Yesterday, the New York City Council held our first hearing on the Amazon HQ2 proposal for Long Island City, “Exposing the Closed-Door Process,” to start asking questions about the $3 billion in tax subsidies, the decision to evade New York City’s “Uniform Land Use Review Procedure” (“ULURP” was even trending on Twitter yesterday), Amazon’s working conditions and anti-labor practices, and much more.
I’ve been a skeptic since Amazon announced their Hunger Games-style, race-to-the-bottom process for siting HQ2 back in 2017, encouraging cities & states to bid away their tax base, and requiring finalists to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), hiding those bids from public view. I was one of the few elected officials who did not sign onto the letter-of-support at the request of City Hall. Instead I helped organize this letter back in March with elected officials, declaring a “mutual non-aggression pact.” I argued then that NYC should not sign the non-disclosure agreement (and now I am introducing legislation to prevent NYC from participating in future NDAs).
Yesterday’s hearing confirmed my fears that Amazon has no intention of paying their fair-share of taxes, of playing by our rules, of respecting small businesses, of helping to strengthen our local democracy, or of being a good neighbor.
I was stunned from the beginning when, in response to questions from Speaker Corey Johnson and me, Amazon VP for Public Policy Brian Huseman affirmedthat they provide facial recognition technology to ICE because they think “the federal government should have access to the best technology.” In pursuit of profit, Amazon is a willing partner in Trump’s deportation machine.When I raised questions about an ACLU study in which Amazon’s technologyfalsely matched 28 Members of Congress — disproportionately people of color — to mugshots in a database, Huseman’s response was simply “we were not able to replicate the ACLU’s findings,” without showing the slightest concern about racial bias in their algorithms, or about the immigrants who might be deported using their software. Having heard this, how could we possibly expect Amazon to be a good corporate neighbor neighbor to immigrant communities in Queens?
I focused my question on the threats that I believe Amazon’s growing monopoly power poses to our local democracy (and maybe to democracy in general). In Seattle, when City Council Members proposed a modest tax on large business to support desperately needed affordable housing, Amazon threatened a “capital strike” and led the effort to kill the tax. They similarly led efforts to preempt cities in Washington state from adopting stronger equal pay laws. (Huseman tried to pretend neither was true, but the evidence is clear).
To be clear: I’m in favor of job creation & growth. And I believe we could create and improve the infrastructure needed for 25,000 new jobs, and even that we could make sure the benefits of that growth were fairly shared, so that a wide and diverse array of New Yorkers could benefit, instead of only a few.
But: we can only do that if we have the power to raise revenue and invest in infrastructure and services, to pass laws and regulations that protect workers and their right to organize, to require fairness, to make sure that commitments are kept and rules are followed, and to oversee land use in a way that’s not about giving one company what they want, but takes a long-term approach to what our whole city needs.
In other words, we can only do that if we have the democratic capacity to govern our city together. As I asked in my final question: “How can we possibly believe that Amazon will not continue to abuse its monopoly power to erode our local democracy?”
After yesterday’s hearing, I just don’t believe we can.
The Council will be holding additional hearings (it took Speaker Johnson asking Amazon about a dozen times, but they finally agreed to attend), and I’ll be continuing to work closely with stakeholders. The Mayor, the Governor, and Amazon may have agreed to cut the City Council out of the approval process (they are using a much less democratic process controlled by the Empire State Development Corporation).
But they can’t stop us from working together with the people of NYC to do all we can to put the public’s interest first.