by Bryan Conlon
2018 seems to have been the year that Amazon looms over everything.
After a 2017 where Amazon bought out Whole Foods and managed to make a made a bad employer worse while making a breathtaking amount of money, 2018 is a year where Amazon is making governments across the United States bend to its will. After a highly publicized search process to plant its second headquarters, Amazon settled on two sites after cities across the country offered Amazon-only cars on public transit, Amazon-only universities, and jaw-dropping tax abatements under cover of ironclad nondisclosure agreements: in Queens and just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. in Crystal City.
Of the two cities, New York seems to be getting the better end of the deal, but it does not come without drawbacks. 1,000 NYC public school employees who are responsible for getting students to and from school every day are going to be displaced from their offices space. In addition, the future of 1,500 affordable housing units in Long Island City now seem to be up in the air, further accelerating displacement and gentrification in the neighborhood. The HQ2 complex will be built cheek by jowl to the Queensbridge public housing project, the largest public housing development in the country, and one operated by a New York City Housing Authority recently charged by the NYC Department of Investigations with lying and falsifying lead inspections in over 55,000 apartments, some of which in Queensbridge.
On top of it, 25,000 new Amazon employees would further stress an already overcrowded 7 train serving the area and exacerbate the already traffic-clogged tunnels and bridges. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo are both vocally defending the nearly $2 billion tax incentive package offered to Amazon while there is no plan to deal with the dramatic backlog of maintenance and repairs for the New York City subway, which is still reeling from flood damage caused by Hurricane Sandy while the state-controlled Metropolitan Transit Authority instead is continuing further fare hikes.
Labor’s role in all of this has yet to be made entirely clear. It seems likely that the building boom caused by the direct development of this site is going to be a big windfall for the building trades in New York, and they are not alone: SEIU 32BJ is expecting as many as 3,000 new jobs to be open to its members, and who knows how many other union jobs will be created by the indirect investment of moving thousands of high-salary workers into New York City.
One thing remains clear, though: there is nothing in this deal that will help any union organize the core of Amazon’s business, of which it’s said that, “being homeless is better than working for Amazon.”
The predatory nature of Amazon’s employment practices are well covered, and they are far from being unique to Amazon’s American operations. For instance, Amazon has been caught hiring neo-Nazis as guards to keep control over its immigrant workforce in Germany and has made it impossible for workers in their warehouses in the UK to take bathroom breaks, forcing them to urinate in garbage cans. Amazon’s thuggish behavior also extends to the political realm: with all the grace of a Mafia button-man, Jeff Bezos intimidated the City of Seattle into repealing a ‘head tax’ on large employers that would have funded services for homeless people.
In the face of such monstrous behavior, Amazon workers across Europe fought back. Thousands of workers went on strike in Italy, Germany, Spain, and the UK on Black Friday. In Spain, the strike drew out one especially jaw-dropping request from the company:
Spanish newspaper El Confidencial reported that Amazon met with police officials after the strike was announced. It wanted local officers “to force employees to go to their respective jobs and ensure their performance was identical to that of a normal working day.”
Amazon workers in Europe are not alone in this struggle: in Minneapolis, a tight-knit group of East African Amazon workers has managed to force the company to both meet with them and grant concessions to them. Organized by a worker center, they are planning a walkout on December 14, right in the middle of the holiday season, about the pace of work in the Minneapolis fulfillment center. This isn’t the first time they’ve taken action, either: they protested during Amazon’s Prime Day when it coincided with Ramadan.
It is possible to escape from the kind of economic blackmail Amazon uses to get subsidies for grueling, underpaid jobs: Preston, in the north of England, managed to escape that trap by looking towards Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives as an inspiration. By focusing on building community wealth, Preston is in the process of renewal without being taken hostage by an unaccountable billionaire who will strip-mine the city for whatever he can before moving onto the next community to repeat the process.
That, to me, seems a far better way to spend billions of dollars than on a private airport lounge for Jeff Bezos.
Bryan Conlon is a National Organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and a member of the Strikewave Editorial Collective.
This piece first appeared in the second newsletter for Strikewave. Don’t want to miss out on future original content? Subscribe here.