Anti-Amazon Fever Is Spreading, and Big Tech Companies Should Be Worried
After the company's deal collapsed in New York, the next community-upending project might be a tougher sell.
Amazon activists won once. Can they win again? (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
When Amazon announced earlier this month that it was cancelling a much-hyped second headquarters in New York, thousands of people rejoiced. While many New Yorkers had supported the plan, a cluster of activists, union leaders and politicians had honed in on the company’s history of bad labor practices, weak community engagement, and indirect rent inflation to argue it wasn’t worth billions in tax incentives.
Some 200 miles south, the ripples of that decision quickly reached Arlington, Virginia, home to the other half of the company’s proposed “HQ2.” There, a group of community organizers—some of whom were already working to halt or rein in that project—have been gaining traction, scheduling town halls and meetings and pushing local officials to question why Amazon hadn’t made more inroads into the community.
“We’ve been going out into the communities most affected by increased living costs and displacement," said Danny Cendejas, an organizer with La ColectiVA703, a local community group. “Many people aren’t even aware Amazon is coming. It just shows the lack of true engagement.”
Structurally, the Amazon deal in northern Virginia is somewhat similar to the one in New York—and it should be said it’s looking as of now like it will go forward. The state swiftly approved up to $750 million in subsidies for the $800 billion company in January. And the county board in Arlington will soon vote on a local package that offers an additional $27 million in incentives over the next 15 years.
But that incentive vote, which has been delayed, is where critics are hoping to intervene next, and they’ve been emboldened by the collapse of the deal in New York. “There’s people power here,” said Roshan Abraham, who serves on the steering committee of Our Revolution Arlington, part of a coalition of local community organizations. “Amazon has a very consistent practice of running away if they feel like they’re not in control. That’s what happened in New York. So if the incentive gets voted down and that makes Amazon scared, good riddance.”
So far, resistance to Amazon in the DC area has had a modest but significant impact: County board officials have started to publicly voice their concerns about Amazon’s closed-door tactics. “Without some really clear rationale or justification from them, I would be very, very hesitant to vote on the incentive agreement without them having had some meaningful engagement in the community, “ Arlington Board member Erik Gutshall told local news site ARLnow last week. “In fact, I couldn’t see us voting on this without that happening first.”
To be sure, the opposition in Northern Virginia has not been as loud as in New York, perhaps because the latter has a richer tradition of civic engagement and left-wing organizing. Even so, the idea of subsidizing one of the most profitable companies to ever exist is still attracting a healthy dose of negative attention, and growing resentment of big tech could shape how other cities treat these companies when they come to town in the future.
“The scope of the Amazon deal [in New York] and its brazenness has created real political momentum for the first time that I can recall,” said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which researches and criticizes the way large companies like Amazon use government subsidies for corporate gains.
Late last year, predominantly immigrant Amazon workers in Minnesota forced the company to negotiate over working conditions. In India, the country moved to ban companies like Amazon from selling products of companies they own a majority stake in under the auspices of anti-monopoly law. Residents in Nashville, Tennessee, where Amazon was planning to open a "logistics hub", have worried about the impact the company might have on affordable housing and traffic. And the collapsed New York deal gave birth to proposed legislation that would stop state and local governments from fast-tracking expansion with little or no debate, even leaning on NDAs along the way.
Mitchell said the public had become more aware than ever of the loopholes in governance that allow tech companies, as well as mainstream corporate giants like Walmart, to capitalize on subsidies and giveaways, even while they strip away local economies. “We’ve seen all this evidence that only a handful of metropolitan areas are benefitting from these tech companies, meanwhile we’re losing tens of thousands of independent businesses,” she said. “I hope it begins a real conversation about geographic inequality.”
Of course, Amazon, Walmart, and other mega-corporations tend to focus on the jobs they create, sometimes attempting to soften community impact with the promise of schools and other philanthropic efforts. As Gothamist reported, citing a local ABC affiliate, a community meeting in Virginia last week saw just that: Holly Sullivan, Amazon’s head of worldwide economic development, promised “community engagement” even as she assured residents NYC hadn’t changed their plans in the DC area. “I think the first thing I want to say is nothing will change for Virginia,” she said. “We are committed to the 25,000 jobs here in Arlington.”
So even with New York’s purported David and Goliath story, beating Amazon still means jumping huge hurdles. Amazon has a habit of collecting state subsidies and funneling public funds for its own benefit. And while workers have made some headway in organizing and making demands, Amazon continues to be a devout anti-union company, which doesn’t bode well for any progress on the labor front, especially as it destroys more jobs than it creates, according to a 2016 report Mitchell co-authored, "Amazon’s Stranglehold: How the Company’s Tightening Grip Is Stifling Competition, Eroding Jobs, and Threatening Communities."
There’s also the fact that many economically-strapped cities do want Amazon to come to town, hoping for at least the initial boom that its presence could create. Columbus, Ohio, made a bid for the HQ2, and since that failed, has been trying to attract other, similar companies. Illinois Governor G. B. Pritzker also reached out to Amazon as soon as it showed signs of pulling out of New York, in hopes of his state getting a second chance. Meanwhile, big tech companies like Google are still set to expand even in NYC, suggesting the desire for tech money hasn’t exactly vanished overnight.
Wherever the Jeff Bezos-level titans of the world decide to find new homes, though, they may encounter stronger opposition in the months and years to come. “I think there’s a clear movement,” Abraham said. “Not only does research show that these incentives don’t work, we’re learning with Amazon and Foxconn that these deals are just helping those who are already doing well while standing on the backs of those who struggle.”
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