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NYC unions push back on Amazon in fiery hearing about Queens headquarters

NYC unions push back on Amazon in fiery hearing about Queens headquarters
[Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images]

It was a busy Wednesday morning at New York’s City Hall, where angry members of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union gathered on the wide-open steps to castigate the city for too eagerly welcoming Amazon, a behemoth of a company with a massive non-union workforce and a history of mistreating workers. Inside the City Council chambers, where the second public hearing on Amazon’s planned Queens headquarters was under way, the sentiment was very much the same, raising questions about whether the nimbly run Seattle giant has met its match in the union stronghold of New York City.

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During the hearing, the City Council heard from Brian Huseman, Amazon’s VP of public policy, and James Patchett, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council, regarding Amazon’s plans to open a headquarters in Long Island City. Early on, things got contentious when the conversation turned to unions. Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked Huseman, would Amazon allow its workers to unionize without interference? “No, we would not agree to that,” Huseman replied.

Council members expressed concern that while the city of New York is giving Amazon roughly $3 billion in subsidies, it’s not clear to them what Amazon is giving in return. Amazon has said that it will work with unionized third parties. For instance, workers who build the new campus in Long Island City will likely be unionized, although Amazon has yet to sign a construction contract. Still, in union-friendly New York, that was not good enough for many council members, some of whom have grown up with parents who benefited from being in unions.

“All we’re asking you to do is stay neutral,” said council member Barry Grodetchk, somewhat baffled. “You could be like Switzerland. You have all the money. You could stay neutral.” After all, he added, there’s no guarantee your workers will unionize.

Amazon insists that it provides above-minimum wages, good healthcare benefits, and growth opportunities. City council members remained concerned that jobs where workers can’t collectively bargain don’t qualify as good jobs.

There were other points of friction. While Amazon made some commitments during the hearing–like contributing to the building of a new school in the area, or supplying a curriculum for its Amazon Future Engineer Program to 130 schools in New York City–council members were quick to poke holes. Would Amazon be donating space for a school or pay for the construction costs? That remains unclear.

Amazon also plans to hire New Yorkers living in public housing arrangements for jobs in the company’s customer service department. Huseman said they will begin hiring 30 positions next quarter. “I know at least 10 people in [NYC Housing Authority] with graduate degrees,” councilman Robert Cornegy said. “I want to make sure my NYCHA residents are not being relegated to low-wage jobs.”

The hostility between the City Council and the two entities that made the deal (the New York Economic Development Corp and Amazon) to bring Amazon’s new headquarters and 130,000 workers to Long Island City does not bode well. However, Amazon, which has been sending oodles of flyers around the city in a public relations campaign to win over residents, isn’t easily deterred.

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