By Steven Wishnia
NEW YORK, N.Y.—Citing Amazon’s long anti-labor record, the union representing New York City’s retail workers has come out strongly against the city and state promising the online-sales behemoth more than $2.5 billion in subsidies to locate its new branch headquarters in Long Island City.
“Any company being welcomed into New York to create jobs should have a record of treating workers fairly and respecting unions. Amazon clearly does not,” Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union President Stuart Appelbaum said at a Nov. 28 rally announcing the union’s release of a report titled “What’s Wrong With Amazon.” “Before Amazon receives any subsidies in New York, the company must agree to meet higher standards for how it treats all its workers.”
“This is not a tech company simply trying to expand,” the report declares. “This is a company that opposes the rights of workers to receive a fair wage and to freely select a union without being subjected to propaganda against it as it fiercely pursues its goal of world market domination.”
The 14-page report is a greatest-hits litany of Amazon abuses, from the frenetic speedups at its warehouse and shipping “fulfillment centers” to the company’s longtime antiunion policies. At one Pennsylvania fulfillment center, management decided it would be cheaper to have ambulances on call during summer heat waves than to put on adequate air-conditioning. “We do not believe that unions are in the best interests of our customers, our shareholder, or, most importantly, our associates,” declared a union-avoidance video distributed earlier this year to managers at Amazon and its recently acquired Whole Foods stores.
“Amazon clearly wants to be here,” Appelbaum said. “The right of all Amazon workers to organize for better treatment should be respected, especially here in New York, where labor unions continue to raise workplace and job standards across many industries and occupations. Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have been tremendous allies to organized labor and to working people in New York. We think they have an important role to play in demanding a better deal for all future Amazon workers who may be employed here.”
Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have been tremendous allies to organized labor and to working people in New York. We think they have an important role to play in demanding a better deal for all future Amazon workers who may be employed here.” Stuart Appelbaum, president, RWDSU
Equally relevant for the RWDSU is Amazon’s effect on the stores where its members work. Between 2014 and 2016, the report says, “traditional brick-and-mortar retailers reduced their workforce by 200,000 jobs nationwide.” It estimates that when job creation at Amazon is weighed against that, there was still a net loss of 149,000 jobs in the U.S.
The subsidies the city and state plan to give Amazon, it says, will mean “$3 billion less tax revenue with which to fund the increased burden on our roads, public transit systems, affordable housing stock, and more,” and the company will use them “to expand its business which results in the destruction of brick and mortar stores and the loss of the vibrancy of our downtown business districts. This is not a tradeoff in which we should be investing public dollars.”
Other unions in the city have supported the deal, however. “It’s exciting that Amazon is making this commitment to our great city and state,” Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said in the statement issued by the mayor’s office Nov. 13 announcing the deal. “We look forward to working closely with Amazon and the community to ensure that the project includes good middle-class construction jobs with benefits and high-quality permanent jobs.”
The Nov. 12 Memorandum of Understanding between Amazon and the City of New York, the New York State Urban Development Corporation, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which lays out the location and financing of the project on the Long Island City waterfront, does not contain any explicit guarantee that it will be built by union labor.
Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have said, however, that the project will create union jobs in construction. The state has promised Amazon $1.5 billion in tax breaks and other subsidies, with more if the project results in more than 25,000 jobs. The city will kick in another $1.3 billion.
Amazon has agreed that the building-service staff in its headquarters will be union workers, 32BJ SEIU announced Nov. 21. The union, which represents custodians, security guards, and other building workers, estimated that the project could lead to up to 3,000 jobs for its members.
“Amazon is coming to the most progressive, diverse, union-friendly city and state in the country—a fact that should put to sleep the theory that says we need to kill unions and weaken regulations to attract businesses,” 32BJ President Hector Figueroa said in a statement. “As New Yorkers we should be proud that HQ2, and the thousands of good union jobs that will build, maintain, and secure this complex, are coming to Long Island City.”
Figueroa added, however, that city residents needed “to make sure Amazon serves as a positive force to strengthen our transit system, fund our public schools, and help all city residents thrive.”