New Yorkers 'Have the Opportunity Seattle Didn't' as They Prepare for War With Amazon

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Seattle City Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda speaking at the New York headquarters of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Seattle City Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda speaking at the New York headquarters of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Photo: Bryan Menegus (Gizmodo)

New York’s growing coalition of representatives and lawmakers opposed to Amazon’s plans for a headquarters in Queens gained two new allies who know the company’s effects on metro regions better than most: Seattle Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold.

Herbold and Mosqueda both appeared at a press event held today at the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s (RWDSU) New York headquarters to warn of what Amazon’s largely unchecked influence had done to inequality in their home city.

“The gears were already in motion but most of us were oblivious to what was happening,” Mosqueda said of Amazon’s massive growth in 2012. “In Seattle you see the majority of the population that was living who were low-income working families have been pushed out,” and are now commuting one or two hours to their jobs in a city which saw its housing costs soar to 113-percent over the national average, the councilwoman stated. As Herbold succinctly put it, the result is that, “Seattle is this nation’s biggest company town.”


To some extent Mosqueda and Herbold were preaching to the choir: The first half-dozen or so rows of seats were occupied largely by New York politicians who have publicly butted heads with Amazon and Governor Cuomo over the plan, which they fault not just for the jaw-dropping proposed subsidy amount, and the secretive process by which the agreement was drafted. Several of the speakers also took took the opportunity to remind the audience of the company’s unfriendly stance towards unions, its deep and lucrative ties to the pentagon, its apparent willingness to provide facial recognition software to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and its gambit of holding jobs hostage in order to torpedo a progressive tax in Seattle that would have funded homeless services.

Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, described HQ2 as the “fourth largest megadeal in US history,” made more galling by the fact that, through his organization’s research, it seems Amazon has averaged around 20 subsidy deals annually in recent years. President of RWDSU Stuart Appelbaum contended that, “Amazon’s business model is based on feasting on public subsidies, paying little or no taxes and mistreating and dehumanizing its employees.”

Are these familiar points of contention? Sure. Amazon has not massively overhauled its image or practices in the last two months, so there were only two real differences between this press conference and the very first rally held in mid-November after HQ2's announcement: the size of the political coalition willing to stand against Cuomo and Bezos, and the plan on how to wage that battle effectively. Because realistically, for many New Yorkers unhappy about the prospect of a more gentrified Long Island City and an even less functional transit system, the path forward is as clear as mud.


“We can do a lot to try and keep things like this from happening again,” State Senator Mike Gianaris told the audience, citing legislation that would ban non-disclosure agreements like the one that kept the specifics of HQ2 bids from the public. “The problem we have with passing a law to stop the Amazon deal is that, as you all know, for a law to get passed, the Governor has to sign the law. And it’s unlikely, given his position on this issue, that the Governor is going to sign anything that will stop the Amazon deal particularly.” Likewise, some consideration is being given to halting the deal through the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB)—though again, the members of that body are appointed by the governor. While Cuomo stands to be a considerable roadblock, according to Gianaris, “that doesn’t mean we don’t have any leverage.”

In the immediate: budgetary approvals. The Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP) and Relocation and Employment Assistance Program (REAP)—both of which Amazon stands to gain considerable subsidies from—are expiring in 2022 and 2020, respectively, and according to Gianaris the legislature seems willing to use them both as bargaining chips. “There also is not enough money in the state [subsidy] programs,” he said, “so at some point they’re going to need to come back through the budget process to get that renewed and to get more money allocated.”


Granted much of the counter-attack is obstructionist for the time being, but it’s obstruction with teeth. City and state reps are loudly on board, local advocacy groups like Make the Road and Alliance for a Greater New York continue to show up to rallies, and the City Council has plans to keep grilling Amazon representatives over two or three more hearings. “Rest assured,” Gianaris closed, “if they are bypassing approvals that are needed, we are certainly going to go to court.”

Update 1/7/19 8:15pm: An Amazon spokesperson requested Gizmodo include the following statement

Amazon is engaging in a long-term listening and engagement process to better understand the community’s needs. We’re committed to being a great neighbor – and ensuring our new headquarters is a win for all New Yorkers. Amazon makes substantial positive contributions to the economy, the communities where we operate, and to the lives and careers of our employees. We have created more than 250,000 full-time, full benefit jobs across the U.S. that now have a minimum $15 an hour pay and we have invested more than $160 billion in the U.S. economy since 2011.


Another way to learn the needs of specific communities might have been to structure the year-long headquarters search in such a way that the public were aware of and able to comment on proposals, but unfortunately that ship has sailed.