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New York greets Amazon with a protest

A month ago, when Amazon announced that it would build regional offices in New York and Virginia at g
December 12 · Issue #264 · View online
The Interface
A month ago, when Amazon announced that it would build regional offices in New York and Virginia at great expense to the taxpayers there, I wrote that it had misunderstood the moment:
Perhaps the furor over Amazon’s regional offices will blow over. But it’s hard not to feel today as if the company misread the room — overestimating the public’s appetite for a billion-dollar giveaway to one of the world’s biggest companies, and underestimating the public’s ability to raise hell on- and offline. Amazon may yet feel that pain, in the long run.
Today, Amazon met the room: 150 protesters who showed up to the first New York City Council hearing about the plan. According to reports from the scene, demonstrators’ concerns start with the $3 billion in incentives that New York plans to give Amazon in exchange for locating there — and, it says, creating 25,000 jobs. Here’s Leticia Miranda in BuzzFeed:
“You’re worth a trillion dollars,” New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told the company, prompting applause and cheers from protesters in the hall. “Why do you need our $3 billion when we have crumbling subways, crumbling public housing, people without healthcare, public schools that are overcrowded?”
New York City Economic Development Corporation’s President James Patchett defended the deal at the hearing, along with Amazon’s vice president of public policy Brian Huseman and Amazon’s HQ2 search executive Holly Sullivan. Both Patchett and Huseman referenced an estimated $27.5 billion in tax revenue for the state and city over the next 25 years as a result of the project.
At times, Amazon executives sounded tone-deaf — as in this exchange captured by Shirin Ghaffary at Recode:
Johnson criticized the company for making no mention of the potential impact on the city’s crumbling public transportation infrastructure, aside from a plan to build a helipad.
“Amazon will be paying for the helipad,” said Huseman — a clarification that was met with sarcastic laughs from the crowd.
“I would hope so!” said Johnson.
But as reporters were quick to add, the protests may not matter: the City Council lacks the authority to halt the deal, which was made in secret with New York State and the city’s Economic Development Corporation.
Still, Amazon has stepped up its lobbying efforts since the deal was announced, J. David Goodman reported in the New York Times.
For weeks, executives in charge of the company’s public policy have been making frequent flights to New York City from their offices in Washington, D.C. They visited the Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing development, a short walk from the future site of the Amazon offices, and have held meetings with community groups.
This month, the company hired SKDKnickerbocker, a prominent political consulting and public relations firm that has advised several Democratic campaigns and whose roster includes influential strategists like Anita Dunn, a top White House official in the Obama administration. Devon Puglia, a former spokesman for the city comptroller, is leading the firm’s work on Amazon.
There’s evidence that the goodwill tour is paying off: last week, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 57 percent of New Yorkers say they approve of the deal, while only 26 percent disapprove.
But it’s not unclear to me that Amazon has the situation under control. Even as its executives work to calm residents in Long Island City, a group of employees is calling the company out for what it says are unfair working conditions. It’s part of a unionization campaign launched on Wednesday. Here’s Josh Eidelson:
Employees backing the union effort said in interviews Tuesday that the issues at the warehouse include safety concerns, inadequate pay, and 12-hour shifts with insufficient breaks and unreasonable hourly quotas, after which they lose more of their day waiting unpaid in long lines for security checks.
“They talk to you like you’re nothing — all they care about is their numbers,” said Rashad Long, who makes $18.60 an hour and commutes four hours a day to work at the warehouse. “They talk to you like you’re a robot.”
The campaign promises to bring new scrutiny to the company at a time when it is more reliant than ever on positive public opinion. The recent history of cities that experience tech booms is that all those highly paid new employees drive up housing costs, pushing longtime residents out of their neighborhoods. Winning them over is going to require more than a promise to pay for the helipad.

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