The Council’s Finance Committee, chaired by Councilman Daniel Dromm, hosted the hearing to analyze the economic and tax incentives offered to Amazon.
They wanted to examine the costs and impacts of the agreement to see if the city was “getting a good bang for its buck,” Dromm said.
But the hearing quickly turned into a cross-examination of Amazon’s labor practices. Speaker Corey Johnson grilled Brian Huseman, the company’s vice president of public policy, on whether or not Amazon would agree to be neutral if workers sought to unionize.
“We would not,” said Huseman, who noted earlier than none of the 5,000 current Amazon employees in New York City are unionized.
Johnson then asked James Patchett, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), if the de Blasio administration was comfortable with that answer.
“The mayor is an enormous supporter of union rights in the city,” Patchett said.
When the speaker questioned whether EDC asked for neutrality in the HQ2 deal, Patchett responded that they “asked for union deals.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an unrelated event, said his message to Amazon was “welcome to New York City.”
“This is a union town and there’s going to be tremendous pressure on Amazon to allow unionization,” he said, “and I will be one of the people bringing that pressure.”
Huseman later pushed back, pointing to the “positive economic impact” and good jobs the Amazon deal will bring to the city. He also addressed why Amazon workers are not unionized.
“We respect an employees’ right to join or not join a union,” Huseman said. “We do firmly believe that the direct connection that we have between our employees and the open-door policy is the most effective way to respond to the concerns of the workforce.”
Johnson said elected officials from Seattle warned them about Amazon’s “deceptive practices,” including swallowing up small businesses, watering down legislation and lobbying governments for their own needs.
“This is a city built by unions, a city that loves unions,” he said. “That is not a way to come to our city.”
“Shame on you, shame on your corporation,” added Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, a vocal critic of the deal. “It’s a union-busting deal from the beginning.”
The speaker also questioned Amazon’s collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on facial recognition software. At the outset, Huseman insisted that Amazon has a “strong record” on immigration rights, including fighting the travel ban and lobbying for reform for Dreamers.
But as for their alleged relationship with the federal agency, Huseman said he “cannot disclose who our customers or potential customers are” without their permission.
“Our terms prohibit any customers from using this technology for illegal conduct, including violations of civil or constitutional rights,” he said.
The City Council chambers were packed with protesters opposed to HQ2. When Huseman began his testimony, activists unfurled two banners that read, “Amazon Delivers Lies” and “Amazon Fuels Deportations.” They chanted, “GTFO Amazon has got to go.”
After Johnson called for calm and threatened to have the balcony cleared, another protester interrupted Huseman, who was talking about Amazon’s fulfillment center in Staten Island.
“They don’t want to unionize that very facility,” the protester shouted, as he was escorted out of the building. “Come on, we can’t take this Johnson.”
In addition to the 25,000 jobs and $27 billion in tax revenue the project will create, Huseman announced new concessions to the community.
Amazon will hire public housing residents for their customer service department, and will begin taking applications next quarter.
The tech giant has also enrolled 130 New York City high schools in their “Amazon Future Engineer” program, which provides funding and instruction for computer science education. One in four Queens high schools are now enrolled.
Finally, Huseman said Amazon is teaming up with CUNY and SUNY to launch a new certificate program for cloud computer, a growing field in the technology industry. LaGuardia Community College will have the program this fall.
But council members were not satisfied with Amazon or EDC’s responses, particularly on the incentives and subsidies. Johnson said the $27 billion figure came from a study that the city and state paid for, which is not independent.
Both Johnson and Dromm noted that the city and state’s evaluations of the agreement did not account for the opportunity costs or impacts of the deal, particularly on infrastructure, schools, housing and transit.
Particularly with crumbling subways and public housing, underfunded schools and a growing homelessness crisis, Johnson posed a question to Amazon execs: “why do you need our money?”
“This seems like vulture monopolistic capitalism at its worst,” he said.
Prior to the three-hour hearing, dueling rallies, one opposing Amazon and one supporting the deal, took place at the steps of City Hall.
The anti-Amazon rally focused on many of the same points the City Council touched on, including their stances on unions, work with ICE and effect on the housing market.
Fahd Ahmed, executive director of the group Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), said Queens is an immigrant borough, which contradicts with Amazon’s collaboration with ICE.
“The presence of Amazon will destroy and displace immigrant communities,” he said. “No concession will change that.”
Two labor leaders, Stuart Appelbaum of the Retail, Warehouse and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and George Miranda of the Teamsters, spoke about Amazon’s “well-documented history” of mistreating workers.
Appelbaum said seven workers have died in Amazon facilities, and there have been 600 ambulance calls in three years at a facility in England. Even in Staten Island, workers were reportedly peeing in bottles because they could not keep up with the pace.
“It may be cold outside today, but not as cold as Jeff Bezos’s heart,” he said. “Until Amazon changes its behavior, and respects its workers, and respects its communities, it doesn’t deserve taxpayer money.”
“Amazon treats the robots in their warehouses better than it treats its workers,” Miranda added. “When workers try to unionize, Amazon fights back.”
Van Bramer, whose district includes Long Island City, said the company has bombarded Queens with fliers asking residents to support the project. But all that their campaign has done is engender more opposition, the councilman said.
He ripped up one flier, demanding that Amazon “stop sending this BS mailer.”
Immediately after the Wednesday morning demonstration, a contingent of labor, business and community leaders supporting HQ2 held their own rally. Leading the way was Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council.
He argued that the deal represents thousands of good-paying, union construction jobs, as well as union jobs for the service employees at 32BJ SEIU.
“There is no reason for anyone in the City Council to oppose this,” he said.
LaBarbera said he’s close to both RWDSU and the Teamsters, and insisted they are not opposed to Amazon’s arrival.
“They want an opportunity to sit down with Amazon, I believe that Amazon recognizes where they are,” he said. “Amazon has shown good faith to the unions.”
Alison Hirsch, political director for 32BJ, added that they’re keeping their eyes on the prize, which are good-paying jobs.
“Amazon is not stupid, they know that New York City is the strongest union town in the United States of America,” she said. “They’re going to come here and be part of the civic fabric of this community, and take on all of the responsibilities that come with that.”
Other union supporters at that rally included the steamfitters, ironworkers and sheet metal workers unions.
Elizabeth Lusskin, president of the Long Island City Partnership, said HQ2 was the culmination of three decades of work to make the neighborhood a live-work-play space that companies want to come to.
“Amazon chose Long Island City because they wanted to be in a great neighborhood,” she said, “but also because they wanted to help shape their future home in a way that’s good for everybody.”
Lusskin added that, in addition to their investment in computer science education and workforce development, Amazon designs their facilities to encourage employees to get out into the neighborhood. She believes this will have generate more customers for businesses in the area.
Thomas Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said Amazon coming to western Queens marks a shift of the tech scene from the west coast to the east. He said the borough has become a “hotbed for further development.”
He added that he hopes the young people who work in those Amazon jobs will have their own startup firms, and open them in the borough.
“They’ll do it right here in Queens County,” Grech said, “and that will spawn a whole bunch of other jobs and development as well.”