2019-02-06 / Features

City Council And Amazon Meet, Clash Again

BY THOMAS COGAN

The City Council’s second examination of Amazon’s second headquarters plan, purportedly aimed at making Long Island City a prime area of employment in New York, was held at City Hall. In large part it took up where the first meeting on December 12th left off, quickly reviving the Council’s angry tone.

Two Council members stood out from among the others in December and again at the January 30th meeting. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson was, if anything, even stronger in his prosecutorial approach to the panel representing Amazon. Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer’s level of indignation might have been even higher than it was the first time. Other members were also in fighting form. Like Johnson and Van Bramer, several questioned the company’s motives in two vital matters. First was the company’s promise of prosperity if only it could be financed for the expense of moving into Long Island City and setting up business. Then there was its inability to express a clear policy toward labor unions.

Amazon’s advocates, principally New York City Economic Development Corporation Executive Director James Patchett, and Brian Huseman, the company’s chief spokesman, had to bear waves of criticism that crashed into them time and again. During a meeting lasting more than three hours, Amazon was often vilified as anti-union in a city that identifies itself as “a union town,” as Council members emphasized repeatedly. The company was called deceptive in reaching fulfillments that didn’t resemble earlier promises, having a history of fiscal chicanery, and being unable through its representatives to give answers to inquirers that didn’t seem flimsy or evasive. The Council members’ fury was so great that it seemed to wear them down in the course of those three hours. When the meeting was adjourned, following the promise to hold a third one, few if any of them seemed to have moved at all away from their original stance of total opposition.

Patchett of the NYCEDC began by saying, “Cities work best when everyone is working” and suggested everyone hearing him “take the long view” as he bypassed Amazon’s lower promise of 25,000 jobs in 10 years and proceeded to the higher one, 40,000 in 15 years. There were the up and down 1990s, the terrible disruption after September 11, the crisis of 2008. Things may be relatively good now, with prosperity and low unemployment, but it must be maintained. Amazon will do its part by investing heavily in Long Island City throughout the 2020s, he assured everyone. Even now, the company is visiting SUNY and CUNY schools, proclaiming the gospel of employment. He asked his listeners to think of all those students eventually working at Amazon and consider how that will benefit their families. He continued by saying he has a responsibility to New York City to advance its prosperity, and allowing Amazon free rein will accomplish that brilliantly. He concluded by relating the testimony of a girl who, having been visited in her school by company ‘missionaries,’ said she would like to work at Amazon someday.

Huseman also spoke, but soon after beginning he suffered a loud interruption by protesters, who draped a black-and-yellow banner over the balcony rail denouncing Amazon for lying to the communities where it wants to move in. There were cheers, shouts and curses for a little while as Speaker Johnson issued stern warnings and threatened to have the whole balcony cleared. After a few irrepressible insurgents were thrown out an uneasy peace was restored. Able to speak again, Huseman reported the testimony of a woman with a small business who was impressed by Amazon’s assuring vision of success in her future once the company is established in LIC. He said that high schools in Queens and the rest of the city are becoming beneficiaries of Amazon’s programs for technological futures. Amazon has teamed up with LaGuardia Community College and other schools to provide cloud computing classes, beginning soon.

Johnson considered Amazon’s claim that while the city and state are investing $3 billion in tax breaks for the company to use, it will, like bread on the waters, come back to the city nine-fold, with $27 billion, over the years. What financial study backs this up, he asked. No one on the Amazon panel could reply. How many jobs might come to Long Island City in the same period if Amazon were not to exert its plan, Johnson further asked, and also if Patchett or anybody had done studies that would bolster their grand statistics about money and jobs. Patchett said he intends to. Might it not have been better and more informative, Johnson asked, if a uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, had been carried out instead of being disdained by the state and city development agencies eager to accommodate Amazon on a quick trip to certification?

Johnson turned to Huseman to ask if Amazon would practice neutrality with the workers it has hired, allowing them to organize a union if they chose to. Huseman said Amazon has generous policies toward its workers, but Johnson insisted on an answer about neutrality and was finally told that such a policy is not favored. The Council speaker was told that Amazon has been consulting with local unions here, but does not endorse a neutrality policy.

In charge of the day’s meeting was City Council Committee on Finance Chair Daniel Dromm, who asked Patchett about a study of the city’s tax structure, promised about four years ago for delivery in three. Why has it disappeared instead? Patchett said the state had complicated objections to it. Dromm suggested that Amazon eventually came along and noticing an ungoverned situation, and took advantage of it to gain gorgeous financial terms from city and state. At that point, a graphic display appeared on the audio-visual screen in the room. It was a tortuous figure supposedly demonstrating how Amazon had once arranged a deal in Luxembourg whereby they could maneuver their tax obligations down to nearly nothing while their hapless hosts stood by. Dromm wondered if New York might wind up similarly baffled.

Dromm asked about Amazon jobs in food service, which would be well below the $150,000 level the company said was the average salary. He was told that these minimum wage workers were well treated in Seattle, and among them were formerly incarcerated persons. Dromm then turned the microphone over to Jimmy Van Bramer.

Council Member Van Bramer called himself the son of union parents and made it clear he was in the room to fight for organized labor. Knowing the answer, he nevertheless asked about the company’s neutrality policy. He then brought up the opt-out clause, which would be the last-resort abandonment of the whole deal if the parties came to a point where they were irreconcilably at odds over some issue.

Company neutrality toward labor organizing should be one such issue, Van Bramer said. If Amazon refused to accept that, or if it persisted in its dealings with Immigration Control and Enforcement, or ICE, aiding the agency in its round-up of alien workers, the entire enormous deal should be cancelled. On making that demand, Van Bramer asked Huseman if he agreed. The Council member discounted the agreements Amazon has tried to make with building trades unions, which he said are being made apart from the general acceptance of neutrality. Huseman had earlier said the possibility of an opt-out exists but understandably didn’t wish to dwell on it. Van Bramer did and ultimately said the city has leverage if it can resort to an opt-out. He repeated that Amazon must pledge to neutrality regarding workers’ desire to organize and again demanded the company cut off its relationship with ICE. If Amazon does not agree to those things, blow up the deal, he said. Patchett, whom he was addressing at the time, said he understood.

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