labor union," it read. "Amazon maintains an open-door policy that encourages employees to bring their comments, questions, and concerns directly to their management team for discussion and resolution. We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce."
Of course, Amazon has not publicly embraced the idea of its Staten Island workers unionizing. But the HQ2 project might force the company to tread softly, especially since state (if not city) officials can still theoretically stop or at least stall their plan.
At one point Wednesday, Johnson, the council speaker, seemed to crystalize the rage coursing through much of the city when he asked: "So whose feelings were you representing when you made this deal?”
"100 percent the people of New York City," Patchett, president of the development corporation working in Tandem with Amazon, responded.
The room erupted in laughter.
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