Amazon’s skimpy favors for the community infuriate City Council critics

In the City Council’s second hearing on Amazon’s enormous planned office in the neighborhood of Long Island City, the contentious debate continued.

Protesters hold up signs at the second New York City Council hearing on Amazon's planned headquarters in Queens.

Protesters hold up signs at the second New York City Council hearing on Amazon's planned headquarters in Queens. John McCarten/New York City Council

Critics and skeptics of the plan to bring a new Amazon headquarters to Queens received answers to some of their questions about the deal the New York City and New York state cut to win the company’s call for a second headquarters at a New York City Council hearing on Wednesday. But a number of questions left unanswered about the impact that an Amazon headquarters will have on its surroundings demonstrated that the company has a ways to go before it can look forward to receiving a warm welcome.

In the City Council’s second hearing on Amazon’s enormous planned office in the neighborhood of Long Island City, the contentious debate continued. For three months since Amazon, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out the plan for half of the online retail giant’s HQ2, Queens lawmakers, labor leaders and the city and state’s economic development corporations have traded arguments about the merits and risks posed by the arrival of the tech giant, but Wednesday’s hearing was only the second time that both sides came face-to-face in City Hall. The first City Council hearing, held in December, focused on what Council members called the “closed-door” nature of the city and state’s deal with the company. At least two more hearings are scheduled in the future.

Representatives of Amazon, and James Patchett, the president and chief executive officer of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, faced questions from the City Council Committee on Finance and from Speaker Corey Johnson. The hearing was set to focus on the terms of the $3 billion in state and local incentives offered to Amazon and the economic impact of a new headquarters. Inevitably, though, questioning spanned other controversial issues including reports that Amazon Web Services pitched its facial analysis system to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and concerns about allegations of poor working conditions at Amazon warehouses.

Amazon has promised a lot to New York – the creation of 25,000 jobs over 10 years, over $27 billion in state and local tax revenue, and donated real estate for a new 600-student public school. But the company has nonetheless been caught fighting to let those stats to outweigh what critics believe is corporate welfare in the inducement package it was offered, along with other progressive critiques of its corporate practices such as reportedly problematic labor conditions. Amazon has mailed out a series of flyers to Queens residents extolling the benefits that a new headquarters would bring to the neighborhood and larger area, which in turn only caused state Sen. Michael Gianaris – a strong critic of HQ2, in whose district the new buildings would be located – to send out mailers of his own to speak out against the deal.

The company’s representatives took the opportunity at Wednesday’s hearing to announce new initiatives intended to benefit the local community, and especially its low-income residents, which were reported in The New York Times on Tuesday. Amazon is partnering with LaGuardia Community College, which is in Long Island City, the City University of New York and the State University of New York to launch a cloud computing certificate program at these schools. Through the Amazon Web Services Educate program, Amazon will offer curriculum development and AWS trainings for faculty and free AWS Promotional Credits for students to perform their assignments. Another initiative will fund computer science classes in more than 130 New York City high schools. And then there is the company’s announcement that it would hire residents of adjacent New York City Housing Authority developments to work at a new customer service center, creating 30 jobs.

For some, however, those initiatives fall far too short of expectations. “30 jobs, are you fucking kidding me?” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, whose district includes Long Island City. “Do you know how many people in Queensbridge need jobs?” Van Bramer asked. Queensbridge is the largest public housing project in the United States.

Van Bramer appeared alongside Gianaris at a rally held on the steps of City Hall ahead of the hearing, where the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union joined the Teamsters and other labor leaders and activists to decry Amazon’s resistance to unions – including in Staten Island, where some fulfillment center workers have attempted to organize. That pre-show became a preview of what was to come in City Hall’s chambers.

Brian Huseman, vice president of public policy at Amazon, confirmed during the hearing that Amazon currently has 5,000 employees in New York City, none of whom are unionized. Asked by Speaker Corey Johnson whether Amazon would be willing to remain neutral in workers’ decision to unionize, Huseman responded, “no, sir.”

In a tense exchange that followed, Johnson asked NYCEDC president James Patchett whether during the course of negotiations with Amazon, the city had asked for a commitment from the company to remain neutral on the issue of its workers unionizing. “First and foremost, you know the mayor is an enormous supporter of union rights in this city,” Patchett said. Patchett then redirected the focus of the discussion to the new proposed headquarters, and an agreement with the building service workers union 32BJ to handle security and maintenance in the new complex. “We focused on the jobs at the site that we were discussing with the company, which was the headquarters site, and we emphasized to them repeatedly that it was critical that they work with the unions that were relevant for that site,” he said.

“Did you ask for neutrality or not ask for neutrality?” Johnson returned. “It sounds like you didn't.” Patchett replied saying that they “asked for union deals.” “That's not neutrality,” Johnson said. “Okay, thank you for answering the question.”

Much of the hearing proceeded with a similar tone, though discussion between Amazon representatives and Council members could be called cordial compared to the heckling of protestors sitting in the balcony – one of whom Johnson ordered to be escorted out of the chambers after interrupting Huseman’s statements.

While left-leaning legislators have not dropped their objections, the question remains as to whether continued pushback can actually stop what seems to some like a done deal. Today, the question of Amazon’s reported cooperation with ICE led to mention of one possible exit strategy.

“What's been little spoken about is that both sides have an opt-out clause in this deal, so why doesn't the city opt out now?” Van Bramer asked before the hearing, adding that while de Blasio first said he was unaware of the company’s alleged dealing with ICE, he has since vowed to demand that any cooperation end if the reports are true. “You know now that they do something that's antithetical to our progressive values, so why don't you tell them, 'You stop cooperating with ICE or we opt out of the deal,” Van Bramer said.

Raising that point during the hearing, Council members were stonewalled by Amazon, which refused to talk about with whom who it does business. “If we received any complaints at all of any illegal conduct – and that includes violation of civil or constitutional rights – through the use of our technology, we will absolutely terminate that relationship and prohibit anyone from using that technology,” Huseman said.

Van Bramer proceeded to question Patchett about whether the terms of the memorandum of understanding between New York and Amazon would allow the city to opt out. Patchett confirmed that there is no binding component to the MOU, and that any party could pull out, though it asks for 60 days notice in writing. “That's good to know, which would mean that it's actually somewhat simple at this point to say to Amazon, that as long as you continue to work with ICE and harass immigrants in this country, so long as you come here and say 'no' to remaining neutral, that the city of New York has the ability to revoke this deal now,” Van Bramer said.

Patchett acknowledged that the de Blasio administration would be concerned about any business with ICE and that the mayor has the authority to make any decisions regarding the deal that he likes. Ultimately, however, Patchett remained firm about having no misgivings about the deal, suggesting that there is little that would dissuade the city from moving forward with the deal. “It's an incredible opportunity,” Patchett said, “so we're not walking away from this. (It’s) the biggest economic development jobs creator of our lifetimes.”