When Amazon, the monopsonistic retailer and ICE collaborator, announced last November that it would open its “second headquarters” in New York City, local resistance arose immediately. The day following the announcement, over 100 community activists, union leaders, and local politicians rallied in the Queens, New York, neighborhood of Long Island City — where Amazon planned to build – in opposition to the deal, which included $3 billion worth of government kickbacks.
Yet while resistance to Amazon’s HQ2 was swift and formidable, the task of stopping the deal appeared Sisyphean. So when Amazon announced on Thursday that it was canceling plans for the New York corporate campus, the news was met with delight and surprise. Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in history; Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised the company that he’d change his name to “Amazon Cuomo” were the deal to go through. It is rare to win against a corporate-government power nexus of this magnitude.
The plan’s thwarting offers a lesson in the possibility of forceful collective struggle against seemingly unbeatable Goliaths. It also proves the need for left-wing politicians and organizers to challenge and replace conservative, capitalist Democrats if we are to wrest control of neighborhoods, cities, and public resources away from corporate interests and towards the good of existing communities.
In its statement announcing the plan’s cancellation, Amazon was explicit that its decision was in response to strong opposition from certain lawmakers. “A number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward,’’ the company stated.
It’s true that these politicians played a crucial role. Yet without consistent pressure and door-to-door canvassing from activist and community groups — including immigrant and worker advocate organizations Make the Road NY and Desis Rising Up and Moving, alongside Teamsters and Queens residents — many elected officials would not have taken up a stance against Amazon. New York legislatures of old showed no such sensitivity to anti-gentrification and anti-corporate sentiment.
“Let’s be clear who deserves the credit for this victory against Amazon — the working people of NYC who refused to let another company reap billions in corporate welfare at the expense of the City’s social welfare,” wrote New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, a longtime opponent to the Amazon deal, on Twitter. Citing his opposition to the retail giant’s anti-union policies and partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Menchaca added, “New York City cannot claim to be a sanctuary city if it gives taxpayer money to fund systems that spy, threaten, and deport our immigrant neighbors.”
Menchaca’s praise for working people is apt: Political pressure from local organizers, activists, and community groups informed those lawmakers and, indeed, helped elect the new cadre of left-wing Democrats willing to take such a stance.
Some of the most vocal New York legislators who opposed HQ2 were newly elected through grassroots campaigns on democratic socialist platforms. House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and state Sen. Julia Salazar are perhaps the most famous among them. As the New York Times reported earlier this week, last year’s elections also “paved the way for the nomination of [state] Senator Michael Gianaris — now a prominent Amazon opponent — to a state board with veto power over the deal.” The nomination reportedly spooked the corporate leviathan.
The victory against Amazon — and its dealmaker allies in New York’s leadership — shows the immediate material effects of upsetting the state and city’s historically centrist and corporate-friendly order, as represented by the governor and the mayor. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Anything is possible: today was the day a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers & their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed, its worker exploitation, and the power of the richest man in the world.”
Amazon and its defenders are attempting to frame the deal’s cancellation as a coup by politicians acting against the will of New Yorkers. “Polls show that 70 percent of New Yorkers support our plans and investment,” the company statement read.
It is true that recent polls showed support for the project, especially among African-American and Latinx residents. But such polls do not account for the fact that Amazon’s promises to bring 25,000-plus “good” jobs and vast investment are poison pills. If Amazon’s original HQ in Seattle is anything to go by, the idea that those non-unionized, predominantly six-figure jobs would go to local working-class people is laughable. Meanwhile, HQ2 threatened to drive up already soaring property and retail prices in the area. And, as Ocasio-Cortez noted in response to criticism, “we were subsidizing those jobs” — with the $3 billion in tax breaks and other kickbacks for Amazon, a company that will pay nothing in federal taxes on $11.2 billion of profits made last year.
It hardly speaks to the democratic will of the people when polls frame corporate sweetheart deals and inequality generators as simple job creators. In this sense, Amazon’s claim to local popularity is about as legitimate as the misleading Brexit campaign’s claim to represent the general will among Britons.
Matt Stoller, an economist with the Open Markets Institute and critic of Amazon’s market control, noted how disingenuous it was for the company to claim such popularity. “If the question were framed differently the deal would be a lot less popular,” he wrote on Twitter. “For instance, ‘Would you personally pay $375 for each member of your family to Jeff Bezos so he would bring Amazon jobs to New York City?’” — referring to the fact that $3 billion of public money amounts to approximately $375 per New York City resident. Stoller added that while, of course, tax incentives don’t work that way, his alternative framing is no more misleading that the polling Amazon touted as proof of popularity: “Saying ‘would you accept great jobs in return for vague-sounding state and city incentives of up to $3 billion’ is going to get a high approval. ‘would you pay $375 to a billionaire for traffic jams and higher rent’ is not. This was not a popular deal.”
It is to the great credit of longtime community organizers — all too familiar with the empty, unfulfilled promises New York real estate developers — that an informed anti-gentrification politics won the day.
While the cancellation of HQ2 is a huge victory in and of itself, it also signals a welcome shift in political power away from the conservative Democrat status quo, and gives hope for further challenges to the corporate stranglehold on city development and resource allotment. The attorney and former candidate for attorney general, Zephyr Teachout, tweeted Thursday, “Oh, we are just beginning! Now let’s get a Congressional hearing on Amazon, labor, ICE, monopsony, how and why to break up Amazon.”
Checks on corporate hegemony and obscene inequality do not happen without pushing the Democratic Party to the left. When the Amazon deal was announced last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio remarked, “One of the biggest companies on earth next to the largest public housing unit in the country — the synergy is going to be extraordinary.” It is a welcome and overdue moment when a politician who utters such tone deaf, neoliberal paeans can no longer pass as progressive.