Amazon Wanted a 'Rigged Process,' Says Councilman Brad Lander

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New York City Councilman Brad Lander recently introduced a landmark bill—the first of its kind in the country—that would require fast food employers to show “just cause” in order to fire employees. We spoke to Lander about using politic to help labor, and Amazon’s ignominious retreat from New York City.

Lander, known as one of the more pro-labor New York Councilpersons, co-founded the Council’s Progressive Caucus, and has helped to pass bills protecting freelancers and raising wages for Uber and Lyft drivers. His “just cause” bill for fast food workers would represent a major win for the ongoing Fight For 15 movement. We spoke in his Brooklyn office last Friday.

How did the just cause bill come about?

Brad Lander: Really two different things. Part one is, over the past few years I’ve had the wonderful experience of getting to know a lot of fast food workers organizing for jobs with dignity and stability... from the very first meeting when they said “$15 and a union,” I definitely agreed with those, but I can’t say I thought either of them seemed that plausible at the time. But I knew they were serious. Even after the minimum wage increases happened, I knew for sure that they were gonna keep fighting.


A big thing a union means for a lot of people in a society that accepts at-will employment is protection from causeless firings. That’s part of what you mean when you say we should have a union—we should be able to get together and organize and bargain for our interests, and we should not be able to just be fired on a whim. I’d heard from them some stories of both unfair firings and what it means to be in a workplace when you know you can be fired for no reason—it puts you so much more at the mercy of sexual harassment, of unfair bosses. It makes it harder to organize.

Impetus two was there an op-ed in the New York Times in December of 2017 called “American Workers Need Better Job Protections,” saying, hey, in Europe people can’t be fired for no reason, and here that’s the vast majority of what people have. We should change that! And those two things resonated—yeah, that’s what all those fast food workers have been saying...

It’s not like there’s a law at the state or federal level that says, “Employers have the right to fire people for no reason at all.” It’s in the absence of a law or a union contract, employers can do what they will. It’s not actually a legal cornerstone. At-will employment doesn’t sit on legal foundations, it’s just what employers are allowed to do... it’s good to start in a sector that’s less mobile. You can’t sell midtown office workers their Big Macs if you move your store to New Jersey or Connecticut or Florida.

Did you consider making it apply to more than just fast food workers? Why not everyone?


Lander: We thought fast food would be a good place to start. Partly as a way of honoring the organizing fast food workers have done. If you think about the Fight for 15, they organized for $15 [an hour], and they did bring the rest of the low wage work force along with them. If that happens here, great, but there’s some value to honoring organizing. I think there’s some value to trying something in a first space, and here it’s a first space where there’s not that risk of threats from employers to move their businesses elsewhere.

I have had a couple of fast food employers raise the complaint that it’s unfairly targeting them, to which I say: If their complaint is we should protect a much broader set of workers from unfair firings, it’s definitely something that I’d be glad to look at. I think all workers should have this kind of protection. I think every American worker should be protected from causeless firings.


What was the reaction in the City Council?

Lander: A lot of support from Council members... a lot of people have stories. A lot of people have been fired unfairly, or felt themselves in a situation where a boss exercised power in a rotten way because they could.


The concept of taking things that are traditional union contract staples and putting them into law would certainly make it easier to bargain union contracts. Are there other aspects of traditional union contracts you’d consider making law?


Lander: In different sectors, we’ve done different things. For freelancers we passed the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, to provide protection from wage theft, which didn’t exist... In the case of for-hire drivers, we did the living wage rate of pay. We have talked about doing something like what Seattle did, giving for-hire drivers an avenue for organizing. The Taxi Workers Alliance asked us not to do that, because they have a big lawsuit arguing that those folks are misclassified as independent contractors and they’re actually employees, and if they can win that lawsuit, great...

If you’ve got ideas, I’m listening!

Are there other protections for freelancers or people in the gig economy that you would like to see?


Lander: Yeah. I think on the social safety net and benefits side of the ledger, we really have not done anything. One thing we’ve talked about is a benefits fund for drivers. There, you could put a surcharge on a fare. But for a more conventional freelancer, it would be hard to make a law work that compelled employers to put money into your benefits, because they could just take it from the pay... if we can figure out how to offer people the equivalent of unemployment insurance... things like home buying—getting a mortgage if you’re a 1099 is harder. You can imagine public policy that could help people show income smoothness, and show they have the resources to do it. Retirement security. The right thing on health care is to get single payer health insurance. All of that remains worth doing.

What was your reaction to Amazon’s pullout from the HQ2?

