Amazon’s plans to build its HQ2 in New York City in exchange for nearly $3 billion in public subsidies is dividing the city’s most powerful unions—and, by extension, the entire U.S. labor movement. Things are already getting very unfriendly.
Everyone in organized labor knows that unionizing Amazon, perhaps the most influential and powerful company in America, would be a coup. It would also have the potential to head off a full-scale transformation of retail and blue collar work that would leave workers desperate, underpaid, and with few options. It is important. And since New York City is the most pro-union place in the country, Amazon’s entry into town is widely seen as a chance to finally take down the Great White Whale of modern corporate America.
But cracks in labor’s united front emerged immediately after the deal was announced late last year. The building trade unions, along with 32BJ SEIU—one of the city’s strongest and most aggressive unions, which covers property service workers—announced their support for the HQ2 project. Amazon had agreed to use union construction workers, and to uphold an existing agreement that 32BJ had in place to use unionized security and building workers on its site, although, crucially, none of those workers would be direct employees of Amazon itself.
On the other side is the Retail Workers union [RWDSU], which has launched a campaign to unionize a new Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. Along with the Teamsters and a broad coalition of community and labor groups, the RWDSU has been loudly opposing the Amazon deal and its bestowal of huge public subsidies on a company with terrible record of opposing unions and treating workers poorly. This divide in the city’s unions came to a head this week when 32BJ held a pro-Amazon rally and the RWDSU and its allies held an anti-Amazon rally, all while an Amazon executive was telling the City Council that the company plans to oppose any union campaigns it encounters here.
It is not a compelling demonstration of labor solidarity, to say the least.
In an interview today, Hector Figueroa, the head of 32BJ, said that other unions are being unreasonable if they expect his union to give up its own gains in order to get behind a broader organized labor opposition to Amazon in NYC. “We have a fundamental disagreement of strategy,” he said. “The demand for neutrality [by Amazon in union campaigns] is a good, and I hope they win. But the expectation that we need to make the same demand, and not follow through with our agreement, is quite frankly very irresponsible.”
Figueroa said that while he supports the idea of a unionized Amazon work force, his first responsibility is to his own members, and that those criticizing him are holding his union to an unreasonably high standard. He is grateful that Amazon decided to uphold the deal that 32BJ had with the site’s developers, and said that the company could have just as easily decided to say that it would not uphold it. That gratitude is now manifesting as public support from his union for the deal, and that support is being used as political cover by Amazon to negate the criticism coming from other unions. But Figueroa says that the time to press political leaders to make being pro-union a part of the deal would have been before Amazon chose NYC for HQ2, not now. And he posits that, in addition to the (non-Amazon) union jobs that his own union will get on the sites, just having the company in New York City will make it more likely that it is unionized in the long run. Despite the HQ2 deal’s controversy here, he says, “The good outweighs the bad.”
That assessment is definitively not shared by RWDSU leader Stuart Appelbaum. “The bad far outweighs the good,” he says. “Unless Amazon changes the way it operates, generations of New Yorkers are going to end up regretting this deal.”
The RWDSU, which is simultaneously running campaigns to unionize Amazon’s New York warehouse and the work force of Amazon-owned Whole Foods, has been publicly railing against Amazon’s business practices for a long time. (Though they have been making their case publicly and in the media, Appelbaum says that they and other unions were not asked for direct input on the NYC HQ2 bid, because the process was shrouded in secrecy.) Appelbaum sees the current attempt to leverage the widespread dissatisfaction with New York’s HQ2 subsidy package in order to create a favorable atmosphere for its union campaigns as part of an organizing push that is much bigger than any local squabble. And while he is quick to say that “our fight is not with other unions,” he also pointedly says that he hopes that other unions that stand to gain from HQ2-adjacent deals “would not oppose what is so important to the entire labor movement: that Amazon’s own workers are unionized.”
In an ideal world, all unions would stand shoulder to shoulder, united in the fundamental battle between labor and capital. In practice, unions in America—which now represent scarcely more than one in 10 workers—often succumb to the temptation to grab onto any wins they can find, even if it means that another union loses something. No one faults 32BJ for securing union contracts for people working at the sites that Amazon seeks to use; but the act of loudly proclaiming their public support for the Amazon deal even while organized labor tries to present a united front against it is another question entirely. Hector Figueroa says that he is “not at all undermining” what the other unions are trying to do—but that would certainly be a surprise to anyone who understands the concept of “providing political cover,” and who heard Amazon’s executive calmly tell the City Council that the company will continue union-busting here.
“If Amazon is allowed to come into New York and remain aggressively anti-union,” Stuart Appelbaum says, “it portends poorly for the future of all workers.”