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Know Your Rights
Source: Crain's New York Business
Subject: Organizing
Type: Media Coverage

The fight over Amazon will be a long, hard slog

Supporters might have underestimated the opposition

L.J. Williams walked into the conference room at LaGuardia Community College to discuss Amazon’s decision to put a headquarters a few blocks away in Long Island City with a button proclaiming “Gentrification is colonialization” pinned to her sweater. It wasn’t long before the 30-year-old immigrant from the Philippines pulled out a sheet of paper and began passionately listing the sins of the company. “Do you know how they treat their warehouse workers? Do you know they work with ICE?” she asked with indignation.

Nigina Ortikova was even angrier. The 21-year-old is the first member of her family, which emigrated from Uzbekistan four years ago, to finish high school, and she was sure that Amazon would mean disaster for her hardworking parents and four sisters. “It’s very personal for us,” she said. “Immigrants live here, and they will be displaced. Brokers are already going to landlords telling them to raise the rents.”

It’s a different story for 66-year-old Gail Mellow, president of the college. She attended the meeting where business leaders decided to try to bring one of Amazon’s second headquarters and its 25,000 jobs to the area. Her school pitched itself as a key resource. Mellow has pushed programs at the school to train its diverse student body for jobs in tech. She is pushing Amazon and the city and state to come up with millions more than they have promised in funding for training workers, but she sees a bright future.

“At LaGuardia we know we can take adults who are reading at the fourth-grade level and launch them into the middle class,” she said. “This is an unprecedented opportunity for the people I care about: the low-income people who are my students and who live in Queens.”

LaGuardia Community College is now the epicenter of the escalating fight over Amazon’s impending arrival and the almost $3 billion in incentives it could receive. The conflicting visions of New York’s future are on display. Some students and faculty held a teach-in to supercharge efforts to block the plan. Last week a meeting of CUNY trustees at the school was disrupted by student demonstrators.

Meanwhile Amazon’s supporters appear to be underestimating the opposition, confident they can win what they see as another land-use controversy because both the governor and the mayor are strongly committed to the deal. They have been heartened because the government officials who are publicly opposed have so far been limited to Queens, including City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and state Sen. Michael Gianaris along with newly elected U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But overconfidence is a risky position.

“The world is changing before our eyes,” one insider said. “Who would have predicted that Ocasio-Cortez would have 1 million-plus Twitter followers and arguably be a more influential New York delegation member than anyone else?” After Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a Crain’s piece last week about Amazon’s seeking help from a lobbying firm to counter the opposition, readership of the story jumped sixfold.

Playing the villain

To students such as Williams and Ortikova, Amazon must be stopped because it is the villain of modern capitalism, a monopoly that has ruined so many businesses, treats its workers poorly and has the arrogance to ask for subsidies when it is run by the country’s richest person. They are the proselytizers at the college for a broader coalition of progressive groups that have decided to wage war against Amazon, including the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, UFCW, Workers United, SEIU, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change and ALIGN.

For some foes of the deal, their distrust is based on previous experience with the ills interloping chain stores cause local business owners. Williams, for one, is horrified that Target is building another store near her home, just blocks from an existing location. The landlord told a 99-cent store run by an immigrant family with five employees that the rent was being raised, and the family lost the business, emblematic of what’s to come when HQ2 arrives, she said.

With more than 60,000 people homeless, Ortikova is astonished the city would allow Amazon to build on a site she insists could accommodate 15,000 units of housing for them. When asked where the money would come from, she had a clear answer: “The state. It isn’t doing anything about the homeless crisis.”

Defenders of the deal, led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, believe it is the jobs that companies such as Amazon bring that make the city prosperous. Cuomo has claimed that the 25,000 new local jobs offered by the e-tailer in the next decade represents the largest economic infusion in state history. He said the incentives are just a fraction of the company’s tax bill. While that is clearly an overstatement, other backers have pointed out that Amazon has pledged that the newly minted workers will earn an average of $150,000 per year at a time when many of the jobs created in the current recovery have been low-wage ones.

While Amazon’s opponents have grabbed public attention, a Quinnipiac poll last week showed solid support for both its expansion and the tax breaks, even in Queens and especially among minority residents. “In politics, simple arguments always win over complicated ones, and it’s complicated to explain why a huge company owned by an extremely wealthy man needs billions in tax breaks,” said Seth Pinsky, who negotiated similar packages while president of the Economic Development Corp. during the Bloomberg administration. “The [incentives] were required to secure a relocation that is going to create thousands of jobs for people of many different skill levels.”

Mellow is determined to lobby Amazon, the state and the city to increase their commitment to workforce development. The agreement calls for $15 million; she raises that much for LaGuardia’s development programs yearly.

“Our students are hungry for middle-class jobs,” she said. “This is a headquarters, and there will be lots of jobs for them.”