Here's How Normal People Beat Jeff Bezos and Amazon
One of the most powerful companies ever just bailed on plans to build a headquarters in NYC. It didn't happen by accident.
(Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images). Social split image of Amazon resisters by Jorge Garcia
When Amazon announced Thursday it had cancelled its extremely controversial plan to build a new headquarters in New York City, it represented a shocking win for a growing resistance comprised of politicians, union workers, and residents.
“I think we just saved Western Queens from a a takeover by a predatory corporation,” said Thomas Muccioli, a local and member of Primed Out Queens, a group that formed to oppose the project in Long Island City. “This is what happens when every day people come together for a common cause. We organized across political lines because this fight was about saving a community we all love—how appropriate this news breaks on Valentines Day."
But the decision wasn’t just a bombshell for people living in America’s largest city. It was also sure to resonate in communities across the country determined to curb Amazon’s footprint, whether in its original HQ of Seattle, where housing prices and rent have spiked, or small, remote towns, where local merchants have been threatened by its business model.
The successful opposition—which keyed on New York offering billions in subsidies despite the cartoonish wealth of the company and its CEO Jeff Bezos—served as a blueprint for defeating the corporate monopolies that increasingly shape American life.
“To have the richest man in the world [who is] clearly a predatory actor demanding tax subsidies, it just kind of illustrated to people that there’s a dark side to Amazon,” said Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute who is writing a book about monopoly power. “It just made that very clear."
For its part, Amazon said it was disappointed but recognized it would have needed local buy-in to operate. “While polls show that 70 percent of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City,” their statement read.
In a sign of how much trouble the “HQ2” move—announced in November—had run into, tenants at Linc LIC, a real-estate project in Amazon’s proposed new home neighborhood, received a thirsty email earlier this week. Acknowledging the blowback the plan was facing, management implored patrons to sign a petition in support of the deal. “As a resident, you are in the forefront as we develop new restaurants, retail, and entertainment options for the neighborhood,” read the newsletter.
The appeal was just the latest indication that despite being arguably the most powerful company ever, one with enormous political clout and unrivaled dominance in the market for many consumer goods, Amazon had run into formidable opposition. As VICE reported in December, after a battering in the press, Amazon hired high-powered lobbyists to try and quell the tension in New York and ease their path forward. Last week, Michael Gianaris, the deputy majority leader of the State Senate who represents Long Island City and spoke at the very first Amazon protest after the HQ2 deal was announced, was nominated to serve on the Public Authorities Control Board. That state agency would have had to approve the Amazon project in order for it to go forward.
While the senator did not express total opposition to Amazon coming to Queens, he made it clear his main interest was in holding the state and city politicians accountable. “There are certain people who are very focused on dealing with the unfairness of income inequality,” Gianaris told the New York Times. “There are others who are more worried about the wealthy and making sure we accommodate them. And they’re going to be on the other side.”
Meanwhile, the City Council repeatedly grilled Amazon officials in heated public hearings, poking holes at plans the company offered—like building a public school and hiring thousands of workers—for appeasing angry residents. At a January 31 session, the council leaned on an array of charts and infographics to argue the Amazon plan had not fully accounted for jobs that might be lost—rather than gained—thanks to the new development, much less other social impact. “There’s holes in the project to be exploited,” Richard Brodsky, a lawyer and veteran Democratic politician who served in the state assembly, told me before it was canceled.
Long Island City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer remained steadfast in his opposition to the deal throughout the saga, and until Thursday, at least, was working with speaker Corey Johnson on specific actions to take against Amazon. “They want to crush unions. They want to work with ICE. They want to bypass community review. They want to take giant subsidies. I don’t see them changing one bit and so, yeah, they’re not welcome here,” he said in a statement.
New York’s relatively powerful labor unions did their part in complicating Amazon’s descent on the city, organizing meetings and rallies and soliciting global experts to talk about the company’s labor practices. While Amazon had said it would work with some unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), its officials were also clear at the recent public hearing the company was not supportive of unionization. This wasn’t shocking given the company’s anti-union past, but it helped clarify just how out of touch the brand was with this current moment in Democratic politics, which in New York are the only politics that really matter.
“There’s more activism and strong unions in New York,” Stoller said. “It’s not that people don’t want the jobs, but they don’t want to give the subsidies because they think that’s not the right way to develop the economy.”
In recent weeks, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which claims more than 60,000 members nationally, has been visible at protests and demonstrations, including hearings at City Hall. But the RWDSU has also been actively working with the warehouse workers in Staten Island who made a public bid to unionize despite the company’s refusal to remain neutral toward workers organizing.
“Rather than addressing the legitimate concerns that have been raised by many New Yorkers, Amazon says you do it our way or not at all—we will not even consider the concerns of New Yorkers,” said Chelsea Connor, director of communications for the RWDSU. “That’s not what a responsible business would do.”
New Yorkers, from the corridors of power to the crowded subways in Queens, made it clear that Amazon would not be able to continue business as usual in their town. What remained to be seen was whether the first massive setback for Amazon in recent memory might be followed by a spate of legislation—at the city, state, or local level—to block companies from making closed-door deals with cities.
“Amazon is not a tech company. Amazon is the super monopoly that we created and supported,” Ron Kim, a Queens-based state assemblyman, argued at a community meeting on Tuesday in Long Island City. “We can bust them up” through anti-trust laws.
At the same meeting—organized by Primed Out—several other local politicians, all of whom were running for NYC public advocate in a special election, took shots at Amazon. Among other things, many said they would support legislation barring the city’s mayor from signing non-disclosure agreements with companies, for instance. And they generally supported the idea of protecting communities from re-zoning laws, such as the one that might have allowed Amazon to claim public land that was previously slated for affordable housing and a school.
These may seem like peripheral political developments, but they hack away at the larger system that has allowed a company like Amazon to descend on crowded neighborhoods in large cities with state support.
“There’s a broader dissatisfaction with concentrated power held by Amazon, Google and Facebook,” Stoller said. “People are learning. This is a process of learning.
Correction 02/14/2019: A previous version of this story described Linc LIC as a real-estate company when in fact that is the name of a building and the developer is called Rockrose. We regret the error.
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