Lander: I was surprised. When I read the Washington Post article a few days earlier, I read that as an effort to increase leverage in bargaining, not as a genuine thinking about leaving. Having said that, once my initial shock wore off, it is consistent with what we’ve been saying about them. The thing I’ve been focused on from the beginning—and I was part of a national letter from cities around the country saying this process is rotten, forcing cities to bid against each other in secret is bad economic development, and it’s corrosive of our democratic capacity to govern our cities. And then I learned more about that because I know some of the Seattle City Council members. Amazon out there, it’s not only that they opposed the business tax to deal with homelessness and the affordable housing crisis, they did it in a way that was like, “You wouldn’t trust the City Council to spend your money, would you?” They really did it in a way that eroded people’s confidence in [government]...


Everything they did, to me, looked like it would erode our capacity, both our tax base, and our capacity for that kind of democratic management for growth. And the way they pulled out was consistent with that too. They expect to make all the rules. And when they realized they would not get to make all the rules here, they decided they didn’t want to be here. On the one hand, I share some of the sentiment of the most celebratory activists, in that demonstrating that people power can be built in big strong ways that makes even monopolies pay attention is something significant. I do also feel the loss of the jobs. We want a growing economy, even with the strains that that will give us. What we want is a growing economy that grows in a way where we have the ability to protect people as much as possible from its harms and spread the benefits around.

If Amazon had never said [they] were gonna create a second headquarters somewhere, and they’d just kept growing here like they’re growing everywhere else and like tech is growing here, no one would think New York City’s economy is in a problematic place.


What do you think it was that made them pull out? The unions, the City Council, the state politics, the activists, or what?

Lander: I only know what I read there. The costs for them of having ten months more of organizing and scrutiny was not something they wanted. Even that you can take two ways. How much of that was anxiety that lots of other places would start to push for neutrality in union organizing, and how much of that was fear that they could become Uber or Facebook and start to be seen as a big bad monopoly more broadly in the public eye? One area where I could at least understand their calculus—What are the chances at that PACB board nine or 12 months from now, what are the chances we’re gonna get a yes vote on a deal we feel good about? What they wanted was a rigged process. People say they wanted “certainty.” Certainty means they wanted a rigged process! They wanted Andrea [Stewart-Cousins, State Senate Majority Leader] to say, we’re going to go through the motions of a process, but you can count on us voting yes. But you can’t. That’s a rigged process. That’s giving away all your bargaining leverage. You can’t do it.


Is there a way for cities and states to get out of the game of bidding against each other for these deals, without a national law banning the practice?


Lander: Let’s remember that the thing Amazon has done here, no one has done. The more typical bidding of two cities against each other, like you’re here and you go to Newark, and you say, we’ll come across the river if you give us X—that’s pretty typical. Bidding 236 cities against each other and following it up with a round of 20 cities and making everyone do it with nondisclosure agreements—that has not been done before, and I don’t think we have to let that become the practice. One thing I think about is, what if the governor and the mayor had said at the time of the semifinalist bids: We’d love to have Amazon here. We think you’d love to come. We would be glad to tell you why we think our city’s great, and some of the places we think there’s room for 50,000 jobs, and if you want to follow it up by having a conversation about whether this is the right place for you, we’ll be glad to do it. But we are not going to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and we are not going to prostrate ourselves in front of you by bidding away all kinds of things before we even start a negotiation with you...

I have a law I hope to get passed that just would have not let the city sign the nondisclosure agreement. If that law had been in place, and they had just said, we’re not allowed under this law to sign your nondisclosure agreement, do you still want our bid or not? My hunch is Amazon would have said yeah, we’ll take your bid. And then I can’t imagine that all the other cities wouldn’t have said “we’re not going to sign the nondisclosure agreement either.”


Unions wanted union neutrality as a condition of this deal. Is that something you think should be tied to these kinds of economic incentives?

Lander: Yes. To me, where public money, whether that’s up front or in the form of a reduction in your tax obligations, is part of the deal, then I think that neutrality is something we should do.


What did you think of how Mayor De Blasio handled the Amazon deal? He seemed to flip sides very fast when they left town.

Lander: I think people have different ways of trying to make the best of what is for them a bad situation. I guess that’s what he tried to do... I think a better question that I was asking during the deal is, given the mayors skepticism about Uber, his narrative about the dangers of concentrated corporate power, how could he have been such a cheerleader for Amazon in the first place?


It is true to me that the way Amazon left was one more convincing data point in the set of things we’ve been saying about their disinterest in the social compact.