New York Labor Didn't Shrink from Confronting Amazon

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, second from left, speaks during a press conference in Gordon Triangle Park in the Queens borough of New York, following Amazon's announcement it would abandon its proposed headquarters for the area. 

Ever since Amazon’s plans to open a second headquarters in New York were announced last November, two things have become clear about organized labor and Amazon. First, labor is eager to unionize Amazon, or at least parts of Amazon, a fiercely anti-union company that doesn’t have a single unionized facility in the United States—none of its “fulfillment center” workers, Whole Foods workers, or drivers are unionized. Second, labor is seriously divided about how to achieve its ambitious goal of unionizing Amazon.

Days after Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio trumpeted the deal in which Amazon promised to create 25,000 jobs in Queens and would receive $3 billion in subsidies, New York’s building trades unions announced that Amazon had given its blessing to letting the project’s construction work, involving an estimated 5,000 workers, be unionized.  Moreover, Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union said that Amazon and the developers on the new project had agreed that the janitors and security guards who worked at Amazon’s new headquarters would be unionized. 

Even as the building trades unions and Local 32BJ openly supported Amazon’s plans for New York, however, many New York progressives railed against the deal because of Amazon’s anti-union reputation, the $3 billion subsidy and fears that Amazon’s arrival would push up New York’s already high rents. 

But many labor leaders wanted more from Amazon than what the construction trades and Local 32BJ were getting. 

These labor leaders noted that the unionized construction workers and janitors would not be directly employed by Amazon, but by contractors and developers working with Amazon. The AFL-CIO, the Teamsters and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) were intent on using Amazon’s New York ambitions as a way to get a union inside Amazon. For too long, union leaders argued, major corporations like Amazon have allowed a little unionization on their fringes—for instance, among janitors and construction workers—but not in their core operations. 

As one union strategist put it, “The labor movement had to decide: Are we happy to be a movement on the margins, or do we want to fight for the real pie? … Do we stay in the box or do we fight for the real economic core of the labor market?” The AFL-CIO, Teamsters and RWDSU concluded that with Amazon growing so large and so central to the nation’s economy, it was time to confront the giant. 

“We had a broad message that if Amazon wanted the largesse of New York, if they wanted the subsidies, they first needed to respect workers and respect communities,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU’s president. “We looked at how Amazon treats workers all over the world, and it was unacceptable. We looked at the health and safety problems when you go to work at Amazon, and it wasn’t good. We talked about how the International Trade Union Confederation named Jeff Bezos [Amazon’s founder] one of the worst bosses in the world.”

The AFL-CIO, Teamsters and RWDSU called on Amazon to agree to neutrality to help unions organize the 2,500 workers at Amazon’s new fulfillment center in Staten Island. Appelbaum voiced confidence that neutrality (a commitment not to oppose unionization) would enable labor to organize the Staten Island warehouse and that this would lead to unionization at other Amazon facilities. As a model, Appelbaum pointed to what his union had done with Zara. The retail clothing chain had agreed to neutrality at one New York store, and once the RWDSU unionized that store, it used that as a launching pad to unionize all eight Zara stores in New York. Similarly, that union used neutrality to organize more than 1,500 workers at 17 H&M stores in the New York area.  

“Everyone knows the history of Amazon across the world, their labor relations and how they treat their workers—it’s notorious,” said George Miranda, the top Teamsters official in New York. “Now that they were coming into New York, the most progressive, union-heavy state, we were looking for neutrality where they would not fight unionization.”

At a tense City Council hearing on January 30, Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, was asked whether his company would agree to neutrality. Huseman said no.  Jimmy Van Bramer, the City Councilman who represents Long Island City, where the Amazon headquarters would be located, responded, “Shame on you,”and “it’s a union-busting deal from the beginning.”

As the AFL-CIO and unions sought neutrality, sharp divisions emerged within labor. The RWDSU had urged Local 32BJ not to openly endorse the Amazon deal to help keep the heat on the company, but 32BJ said that it was too late, that it already had a deal. Local 32BJ’s leaders worried that the other unions’ demand for neutrality—and its timing—could fan the anti-Amazon flames just when Amazon officials were hinting they might have second thoughts about opening a headquarters in a city where they didn’t feel welcome. 

