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Longing for Jeff Bezos

As if New York’s failed attempt to bribe Amazon wasn’t embarrassing enough, the city’s political and labor elite is now begging Jeff Bezos to change his mind. Let’s hope they fail again.

A protest message directed at Amazon is spray painted on a wall near a construction site January 9, 2019 in the Long Island City neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. Drew Angerer / Getty

“‘Wait, Mr. Bezos, You Forgot Your Tax Subsidy!’ Says Andrew Cuomo Running Behind Limo.”

So ran an Onion headline the day after the Amazon HQ2 deal collapsed. As it turned out, the joke was art prefiguring life.

Cuomo, along with eighty other signatories — including six union leaders and five Democratic politicians — published a contemptible open letter begging Bezos to reconsider his decision not to locate one of Amazon’s new headquarters in New York City. The Democratic politicians are State Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, and some members of Congress: Rep. Gregory Meeks, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Rep. Max Rose, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (the latter being my congressman, about whom I had some feelings in 2012 which have not changed). The union leaders who signed this embarrassing mash note are the pitiable Michael Mulgrew of the United Federation of Teachers, along with George Gresham of 1199 SEIU, Hector Figueroa of SEIU 32BJ, Gary LaBarbera of the Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, and Peter Ward of the New York Hotel Trades Council. The list also includes real estate and finance guys (including some venture capitalists and hedge funders), of course, but, embarrassingly for the labor movement, more union leaders than bankers.

“We all hope you reconsider,” these lapdogs of capital begged, as if desperate for scraps. Their doxology for lost tax revenue and jobs is absurd. New York City’s economy is thriving, with tech growing robustly and no shortage of high earners to pay taxes (nor of otherwise socially useless luxury buildings with doormen to organize, assuming SEIU 32BJ’s Hector Figueroa’s stance was driven by a desire to fatten his membership rolls). The midterm elections and public advocate race showed that the city’s electorate is ready and eager to support a left, anti-real estate, pro-99 percent agenda. We have, for the first time in a long time, some solidly progressive elected officials, including a couple socialists (and by “solidly progressive” I mean willing to stand up to real estate and finance interests, which is what matters in New York).

In other words, there’s never been a better time to make an example of Amazon for its anti-unionism, and to send a message to other companies that union organizing rights are non-negotiable in New York City. It’s mortifying that even after Amazon’s explicit refusal to allow its New York employees the right to organize as a condition to build its HQ2 in the city, unions would be lining up to sign this pathetic document.

Amazon’s anti-unionism is well known and has been widely reported for decades. The company has been an archenemy of organized labor since 1994, the year it was founded. Last fall, after Amazon bought Whole Foods, Gizmodo published a leaked video encouraging managers to tell their employees not to unionize, explaining how to word threatening statements so that they would technically be legal. In addition to such commonplace tactics, which also include bringing in high-priced union-busting firms and holding mandatory meetings with workers, Amazon has also used less legal tactics: In 2000, Amazon closed a call center after an attempt at organizing by the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

As a result of its relentless twenty-five-year campaign to keep unions out, Amazon’s working conditions are notoriously awful. At one point, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, it was so common for employees to suffer from overheating at an Amazon warehouse due to the lack of air conditioning that an ambulance was kept waiting outside. Amazon employees are also subjected to relentless time pressure and surveillance, receiving text message warnings if they are unproductive for even a couple minutes. When they don’t work fast enough, they are fired. Journalist Simon Head, who has reported extensively on both companies, says Amazon and Walmart may be tied for the distinction of being the “most egregiously ruthless” employers in the United States.

For any union leader to overlook these realities is a shockingly short-sighted failure of solidarity, given that so many workers in retail, tech, and digital media are working hard to organize unions. In fact, employees at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island are currently trying to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

Even if the unions that signed this lovelorn missive were willing to make the existentially nonsensical compromise of allowing a company dedicated to their extinction to come to Long Island City, as representatives of working-class people, they — and the liberal politicians who signed this letter — should have been willing to consider a few other bedrock principles, out of solidarity with their fellow New Yorkers and regard for the common good.

One of these is that companies should pay taxes. A profitable corporation that paid zero dollars in federal taxes last year is not a good neighbor for a city with underfunded public schools and a transit system in dire need of fixing. And extensive research has found that the routine tax breaks that New York offers to companies — from which Amazon stood to gain billions — cheat our public sector without creating jobs. It’s striking that these liberals should be begging to enter into this bad deal just as our better state senators are working to abolish this type of scam.

Another principle that any New York City union should consider — at least in deference to its own members if not out of some broader sense of decency — is that immigrants are human beings. Amazon has faced criticism, including from its own employees, for providing facial recognition software and other technology to firms that work with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency presently best known for allowing children to die in detention.

You would also think unions and liberal Democrats, in a city where one in eight public schoolchildren is homeless, would be concerned about the dramatic gentrification and displacement that Amazon HQ2 threatened to usher in within Queens and North Brooklyn. One study estimated that rising rent costs would have driven hundreds more people into homelessness each year. It would have left many more middle and working-class people displaced or struggling to pay rent.

All of this should have troubled our liberal leaders. There’s a certain pathos in the fact that Jeff Bezos has given no sign so far of being moved by this undignified display of begging on the part of the city’s elites, though anything’s possible with Cuomo panting after his limo.

Anti-Amazon forces on the Left have drafted their own open letter, which has many more signatories. And as a friend of mine noted, the signatories list on Cuomo’s letter helpfully provides a reliable guide to which politicians the Left should primary, as well as the unions in need of a reform caucus or other rank-and-file rebellions. They need to recognize, as some mainstream politicians and organizations already have, that the city is taking a left turn, and they’d be wise to adapt quickly.