NYC officials buck Amazon LIC plans during meeting with Seattle counterparts

Demonstrators protested Amazon's Long Island City plans in front of the City Council in December, and the resistance continued on Monday.
Demonstrators protested Amazon’s Long Island City plans in front of the City Council in December, and the resistance continued on Monday. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Flanked by their Seattle counterparts, several of the city’s elected officials gathered in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union headquarters Monday and pledged to push for greater protection for Amazon workers before the company gets final approval for its corporate hub in Long Island City.

The elected officials and progressive groups beside them groused about several aspects of the city’s and state’s arrangement with Amazon, including that the $2.5 billion, 4 million-square-foot campus will not go through the city’s traditional development approval process, that the tech giant is eligible to receive at least $2.8 billion in public benefits and that there are not enough assurances local residents will join the ranks of the 25,000 new full-time workers the company plans to hire over the next decade.

Speaker after speaker shared concerns about the conditions in Amazon’s warehouses and the lack of union representation at the facilities.

"We could talk about many, many deficiencies related to how this deal got announced and got put together," said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. "One of the biggest, I think, rightful, fears is that Amazon is going to undermine and chip away at the labor standards that have been put in place after years and years and years of organizing and hard work…" 

"I am not sure why the state (Empire State Development), and the city (Economic Development Corporation), did not have a conversation related to labor peace agreements, did not have a conversation related to neutrality, did not have a conversation related to what would be expected of Amazon and how they would treat their employees if they came to New York City," Johnson said, referring to agreements that generally require employers to maintain a neutral position on organizing efforts as long as workers do not picket, boycott or otherwise interfere with workflow in an attempt to protect the viability of economic development projects.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose administrations announced the deal with Amazon in November, have heralded the campus as an endeavor that will enrich the local economy and secure the city’s prominence in the tech sector. They have said the city and state stand to gain some $27.5 billion in tax revenue over the next 25 years if Amazon exceeds its hiring commitments and employs 40,000 full-time workers. That estimate, however, does not factor in how much the governments are likely to spend supporting the population growth.

Seattle Council members Lisa Ann Herbold and Teresa Mosqueda said Amazon’s growth in the northeast has coincided with gentrification, exacerbating homelessness and commutes for workers who can no longer afford homes near their jobs. The pair urged New York to avoid a similar situation by planning ahead.

"Rest assured we’re going to do everything we can to stop this," said State Sen. Michael Gianaris, who represents Long Island City and who argued those gathered Thursday should focus on the Public Authorities Control Board, which will need unanimous approval from representatives of the governor, Assembly and State Senate to finalize the project. "There are some hurdles along the way in terms of how these appointments get made. The governor has a say over it, so it’s not as easy as it sounds, but I think we need to focus hard on making sure we use the leverage we have there."

The ESD said it is waiting for a site plan from Amazon before beginning the approval process, which will involve an environmental studies, a public hearing, a vote among the ESD’s board of directors and approval from the state’s Public Authorities Control Board. The process is expected to take more than a year, the agency said. 

The city and state have convened a community advisory committee to weigh in on several aspects of Amazon’s arrival, including its campus, how it will impact local infrastructure needs and ways to train workers for job openings. 

When asked about its thoughts on labor peace agreements, the ESD said it was too premature to consider them. 

Rashad Long, a picker at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, said he is interested in unionizing his colleagues and has been working with RWDSU  on the endeavor.

"We’re not being treated the way we’re supposed to be treated. They’re not giving us the right equipment that we’re asking for," said Long, who lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. "They need better gloves. They need better bins. The bins, they’re small bins, but they’re overstuffed, so I have to really go in there. And I developed carpal tunnel syndrome pulling stuff out; sometimes stuff is too heavy; you’re bending down."

Amazon has said it respects its employees’ rights to choose whether or not to join a union. The company has said it pays Staten Island warehouse workers between $17.50 and $23 an hour in addition to benefits.