After early divisions, organized labor laments loss of Amazon HQ2 deal in Long Island City

MLK Logan Rally 63
Courtesy of 32BJ SEIU

Unions representing thousands of workers across the city were split early on about Amazon’s plan for Long Island City — but were united in lament after the retail giant derailed their proposal last week.

When Amazon’s anti-union policies were exposed during a City Council oversight committee hearing last month when a company executive, Brian Huseman, told Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer that he could not support labor neutrality for workers in Long Island City, the gallery exploded in protest.

But outside City Hall that day, construction workers and labor unions rallied in support of the deal that the state and city struck with Amazon to build its HQ2 campus at Anable Basin and create 25,000 good-paying jobs over 10 years, with a plan to grow to 40,000 over 15 years.

Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union had carved out a position that Amazon, which doesn’t have a single unionized facility anywhere is the country, might adopt a more labor neutral posture once it was established in progressive and pro-union New York City.

“Amazon’s new headquarters will be a model for how organized labor can power the next generation of U.S. companies to greater success,” 32BJ SEIU Political Director Alison Hirsh said during the rally. “These new jobs and significant neighborhood commitments will help uplift Queens families and the city as a whole.”

32BJ SEIU had already secured a commitment from Amazon that would have created thousands of permanent jobs and good wages for cleaners and security guards at the proposed HQ2 campus in Long Island City and its leader, Hector Figueroa, who had organized thousands of airport workers during a years-long campaign right here in Queens. Figueroa figured he could do the same with Amazon’s headquarters in Long Island City.

The day before Amazon walked away from the project, four of its executives, including Huseman, met with organized labor leaders in Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan offices where they worked out a framework for a deal.

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the powerful Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, had been a fierce opponent of Amazon was present along with the regional chapter of the Teamsters and New York State’s AFL-CIO. Appelbaum later said he was “amazed” that Amazon owner Jeff Bezos cancelled the HQ2 project.

“Rather than addressing the legitimate concerns that have been raised by many New Yorkers Amazon says you do it our way or not at all, we will not even consider the concerns of New Yorkers,” RWDSU Director of Communications Chelsea Connor said. “That’s not what a responsible business would do.”

When the deal collapsed, Figueroa lamented the loss of so many union jobs, and the potential for so much more.

“The news that Amazon has decided to cancel its plans to build its second headquarters in New York City is a disappointing development for working people in our city,” Figueroa said. “This is a lost opportunity for Queens and New York on many levels. Of course, the loss of 25,000 direct jobs and many more indirect ones as well as the billions in revenue that the project was expected to bring into our city is unfortunate.For labor however, this is also a missed opportunity to engage one of the largest companies in the world and to create a pathway to union representation for one of the largest groups of predominantly non-union workers in our country.”

But Figueroa, who led the seven-year campaign in which airport workers marched, held sit-ins and rallies, and committed civil disobedience such as shutting down the 94th Street Bridge approach to LaGuardia Airport in their fight for dignity and economic justice, will continue to fight.

“As a labor union with members in 11 states and Washington D.C., 32BJ will continue to advocate for family sustaining, union jobs and our union is committed to organizing with working people in New York and other states across the country,” Figueroa said. “We remain supportive of the many efforts to unionize workers in New York, where Amazon will still have thousands of yet-to-be unionized employees who could benefit from union wages, benefits and representation. Union jobs remain the most effective pathway to the middle class for working people in America.”

Gary LaBarbera, the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said he was stunned by the “unfortunate news” after the corporation had promised to use all-union construction at the HQ2 campus, providing at least 5,000 jobs building its 4 million-square-foot complex with an opportunity to expand to 8 million square feet.

LaBarbera lamented not just the union jobs however, but the loss of the 25,000 to 40,000 jobs the HQ2 campus would have provided.

“Politics and pandering have won out over a once-in-a-lifetime investment in New York City’s economy, bringing with it tens of thousands of solid middle class jobs,” LaBarbera said. “This sends the wrong message to businesses all over the world looking to call New York home. Who will want to come now? We will remember which legislators forgot about us and this opportunity.”

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