To the surprise of almost everyone — from the bourgeoisie to the forces opposing Amazon — the behemoth announced Feb. 14 that it would not be building its promised HQ2 in Long Island City, in the Queens borough of New York.
And why was everyone surprised? To put it into perspective: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the wealthiest man in the world, and his company recently exceeded $1 trillion in wealth. In this high-tech era of capitalism, Amazon is a major part of the system. Not only do nearly half of all e-commerce transactions go through Amazon, but it has also expanded into webhosting, data storage, facial recognition technology, and, now with the acquisition of Whole Foods, brick-and-mortar retail.
In other words, a large segment of private capital depends on Amazon for its profitability. So do many branches of the bourgeois government, like the State Department, for their continued rule over the masses of people.
On top of this, New York politicians Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio bent over backwards to attract Amazon. Not only did they put together one of the largest packages of corporate welfare in history — worth nearly $3 billion in government handouts — but Cuomo even offered to change his name from “Andrew” to “Amazon” if it would get Amazon to set up shop here.
Most people assumed that if Amazon wanted something, it would get it. But that wasn’t the case.
Now, instead of preparing for what many expected would be a long campaign against one of the most powerful corporations in the world, people are saying, “Bye Jeff!” and throwing farewell parties.
How did we get here?
In its official statement on the decision, Amazon claims that 70 percent of New Yorkers had said they looked forward to the company’s arrival, but some pesky state and local politicians made it feel unwelcome. (tinyurl.com/yxrby6xk)
This statement — setting aside the dubious origins of the 70 percent figure — reverses what actually happened. The politicians in question, who definitely had strong words for Amazon in recent City Council meetings and in the press, were pushed into saying these things by the mass grassroots struggle that was coalescing against Amazon.
Some of the politicians who became the biggest critics of the $3 billion handout to Amazon, including New York City Councilman James Van Bramer and State Sen. Michael Gianaris, originally supported Amazon coming to New York. They, along with most New York politicians, signed a welcome letter to Amazon in 2017, when Amazon kicked off its bidding war to see which city would offer the best deal for its new headquarters.
That these politicians reversed their positions, and did so quite strongly, is a testament to the mass movement, which had been building momentum for several years, but which exploded after news broke that Amazon had chosen Long Island City in Queens for HQ2.
Even before the bidding war for Amazon began in 2017, New York real estate developers and politicians had been trying to get the company to build an office along Brooklyn’s Sunset Park waterfront. Amazon has always been seen by the ruling class as the magic bullet for the New York economy, which to them just means further gentrification and more profits.
For example, getting Amazon into Sunset Park could, many politicians and real estate developers had hoped, give Amazon an incentive to fund the construction of the BQX, the “gentrification train,” as activists call the state-of-the-art streetcar system that would connect every piece of waterfront property between Long Island City and Sunset Park. This would, of course, not help the communities displaced in those areas. For that reason, the plan was bitterly opposed.
By the time of the Jan. 30 City Council meeting, the attempts to attract Amazon had united opposition from a broad layer of working-class and oppressed people in New York City.
A recent rally outside the City Council meeting included frontline communities composed primarily of people of color and migrants, as well as unions, tech workers, students and housing and transit advocates. (“New York: Mass movement builds against Amazon HQ2,” Feb. 4, workers.org)
Amazon battles unions
The day before the surprise pull-out announcement, Gov. Cuomo hosted an “11th hour meeting” with Amazon and labor union representatives, including the AFL-CIO, which represents 50 national unions; New York State Teamsters; and the Department Store Workers (RWDSU). Cuomo presented a framework for Amazon to cooperate with the unions.
RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said the meeting had seemed to be productive, that the parties had agreed to stipulations of fair union elections, hostility-free and retaliation-free environments, and union access to communications with workers.
The next day Appelbaum commented: “I think the anger is about the way the whole process was done — that Amazon did it in a way that ignored the communities, … ignored stakeholders, shrouded the whole process in secrecy. … They do not listen to anybody’s concerns. They refuse to even discuss what these concerns are.” (tinyurl.com/y2jm2ttq)
With Amazon HQ2 no longer coming to New York, one question is: What will become of this mass movement? From Sunset Park to Long Island City, from higher paid tech workers to minimum-wage workers in Amazon storefronts and warehouses, as well as the unemployed living in public housing who faced displacement, what will be the afterlife of the connections built through this struggle?
As Leon Trotsky wrote in his “History of the Russian Revolution,” it was the masses who led the February Revolution in 1917, guided by their own experience from past struggles. So the other question is: What did we learn from this experience?
What Amazon’s decision tells us about current conditions
Despite Amazon’s attempt to revise the story, people are discovering the power they have. The masses — not politicians — scared the wealthiest man in the world who owns the wealthiest corporation in the world out of town only three months after his company decided to build a headquarters here. The lesson is clear: The ruling class is not invincible.
What’s also clear, however, is that the ruling class realizes this power, too. In the last several months, we have seen again and again how the ruling class, not just in the U.S. but around the world, has conceded just before a major struggle breaks out.
In France this December, Macron offered a string of concessions before the unions went on strike in solidarity with the Yellow Vests. In January, Trump announced an end to the government shutdown just as unions began talking about a general strike. And then, in New York City, we’ve seen Cuomo reverse the L train shutdown and Bezos reverse Amazon’s course since the start of 2019.
The system is more decayed than ever, and the material conditions are not in the ruling class’s favor. These concessions are buying time, but until when it’s not clear. The bourgeoisie is deeply divided over how to manage the overall system of capital accumulation, and as a result, the system is more anarchic than ever. But one thing they all agree on is that a major working-class revolt would be bad for all segments of the capitalist class. And so they are doing everything they can to prevent that, including offering concessions.
It’s still too soon to see what impact Amazon’s decision will have on the struggle. Will this movement dissolve, or will it find new targets?
Undoubtedly, Amazon’s war on our class will continue, not just wherever it decides to build HQ2. But even in New York City where Amazon still has 5,000 workers — like those facing horrible conditions in the Bronx and Staten Island fulfillment centers. Amazon says it will continue to expand its presence here.
Given the number of issues raised during the Amazon struggle — from crumbling transit infrastructure to criminally underfunded public housing and Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportations — the mass movement may shift its focus elsewhere.
What’s important, however, is that we maintain our unity and continue the struggle. Today, let’s celebrate our victory.