The Industry

New York’s Anti-Amazon Movement Is Now a Blueprint for Critics of Big Tech

Activists and community members who opposed Amazon’s plan to move into Queens rally in celebration of the decision to pull out of the deal.
Activists and community members who opposed Amazon’s plan to move into Queens rally in celebration of the company’s decision to pull out of the deal on Thursday. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Amazon couldn’t cut it in New York City. The company announced Thursday that it no longer plans to open a 25,000-worker office in Long Island City, Queens, one of the two winners of its HQ2 search, a continental bake-off in which cities offered generous incentives for the e-commerce titan to open a major outpost there. Even in economically bustling New York, the prospect of HQ2 was so enticing to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio that they put aside their mutual antipathy to offer Amazon $3 billion in subsidies. Many New Yorkers, however, didn’t jump on the welcome wagon—and their ultimately successful opposition suggests the kind of pushback tech companies might fear elsewhere.

Why oppose HQ2? Critics in New York worried the arrival of a major outpost of one of the most valuable companies in the world could push out culturally and economically diverse communities in Long Island City. While there was no single demand that these critics unified behind—Amazon leaving, Amazon staying without the subsidies, Amazon promising to work with unions—an evidently powerful cadre of local lawmakers, unions, immigrant groups, Democratic Socialists, and anti-poverty organizers all agreed that a company with a market cap in the hundreds of billions didn’t need a $3 billion tax break to come to town. And on that common ground, organizers spent the past three months going door to door, holding town hall meetings, standing in the cold with signs, attending City Council hearings, circulating petitions, and meeting with elected officials. If the point was to take a stand on the issue of huge subsidies for corporate relocations, Thursday counts to those critics as a major victory.

Long Island City is already the fastest-growing residential neighborhood in New York City. It’s also home to the largest public housing development in the nation, Queensbridge Houses, just blocks from the proposed Amazon site. Opponents of the subsidies for Amazon’s new offices feared that they would draw an influx of well-paid workers searching for amenity-rich housing in the neighborhood—potentially driving up the cost of living for low-income residents living in dilapidated housing and on roads badly in need of repair. “We want investment into our communities that makes our communities stronger,” Fahd Ahmed, a local organizer with Desis Rising Up & Moving, a group that advocates on behalf of low-income South Asian residents in Queens, told the New York Times. “That means investment in housing, in transit, in education, in workforce development.”

Unions also opposed the expansion, citing Amazon’s steadfast resistance to unionization at its fulfillment centers and warehouses across the country. When Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, was asked by Corey Johnson, the speaker of the City Council, at a hearing in January if the company would come to the table with a neutral stance on unionization if workers organized, he said, “No.” Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said that labor met with Cuomo and Amazon executives on Wednesday and that “it seemed to be a very productive meeting.” But clearly Amazon didn’t feel the same way: It walked the next day.

Local activists are celebrating Amazon’s pullout as a win. “This announcement marks a landmark victory for our communities and shows the power of people, even when taking on the world’s richest man,” said Deborah Axt, the co–executive director of Make the Road, a New York immigrant advocacy group, in a statement, adding that its members opposed the plan “to give away more than $3 billion in taxpayer giveaways to that Amazon could force its empire-building on our neighborhood.” Of particular concern for many immigrant groups was Amazon outreach to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The company has reportedly spoken with ICE about how could use its Rekognition software, a face-identifying product that Amazon already supplies to local law enforcement around the country.

Even some workers in the technology industry, who stood to gain most from the high-paying software and technical jobs Amazon would bring to the city, opposed Amazon’s designs for Queens. “Tech workers on the left will continue to fight Amazon—and any plan to turn New York into an unlivable Silicon Valley East—from both within and without, to push for the economic and social changes we all need to live with dignity,” said Will Luckman of the Tech Action organizing committee of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, which organized a petition that collected more than 600 signatures from tech workers who pledged not to work at the new Amazon office.

This response to the Amazon deal quickly drew in the support of some elected officials—including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and, crucially, state Sen. Michael Gianaris, who repeatedly made statements opposing the subsidies and was nominated to sit on a state board that would have had veto power over Amazon’s development plans. That might have been the sorest point for Amazon. The other two locations where Amazon is adding big new offices—northern Virginia (the other HQ2 winner) and Nashville (which is getting a smaller new Amazon facility)—have been far more accommodating than Queens. Resistance from within the political class in New York was probably a shock to Amazon, which had just spent a year inviting mayors across America to grovel for its attention.

Is Amazon’s exit what most New Yorkers wanted? According to one recent poll, perhaps not. Statewide, 56 percent of voters supported Amazon building the headquarters in Queens, and among city residents, 58 percent said they were in favor of Amazon’s expansion even with the subsidies, a poll from the Siena College Research Institute found. Tenant leaders from within the New York City Housing Authority were among those who supported Amazon and said their voices weren’t considered in the debate. The group wrote in a statement Thursday that the taxes from Amazon could have been invested in NYCHA and that the city lost the chance at bringing in thousands of well-paying jobs. But however Amazon’s proponents felt, they weren’t making as much noise as opponents of the deal.

Tech companies have received unprecedented scrutiny in recent years, particularly as their practices around privacy and security, and their vulnerability to foreign manipulation, have come under the microscope. But they’ve remained prizes for cities hoping to attract more and more high-earning workers. Some execs are probably wise to their vulnerability in city-level negotiations. Google, after all, is planning to bring about 14,000 additional jobs to New York City—but it isn’t asking for any financial incentives to do so.

It’s not every day that local organizing is able to stand up to the interests of powerful corporations. Communities feeling skeptical about the companies operating in their backyards will likely take note. It is possible for them to fight back—especially when enough neighbors find common ground.