Why Amazon Is Caught in an Unexpected Brawl in New York

[Update: Amazon said on Thursday that it was canceling plans to build a corporate campus in New York City.]

A state senator joined anti-Amazon activists on the streets of Queens. A city councilman railed against the company as a union-busting corporate behemoth. Even the governor, a supporter of Amazon’s move into New York, faulted the company for not selling the public on the deal.

On the road to becoming one of the world’s most valuable companies, Amazon has weathered resistance as it expanded across the globe. It expected to do the same in New York City, where the company has announced plans for a sprawling corporate campus in Long Island City for more than 25,000 workers.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, famous antagonists, had promised executives they could smooth the road in a city that has never been afraid to turn down big projects, including a highway down the West Side of Manhattan in 1985 and an Olympic stadium in 2005.

But just as those Democratic leaders were negotiating the deal, the world changed: in western Queens, in New York State and in the Democratic Party nationwide.

With its plan to locate new offices along the Queens waterfront, Amazon inserted itself into a fractious political landscape that looked entirely different in 2017, when the company began its search for a second corporate home, from the way it did in November, when executives picked New York as one of two sites. The other is in Virginia, where the reception has been far warmer.

In the span of months, a rising cohort of young and energized voters, many of them recent arrivals to the borough, helped Democrats take control of the Republican-led State Senate, and tipped the scales in favor of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, driving from office the powerful leader of the Queens Democrats, Joseph Crowley.

When asked what he wanted from the company, he did not respond directly.

“Their behavior does not present a path forward,” Mr. Gianaris said of Amazon. “They’re sitting there threatening to leave, which is what they did to Seattle when they got them to bend to their will.

“Amazon is big, but it’s not bigger than New York. They don’t get to tell us what to do.”

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, another onetime proponent turned vigorous opponent, was more direct. “I want the deal to be scrapped in its entirety,” he said. “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.”

The fight has drawn in unions on both sides. It has highlighted divisions between long-term residents of public housing in Long Island City, most of them black and Hispanic, and wealthier recent arrivals, many of whom are white. It has become a kind of litmus test for progressive bona fides on the left flank of the Democratic Party in New York, exposing the same sorts of fault lines — pragmatism versus principle; rapid versus deliberate change; capitalism versus socialism — that are roiling the party nationally.

The opponents to Amazon are eclectic, but they unite on one point: They do not want the city and the state to offer up to $3 billion in incentives and direct subsidies to the company for bringing 25,000 to 40,000 jobs to Queens.

They are divided, however, on what should happen instead. Young activists and nonprofit groups that are going door-to-door in neighborhoods across western Queens want Amazon to pack its bags — and even to cease to exist in its present form.

“We would like to see changes at the federal level and Amazon broken up,” said Will Spisak, of the Queens-based antipoverty group, Chhaya. “Obviously that’s a big long-term goal.”

In place of Amazon, activists want government money spent on improving low-income neighborhoods that have already seen rising rents and a boom in construction in Long Island City, the fastest-growing residential neighborhood in New York.

“We want investment into our communities that makes our communities stronger. That means investment in housing, in transit, in education, in work force development,” said Fahd Ahmed of DRUM, a nonprofit that organizes low-income South Asian residents in Queens. “The status quo is not sustainable.”

Union leaders castigate Amazon for its workplace practices and resistance to unionization, but have said they would be more open to supporting the deal if the company made changes.

“I think that what they need to do is have a dialogue with us,” said Stuart Appelbaum, an outspoken opponent and the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “If they’re receiving $3 billion in money, including from union members and workers, they shouldn’t then take that money and use it to fight their workers.”

George L. Miranda, the head of the Teamsters Local 210, said his union could get behind the deal if Amazon agreed to not actively resist unionization at its offices and warehouses in New York.

“Remain neutral. That’s all we’re asking,” said Mr. Miranda, whose union has rallied with opponents. “It would say that they want to be good, responsible corporate leaders here in New York City.”

So far, the company has made a few small promises of community investments, including education programs for high schools and job training for local college students, and a small number of jobs for public housing residents at a call center. Asked if Amazon would remain neutral on unionization during a City Council hearing, a company executive quickly replied: “No.”

In a radio interview last week, Mr. Cuomo faulted the company for not doing more to sell the merits of the deal.

“I think Amazon has not done a great job communicating,” he said.

But while opponents have been noisy and have influenced local elected leaders, they do not appear to have persuaded the majority of New Yorkers: recent polls by Quinnipiac University along with Siena’s survey, showed support across the city, including Queens.

“It is so ironic for Amazon, after they spent one year with everyone seducing them, and everyone courting them, we win and then there’s political opposition,” Mr. Cuomo said on Friday as he chastised the Democrats in the State Senate, whose leadership selected Mr. Gianaris for the state board. (Mr. Cuomo has the power to reject the selection, but has yet to announce a decision.)

On Monday about a dozen or so supporters, including Representative Carolyn Maloney and tenant leaders in New York City public housing developments, rallied at the Queensbridge Houses, the country’s largest public housing development, which is near the proposed Amazon site.

The demographics of the complex are different from those of the recently sprouted towers along the neighborhood’s waterfront.

“All along the East River shoreline, both in Brooklyn and in Queens, there has been a growth in white voting-age citizens,” said John Mollenkopf, a professor of political science at the City University of New York Graduate Center. The changing makeup of western Queens could be seen in Ms. Maloney’s closer-than-expected race and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise win, he said.

Queens residents who voted for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez were younger and registered to vote more recently in Queens than those who supported Mr. Crowley, according to an analysis of election results and voter data by Mr. Mollenkopf. “Being younger and more recent to the neighborhood is associated with an election district leaning toward A.O.C.,” he said.

Those changes have fueled opponents, struck fear in the hearts of some elected officials and worried executives at the world’s biggest company.

But for some veteran consultants, the situation is hardly new.

“This is very similar to what went on during the approval process around Ikea in Brooklyn,” said Tyquana Rivers, a Democratic political consultant who has run campaigns in Queens. “You had some unions pushing back. You also had the housing project residents who were very supportive of the project.”

Some who oppose the Amazon deal, she said, are the very gentrifiers whose influence they are trying to combat.

“You have moved into a neighborhood that was already moving upwards in rent,” she said. “You’re complaining about something you’ve done. The hypocrisy is deafening.”

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