Yesterday, one of the world’s most powerful companies took its ball and went home, in response to what was—by New York City standards—a fairly modest opposition campaign. What does this tell us?
First, it tells us: Believe! The power of corporate America may be strong, but loud protests, community opposition, negative press, and elected allies combined can be stronger. I and many others were skeptical, once the Amazon HQ2 deal was announced, that it could ever be rolled back; there seemed to be too much money on the line, and I assumed at first that the ensuing protests were more to gain leverage over Amazon than to actually reverse the deal. Clearly I was thinking too small. Don’t doubt what is possible, especially in a town where the political power structure has to be responsive to organized labor and left wing community groups.
Second, we learned that Amazon is weak. The company has been so powerful for so long that it is used to nothing but having the red carpet unfurled before it. When Seattle wanted to impose a tax on big businesses to help homelessness, Amazon’s opposition caused the city to scurry to repeal the tax. The company’s distribution centers (much like new prisons) have been welcomed with open arms by the economically desperate locales where they tend to be located. And the entire disgusting HQ2 search charade was nothing but an endless process of municipal groveling at Amazon’s feet. The people of New York City handed them the first substantive opposition they have felt in a long time. They couldn’t handle it. This is valuable information for people in other cities. Remember it.
The most interesting strategic debate that will continue long after Amazon’s wounded ass has left town is the one that has already ensued in the world of organized labor. There were two basic responses in the union world to the news that Amazon was coming to NYC. Some saw it as a chance to grab pieces of the pie for their union, and some saw it as a chance to draw a more existential line in the sand—to say that New York City, America’s strongest union town, would be the place where Amazon would be forced to bow the power of organized labor, or else. Everyone in labor tended to agree that if Amazon did decide to come to NYC, we would unionize them; but they disagreed over whether this possibility meant that we should welcome and encourage Amazon to come here, even as they vowed to oppose unions.
Many unions are transactional creatures. They represent poor or vulnerable workers, and as long as they are accruing gains for those workers they believe they are doing god’s work. And they are, as far as that goes. But anyone in the labor movement wiling and able to broaden their perspective must see the multiple outrages at play here: Amazon, a company that is systematically turning the somewhat-unionized retail industry into a completely non-union industry of miserable and precarious warehouse workers in order to fund the absurd fortune of the richest man on earth (a man so parsimonious that he even fights his own newspaper’s right to a union while running Super Bowl ads about how valuable journalism is), played cities across America off against one another in order to extract billions of dollars in concessions from the public in order to build office space that they are going to build anyhow, because they need it, in order to run their fabulously powerful business. That’s what the context is. The fact that the entire practice cities and states competing with one another to shower tax breaks on big businesses is a net negative for the public is completely uncontroversial, at least on the left. The NYC politicians and labor leaders cheering on the Amazon HQ2 know that the entire process by which it happened is corrupt and bad for the public at large; they just calculate that it is a benefit for the specific segment of the public that they represent.
That is not enlightened. And that is not solidarity.
Amazon agreed to use union construction workers and to use unionized building workers in their headquarters. Great. Those things are good. Nobody was upset about that. But Amazon simultaneously vowed to oppose the unionization of anyone who was actually an employee of Amazon. It certainly would have been possible for the unions who stood to benefit from Amazon coming here to sit quietly and see how the issue played out; to say, in essence, “We recognize all of the evils of Amazon, and we recognize the corrupt nature of this deal, but if they do come here, they will use our union labor, which is good.” Instead, they chose to become vocal public cheerleaders for the project. That was divisive to the labor movement. A united front of organized labor from day one could have said, even before Amazon arrived: Do not choose New York City unless you are prepared to have a union work force. Instead, unions went their own separate ways, and a mess ensued. Now, the unions that decided to become public advocates for Amazon in order to get their piece of the pie have sacrificed good will and credibility in exchange for... nothing.
Amazon is welcome to build buildings and hire workers in New York City any time. They are not welcome to billions of dollars in tax breaks while fighting against the right of their workers to unionize. Fuck off with that.
Many people will say that NYC just lost something meaningful. But the reality is that an entire nation, and an entire movement of people who believe that corporations and billionaires should not control our country, just gained something more meaningful. We gained a concrete sense of what is possible. It is easy to look at a few neighborhoods or industries and say that they stood to gain from this Amazon deal. But if we are being honest, we know that working people as a whole will lose more and more if we acquiesce to Amazon’s growing power. New York City is more able than anywhere else to keep thriving as a city even without Amazon here. We did the right thing. We are all obligated to respect the big picture. It is not the job of organized labor to scrape and bow before a trillion dollar company that mistreats its workers. If we make our city great for all people, Amazon can come back and grovel to us.