People’s victory: Amazon forced to withdraw plans for HQ in Queens, NY

Queens Scamazon Coalition organizers hold a banner showing what New York City tax dollars should be used for, instead of propping up Amazon. | Photo: Queens Neighborhood United

Grassroots community organizations and unions have forced Amazon to withdraw its plan to build a headquarters in Queens, NY. Despite Amazon’s extensive and costly propaganda campaign, and a concerted effort by some politicians, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, to sneak through the deal with no say from the community or local politicians, the people won. They sank a deal that threatened to take $3 billion in public resources and use it to further corporate profits, in a plan that would bring skyrocketing rents and rapid gentrification to Queens, New York.

Communities across New York City greeted with celebrations Amazon’s Feb. 14 announcement that it will not open a second headquarters here. The mood was overwhelmingly joyous at Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens. Over a hundred organizers gathered to celebrate their victory over this trillion-dollar corporation. There was a mariachi band, a Jeff Bezos pinata, and much chanting and singing of “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, Jeff Bezos, goodbye.”

At a news conference that day, David Mertz of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union said of Amazon, “They don’t want their workers to have rights, they don’t want their workers to a have a voice, and in New York City that is unacceptable.” RWDSU seeks to organize the 2,500 workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse.

Grass-root organizing won this victory

Some Democrat politicians will be keen to claim this victory – Amazon itself cited the opposition of U.S. Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York City Council Deputy Leader Jimmy Van Bramer as “factors” in their decision to pull out. However, Van Bramer himself, along with a slew of local Democrats, signed a letter in 2017 asking Amazon to come to New York. What brought some politicians into opposition was that the deal with Amazon was made without them and over their heads. Governor Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio went along with an outrageous demand by this corporate giant that local officials and real-estate developers sign nondisclosure agreements during negotiations, and only reveal details once they were finalized. This expedited process bypassed many local government bodies.

In marked contrast to the politicians, grassroots community organizers from Queens organized an independent and consistent opposition. Since the moment Amazon announced their plans on Nov. 13, the working class of Queens fought it. This organizing, combined with pressure from key trade unions, showed the corporation that it was not welcome and pressured politicians to reject the deal.

Stakes high for NYC workers

The deal represented a major threat to Queens on several levels. Rising rents were a primary concern for the community, especially as Queens already experienced the greatest rent spike in the country last summer. The 25,000 workers Amazon would employ at the new headquarters, averaging a six-figure salary, would have pushed this housing crisis to new extremes. A study conducted by Zillow senior economist found the deal would have made 800 people homeless.

Even more shocking, the deal proposed to give $3 billion in taxpayer dollars as “incentives” to the trillion-dollar company, headed by the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos, and which paid zero dollars in federal income taxes in 2018.

Community residents demanded that this money must instead be used to meet the needs of everyday working people: schools, housing and public transit. A pressing need, for example, is to upgrade New York City public housing (NYCHA), where the poorest live. Public housing has been neglected so long that it is literally falling apart and an estimated $31.8 billion is needed for repairs. A worthy recipient of city aid is Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in the country, located only blocks from where Amazon attempted to build.

Also angering the community was having Amazon, the company developing facial recognition technology to sell to ICE, in the heart of Queens, a borough of immigrants.

‘Robots treated better’ than Staten Island Amazon workers

This is a city-wide issue as well. There are 5,000 Amazon workers at corporate facilities in New York City, half of them at a giant Amazon warehouse, or “fulfillment center,” on Staten Island. The workers are far from fulfilled. They reported unsafe conditions, with sprinkler systems and smoke detectors dysfunctional, and unhealthy conditions – being forced to work 12-hour shifts in the freezing cold or such extreme heat that workers faint. They report being “treated like animals,” and with “robots treated better.”  A union drive is underway at the facility there by the RWDSU.

Queens and union fight back

On Dec. 13, before the first hearing on the Amazon deal, these workers held a protest and news conference on the steps of City Hall to call attention to these horrendous working conditions Amazon tolerates at the warehouse. Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU, called Amazon “One of the most anti-union and anti-worker companies in the United States and around the world.” He declared , “I have a message for all elected politicians in New York State, and New York City: Nobody can call themselves progressive or pro-worker or pro-union if they neglect or ignore Amazon’s behavior.”