Last Wednesday, Appelbaum, Miranda and Mario Cilento, the president of the New York State AFL-CIO, met in Governor Cuomo’s office with four top Amazon executives. But Cuomo, one labor leader said, made clear that “neutrality isn’t even on the table.” Nonetheless, the union leaders and Amazon executives then came close to agreeing on a four-point plan that might be called “near neutrality.” The points were no company hostility, a fair election process, a pledge not to retaliate against union supporters, and allowing union organizers some access to the Staten Island warehouse to communicate with workers. (Under a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, employers have the right to prohibit union organizers from setting foot on company property.)

Appelbaum said the four-point plan meant “the company would still be able to say, ‘You don’t need a union. We don’t think you need a third party.’ But they wouldn’t be able to say, ‘This terrible union, all they want is to take you money.’ But none of that was defined.”

Appelbaum continued, “We all agreed to have our attorneys, our wordsmiths, flesh out the concepts.” The Teamsters’ Miranda added, “It was a good conversation, it wasn’t antagonistic. … There was, ‘no, we’re not doing this.’” 

The labor leaders left thinking they were near a deal. So they were stunned to learn hours later that Amazon had pulled the plug on New York. Mayor de Blasio said, “Out of nowhere, they took their ball and went home.”

“I was totally surprised,” said the Teamsters’ Miranda. “I can only surmise that the boss [Jeff Bezos] decided he had enough. I was disappointed because we lost a lot of jobs, a lot of good jobs. All we were asking for was for people in Staten Island to have an opportunity to decide whether to be unionized. It would have been a win-win for everyone.”

It’s not clear why Amazon scrapped its New York plans. Some concluded that Amazon, facing a wave of resistance from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, many city and state lawmakers and community groups, feared that it would face years of opposition and complaints, even though polls showed that most New Yorkers approved the Amazon deal. Some said that Amazon pulled out because it didn’t want to grant labor the least toehold or even a watered-down form or neutrality for just one fulfillment center. 

In a statement, Amazon said, “While polls show that 70 percent of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward.” 

Hector Figueroa, Local 32BJ’s president, said, “This was a really a lost opportunity from the labor perspective. ... I think people overplayed their hand and they [Amazon] are now gone.” Figueroa clearly regretted Amazon’s withdrawal; he said his union had deals in the works to have unionized janitors and security guards at Amazon facilities in Queens, Virginia, and Seattle that could have meant over 2,000 well-paid unionized positions. 

Figueroa wrote an op-ed for The New York Daily News, criticizing the left for chasing Amazon away. Amazon, he wrote, was “coming to the most progressive, union-friendly city and high-tax state in the country,” and “New York was showing the world that strong unions, smart regulation and progressive taxation are not an impediment to growth.” Figueroa added that “opposition from a few progressive organizations—many of which I have historically considered allies—created enough controversy to make Amazon abandon the project.”

He asked whether Amazon’s decision to reject New York “for expanded operations in Virginia and Tennessee” and other states would “help Amazon workers seeking to organize?”

“Not one bit,” he wrote “Does it hurt those efforts? Probably.”

Figueroa argued that rather than risk chasing away Amazon before it opened its headquarters, it would have been smarter to let Amazon set up shop in progressive, pro-union New York and then mount a big unionization drive and demand neutrality and more, perhaps by staging mass demonstrations at Amazon’s New York headquarters.

Appelbaum sharply questioned Figueroa’s suggested strategy. “The point about Amazon being in a pro-union environment would make it more likely that Amazon would be organized is nonsense,” Appelbaum said. “Germany is a more pro-union environment; and it [Amazon] has been viciously anti-union there, even refusing to comply with laws requiring it to negotiate with Ver.di [one of Germany’s biggest unions]. And Ver.di is a very strong union.”

A top labor leader in Washington said Amazon was making a “stupid business decision” by running away from New York over some progressives’ complaints and a demand for neutrality when “New York is the greatest collection of human capital in the world.”

Despite their differences over strategy regarding Amazon, Figueroa and Appelbaum vigorously agreed on the continued importance of seeking to unionize Amazon. Figueroa said, “I’m hoping that the desire to organize Amazon—which is absolutely necessary for the labor movement—is backed by the planning and level of resources needed.” 

Appelbaum said, “Amazon is transforming industry after industry. What we’re talking about here is the future world of work. The Bezos model is to treat employees as expendable, to dehumanize and mistreat them. Because Amazon is transforming so many industries, we cannot accept that it’s allowed to continue to operate as an anti-union, non-union company.”