In New York, Amazon is facing angry politicians, activists, and unionizing warehouse workers. Was HQ2 worth the backlash?
When news broke last month that Amazon would bring its second (and third) headquarters not to one of the smaller cities that groveled and pleaded for the jobs, but instead to Washington, D.C., and New York City, the company received a mixed welcome. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had joked that he’d change his name to “Amazon Cuomo” if the tech giant picked New York, called the choice a “positive synergy” in a joint press conference with mayor Bill de Blasio. Other lawmakers were similarly enthused. Locals, renters, and other members of the city’s permanent progressive class were not. Within days, protesters had stormed an Amazon Books store, holding signs with slogans like “$120k/job and the train still won’t work” and singing of “Bezos, Bezos, Bezos / Your heart is made of clay / But all our politicians / Line up to be your bae.” In Long Island City, protesters spray-painted “Scamazon” on the abandoned restaurant that will eventually be the site of Amazon’s new headquarters.
Even local organizers were caught off guard by the outrage. “We were surprised,” Deborah Axt of Make the Road New York, an immigrant-advocacy group that opposes the Amazon deal, told The New York Times this week. “This is so far above and beyond a traditional coalition effort—it’s broader, it’s crazier.” For the most part, Amazon has enjoyed a tony reputation among tech giants. In years past, Jeff Bezos’s company has far outstripped Facebook, Microsoft, and even Apple in terms of approval among the American public. But Amazon’s HQ2 announcement coincided with a perfect storm of smaller controversies, including a campaign from the left to highlight Amazon’s poor treatment of workers, and an internal revolt over the company’s partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As the wave of indignation crested, New Yorkers seemed determined to put Bezos on notice.
Politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters, including the New York City division of the Democratic Socialists of America, have joined a groundswell of opposition to Amazon’s plans in New York. Last month Ocasio-Cortez, who beat a 10-term establishment Democrat earlier this year in a massive upset to represent New York’s 14th District, said Amazon shouldn’t “receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need more investment.” This week, Amazon executives faced protesters yet again at a public hearing at City Hall. “Jeff Bezos’s commute is all set but what about the rest of New Yorkers?” asked Corey Johnson, head of the New York City Council, referring to the company’s purported plans for a helipad. (Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, reassured Johnson that Amazon would pay for the helipad: “There are provisions that will limit the number of landings to 120 per year and ensure that if helicopters do fly over the neighborhood, they’ll fly over the water.” Johnson shot back: “Do you realize how out of touch that sounds?”)
Amazon was presumably sensitive to the potential for backlash. It negotiated the HQ2 deal with Cuomo and de Blasio behind closed doors, and has launched a full-scale P.R. campaign to convince New Yorkers of its benevolence. The company has beefed up its local lobbying firm, Yoswein New York, with the addition of P.R. firm SKDKnickerbocker. Executives have visited Queensbridge Houses, the largest public-housing development in the country, which is a short jaunt from Amazon’s proposed new headquarters. Execs have also met with community groups in Queens, which is home to both low-income communities and immigrant-heavy neighborhoods. “We are excited to work with New Yorkers over the coming months and years to bring a new Amazon headquarters to Long Island City and help support the community,” the company told the Times in a statement. Two former New York elected officials-turned-lobbyists and public-relations experts Mark Weprin and Ed Wallace were present at this week’s hearing.
Of course, there is substantial public support for the deal, too. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 57 percent of New Yorkers approve of Amazon’s presence in the city, while just 26 percent disapprove. But the fallout may be wide-ranging. In Staten Island, Amazon workers seized on the dissent to send their own message to management, announcing on Wednesday that they plan to unionize. Employees argue that if Amazon is getting a tax break from the city, some of that money can be used to improve conditions for warehouse workers. (Amazon has said it prefers an “open-door policy” to encourage the discussion and resolution of issues with management.) If a majority of workers in Staten Island agree to unionize, they will be the first Amazon employees to do so—a major blow to a company that has long fought such measures.