Amazon offered New Yorkers the best possible Valentine’s Day gift — a breakup. The union-busting, deportation-aiding company announced it wouldn’t go forward with plans to build a new headquarters in Queens, financed in part by tax breaks and capital grants, thanks to the sustained organizing efforts from New York grassroots groups.
The announcement was welcome news to the coalition of organizers who demanded the city invest in its communities instead of trying to woo the richest man in the world. The coalition was made up of local community organizations, including groups like New York Communities for Change and Queens Neighborhoods United, tenants unions, immigrant groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving and Make the Road NY, and more.
They sprang into action soon after Amazon announced it would build two new home bases in New York and Virginia. “We won by standing firm with our stance on no concessions and united with other organizations and groups across the city with this message,” Shrima Pandey, an organizer with Queens Neighborhoods United, told Inequality.org in an email. “We made sure that our electeds knew we were not looking to make deals because we know you can’t make a deal with the devil.”
“We also won by rallying our people, by making sure everyone was informed of the disastrous impacts that HQ2 could have had in our borough and our city,” Pandey said. “We won by being committed to this campaign – we took early morning calls, and day-long meetings, and hit the streets in the bitter cold even though QNU is an all-volunteer group and our members bear many other responsibilities.”
The reaction to the Amazon deal was immediate as questions popped up over the incentives package proposed by New York officials. Why offer hefty tax subsidies when the city is failing to address record-high homelessness? Why offer to “assist in securing access to a helipad” (a real thing promised by the city to Amazon) while the public transit system was melting down? And why offer all these perks and incentives under a shroud of secrecy, without community input?
Supporters said the subsidies would only kick in if Amazon created the requisite 25,000 jobs. But academics say there’s plenty of reason for skepticism — once incentive agreements like this are signed, there’s often little transparency or accountability after the fact to ensure the companies comply with their end of the deal. Without explicit promises to hire unemployed New Yorkers, many worried that any jobs created would go to newcomers, who could potentially drive up rents and displace long-term residents of Queens’ diverse communities.
As details of the incentives agreement came out, New Yorkers heard from Seattleites about the mass gentrification spurred by Amazon. Seattle and King County declared a state of emergency over the city’s homelessness crisis. Meanwhile, Amazon lobbied hard to repeal a head tax on the city’s richest businesses to deal with that very crisis just weeks after it had passed. The day before Amazon announced its pullout from the deal, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy reported that Amazon paid nothing in federal income taxes for the second year in a row. It was clear what kind of neighbor Amazon would be.
Arrogance from Amazon didn’t help either. “Here is a company that has concentrated so much power that they think they can dictate to states and cities what they can tell their people, how much money of theirs they want take to grace us with their presence, and without any consideration for the communities that their presence would affect,” State Senator Michael Gianaris said at a press conference after the deal was revoked.
Gianaris was one of several lawmakers put off by an Amazon representative refusing to agree to neutrality if Amazon workers tried to unionize the famously toxic workplace. “You are in a union city,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said. “This is a city that was built on unions, a city that loves unions,” Johnson said. “This is not a way to come to our city.”
New Yorkers began drawing increased attention to these predatory aspects of Amazon’s business model as soon as they heard about HQ2. Weeks after the deal was announced, community groups, including ALIGN, New York Communities for Change, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Partnership for Working Families and Make the Road New York, released a report outlining how Amazon HQ2 would exacerbate the city’s already high inequality.
The report explained how money from the tax subsidies could be used on affordable housing, education or public transit. It looked at how HQ2 would accelerate the rapid pace of gentrification, fuel the displacement of New Yorkers and local businesses, and burden already crumbling infrastructure. And it also pointed out how Amazon profits off hate and anti-immigrant policies – a practice all the more deplorable in the district HQ2 was to be located, where 40 percent of residents are immigrants.
Amazon provides much of the infrastructure for the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration databases, the report points out, which means it holds the information that facilitates the mass surveillance, detention, and deportation of immigrants. Amazon also recently marketed its facial recognition software to ICE.
And fueling the American deportation machine isn’t the only way Amazon rakes in cash over racism. The company has long been criticized for allowing hate groups to sell white supremacist products in its marketplace, which helps fund their movements and spread their ideas.
Organizers pointed to all of these components of Amazon – its anti-immigrant practices, its labor violations, the corporate concentration, the way it fuels gentrification and displacement, its tax avoidance – when making their case against letting HQ2 into the city. “If we had only addressed one part of the beast that is Amazon, we would have opened up a window for negotiation,” Pandey said.
“For every person who said, ‘why don’t we try to get more jobs from Amazon?’ we could counter that with ‘that doesn’t stop them from colluding with ICE.’ We needed to highlight all of these elements to show that no promises would have sweetened the pot.”
This multi-pronged attack also helped mobilize people against HQ2, Pandey said, as “each person was drawn to fight against this deal (or ordeal, rather) for many reasons, be it anti-trust concerns, environmental impacts, Amazon’s collusion with ICE, its abuse of workers, etc. We were able to engage with a number of people because this would have affected everyone.”
According to New York Times reporter J. David Goodman, this broad base of questioning over ICE deals and union busting – questions that extend beyond HQ2 and hit the heart of Amazon’s very business model – played a role in Amazon’s decision to call it quits with New York.
The campaign against HQ2 is only one component in both the fight to save New Yorkers against gentrification and the longer battle against Amazon’s concentrated power in the American economy. Queens is still pushing back against the corporatization of its neighborhoods. They’re centering their efforts on a campaign against proposed Target in Jackson Heights. “This neighborhood runs on the backs of immigrants and immigrant-owned businesses,” Pandey said, “and we will all be displaced if this project goes through.”
The end of New York’s HQ2, while a crucial step in showing corporations that cities can’t be bought, is still only one step. Virginia officials have made it clear they’re welcoming Amazon with open arms. It will take coordinated efforts to keep companies like Amazon from setting up race-to-the-bottom competitions to line their pockets with money from city and state coffers.
But first, New Yorkers must celebrate beating back the richest man in the world.