Amazon’s HQ2 Gets Icy Reception at City Council Hearing

City Council members drill Amazon executives about the company's union policies in a stormy session

Any hope of a warm welcome for Amazon’s planned second headquarters in New York dissipated on Wednesday during a City Council committee hearing as the company’s representatives were buffeted by questions from council members on one side and jeering union members and activists on the other.

As the city prepared for a deep freeze, the Council’s finance committee convened a hearing on Amazon’s projected move, called HQ2. The online retail giant in 2017 announced a search for a new corporate location that would create 50,000 local jobs, setting off a nationwide competition among major cities.

It was the second oversight hearing after a December session held by the committee on economic development. Amazon announced in December that it had reached a deal with city and state officials. City council members claim they received details of the deal only after the fact.

“The city and state made a deal with HQ2 in Long Island City and agreed to give away at least $3 billion in public subsidies before they did their due diligence,” said Corey Johnson, speaker of the Council, during Wednesday’s hearing.

The committee focused its ire on James B. Patchett, chief executive of the NYC Economic Development Corporation, who brokered the deal on the city’s behalf. Patchett was grilled by council members on whether his office was at all bothered by Amazon’s past hostility to unions.

“We worked it out in the contract to include unions,” said Patchett.

“Not all unions. Some unions were favored, others were not. That’s not right,” Council Member  Johnson insisted. “Did you ask for neutrality on unions?”

“We asked for union deals,” Patchett replied.

“That’s not neutrality,” said Johnson.

Then he asked Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president for public policy, who was also present at the hearing.  “Will you be neutral to unions?”

“Yes, sir, we would not weed it out,” said Huseman, but he made no promise of neutrality.

Employers sometimes agree to support their workforce’s efforts to unionize, or at least refrain from stamping out worker organization, a practice known as neutrality.

A training video leaked to Gizmodo last year instructed managers at Whole Foods, an Amazon subsidiary, that unions were incompatible with the company’s business model of “speed, innovation, and customer obsession.”

The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Stores Union held a press conference on the front steps of City Hall before the hearing to counter Amazon. One sign held by a demonstrator read, “Amazon hurts working people.”

Retail union members are worried that Amazon will take away customers, thus revenue and jobs, from small local businesses.

Amazon vice president Huseman also received heat from the finance committee for Amazon’s reported work on face-mapping technology for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which Council members perceive as a threat to immigrants in New York.

“We cannot disclose who our customers are,” said Huseman, declining to confirm or deny Amazon’s work with ICE. “Amazon has a strong record on immigration rights,” he added, citing the company’s opposition to the travel ban order issued by President Trump in early 2017.

Huseman then announced a deal with the City University of New York to fund instruction in cloud computing systems at Laguardia Community College, attempting to highlight what Amazon could contribute to the city. In an unusual moment, Huseman offered a similar partnership to Council members for high schools in their districts.

According to a committee report, Amazon’s HQ2 would displace a new school proposed to relieve the district, one of the most overcrowded in New York. Area offices of the City Department of Education would also have to relocate.

Anticipating tension, security officials in the council chamber warned the audience prior to the hearing that disruptors would be escorted out immediately. Still, the hearing was interrupted several times by protesters, who at one point unfurled two black banners on the chamber balcony that read “Amazon Delivers Lies.”

“G-T-F-O, Amazon has got to go,” they chanted.  

Amazon’s move to New York City does not require City Council approval, but council members have threatened to block the deal with legislation, if necessary. Crystal City, Va. was also selected by Amazon to host new corporate offices. Amazon’s initial promise of 50,000 new jobs will be split equally between Crystal City and New York.

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