For the first time in the debate since the so-called second headquarters deal was unveiled, Amazon finally uttered a truth the company and its political supporters have tried to obscure.
“Would you agree to neutrality if workers at Amazon wanted to unionize?” asked City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at a hearing. “No, sir” was the reply from Amazon Vice-President Brian Huseman.
Huseman’s comment is entirely consistent with Amazon’s record on worker and labor rights. Most recently, when Amazon learned workers at Whole Foods (which it owns) were mounting a union organizing drive, managers were sent a classic anti-union training video. The video urges managers to spy on workers who advocate for their co-workers or show an “unusual interest in policies, benefits, employee lists, or other company information,” as it instructed.
Abroad, Amazon has relentlessly attacked workers’ rights. In Germany, the company is a malignancy inside the country’s relatively respectful labor-management environment: It refuses to collectively bargain with the main retail union over wages, harsh physical labor, lack of job security, and the absence of scheduling certainty for shifts. In Spain, during a November 2018 strike, Amazon even tried to recruit local police to march into a warehouse which would have intimidated workers.
Amazon is also replicating another anti-union, poverty-for-workers strategy via its Amazon Flex operation. Flex lowers wages and benefits for a growing share of its workforce by hiring thousands of workers as independent contractors. In fact, the “union jobs” they’re purporting to have agreed to around the HQ2 deal aren’t with Amazon, they’re with third party contractors.
Working at Amazon is dangerous. Seven workers have died at Amazon’s U.S. facilities since 2013, leading the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health to name Amazon one of its “Dirty Dozen” employers in 2018. A July 2018 investigation revealed many cases of Amazon warehouse workers suffering injuries that left them unable to work and, eventually homeless. In a Pennsylvania warehouse, the heat index routinely climbed above 110 degrees.
Amazon’s refusal to simply remain neutral underscores its virulent anti-unionism. Neutrality commits a company to abide by basic democratic principles and stand aside as workers consider whether to choose a union.
Refusing publicly to be neutral means Amazon’s corporate strategy will continue to operate from the darkest corners of the world of corporate coercion. There is a multi-billion dollar anti-union industry that can unleash a campaign of fear, while coming close to breaking the law by threatening workers with the loss of their benefits or jobs should they unionize.
Before New York politicians reached an agreement, the company should have agreed to neutrality for New York City workers, a legitimate demand given the billions of dollars in workers’ hard-earned taxes slated to be handed to the most powerful company on the planet.
We should not be misled by Amazon’s sleight-of-hand, such as unilateral hikes in minimum wages. Steps that take place at the whim of Jeff Bezos are a mirage because what Jeff Bezos gives for short-term political benefit he can take away. The only true protection for workers is a union.
Far beyond the debate about a new headquarters, Amazon’s anti-union culture raises a fundamental question for the future for all New Yorkers. Unions, not Wall Street or companies like Amazon, have ensured that generations of workers can live a relatively secure life.
Amazon’s approach to organized labor represents an existential threat to the social contract we work to uphold for all New Yorkers. It follows, then, that no elected official can claim to be progressive, pro-union or pro-worker if they support this current deal. Tear the agreement up. And, then, bring us something that respects workers’ rights and communities.
Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and Miranda is president of Teamsters Joint Council 16.