Queens residents made their views known by packing City Hall for the hearing, carrying signs opposing the deal and the $3 billion  give-away in tax money, and dropping banners from the balcony reading, “No to Amazon,” and “Amazon delivers lies.”

Amazon’s fails to scare politicians into line

Feeling the heat from months of community, public and union outrage, on Feb. 4 the New York State Senate appointed Michael Gianaris, a state senator from Queens, to the Public Authorities Control Board, a body which could stop the Amazon deal in its tracks. Gianaris has expressed doubts on the Amazon deal. Though anti-Amazon organizers were determined to stop the deal with or without the Democrats, the appointment represented a significant step forward over Governor Cuomo’s and Mayor de Blasio’s fast-tracking of the deal above such government bodies.

Lashing out against this pressure, Amazon threatened in the Feb. 8 Washington Post to pull out of the deal if the opposition continued, and politicians did not fall into line. This backfired dramatically as the “threat” only motivated organizers to fight harder.

A massive day of outreach on Feb. 9 solidified opposition to the deal and countered Amazon’s heavy propaganda campaign and false polls saying the people of Queens “approved” of the Amazon headquarters. The event was organized by the Scamazon Coalition, which included Queens Neighborhood United, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Centro Corona, Desis Rising Up & Moving, No Hate Free Zone, Chhay, and CAAAV. Activists offered hot drinks in freezing weather and street theater performances. They knocked on doors in Queensbridge Houses, engaging with the Queens community in multiple languages about what the deal meant for them. They talked through differing perspectives and disproved Amazon’s propaganda lies about “benefits” it will bring to New York City, revealing the massive rent spike and theft of public resources that Amazon would have orchestrated.

PSL community speakout in front of Whole Foods in Harlem designed to raise consciousness about the Amazon deal among people who shop in this store owned by Amazon. | Liberation photo: Vincent Tsai.

The Party for Socialism and Liberation, involved in this struggle since day one, recently organized a community speak-out at Queensbridge Houses. Through door knocking, train outreach, and street events throughout Queens and Manhattan, PSL members spoke with their communities about their concerns. They collected hundreds of petition signatures against the deal and distributed thousands of pieces of literature breaking down the elements of the deal and raising demands including quality, affordable housing as a right.

Key city unions also continued the pressure. In an extraordinary development, on Feb. 13, Governor Andrew Cuomo brokered a meeting between Amazon executives and Stuart Appelbaum, head of RWDSU, the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO. This meeting seemed to result in a tentative agreement on ground rules concerning how the company would respond to union-organizing efforts. According to Appelbaum, whose union seeks to organize Amazon Staten Island workers, “under the terms discussed” at the meeting, “there would be no ‘hostility’ between Amazon and the union; the company would not retaliate against workers who sought to organize; there would be a fair union election process; and there would be some agreement about the union’s access to workers and communications with them.”

Higher ups in the mega-corporation, it seems, did not agree with these terms. That night, Amazon decided to back out of the plans for a New York City headquarters without comment.

The opposition to the trillion-dollar corporation here, the transparency brought by the struggle exposing its rotten corporate and housing practices, and especially Amazon’s unsavory labor practices and unwillingness to change them, were key factors in Amazon’s decision to go. The giant company also had expressed alarm that Amazon Vice-President Brian Huseman was forced to go on record as anti-union in the Dec. 13 City Council meeting.

People’s power leads to working-class victories, the struggle continues

This is a people’s victory over an anti-immigrant, anti-worker deal that threatened to wreak havoc in Queens and all of New York City. It reaffirms that it is the collective organizing power of poor and working-class people that has led to monumental victories throughout the history of the United States – from housing rights to worker rights to civil rights to LGBTQ and women’s rights. It reaffirms the power people have when they stand up and fight back to challenge the status quo and injustice.

Work still remains to be done. While Amazon may not be moving its H2Q to New York City, it still remains a threat to workers’ rights with horrid working condition and union-busting tactics in their warehouses. From Staten Island, to a new proposal for another Amazon warehouse in the Bronx, to warehouses across the country, we must continue to fight Amazon for a living wage and dignified work environments. The people united will never be defeated!

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