New York Needs Amazon Now

Millennials had the best of intentions when they cheered AOC for driving Amazon out of New York City. They never realized it was a con game.

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(photo: Marketwatch)

Working-class neighborhoods suffer more, according to Dr. BenMcVane, an Emergency Room doctor at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens County of New York City. As he explained to the New York Times: “I am a doctor in the “epicenter of the epicenter of coronavirus. When I walk to work, I would see women selling tamales and I could smell the strong Colombian coffee. Now, I see patients intubated and sedated. Why has it hit Elmhurst so hard? He asks, and then tells the Times, “The people are immigrants, poor, uninsured.”

It didn’t have to be this way.

Dr. McVane’s problem was going to be remedied, at least in part, by 25,000 high paying jobs with healthcare benefits that were a gift to Elmhurst and surrounding neighborhoods courtesy of Amazon’s HQ2 development. The company could have chosen Austin or Denver, but it chose a gritty neighborhood with very few internet startups, where tamales are sold on the street. Amazon must have a reason other than tasty ethnic food when it choose a downtrodden if immigrant-rich area in Queens for its second headquarters.

The answer is that Bezos feels right at home in that environment. For those who aren’t aware, the wealthiest man in the world, also known as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, was born in 1964 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the son of a teenage single mom. She remarried Mike Bezos, a Cuban immigrant, who adopted Jeff when he was four years old. Then the Bezos family moved to Miami to be closer to his Cuban relatives, where young Jeff proved something of a boy wonder, graduating as his high school valedictorian before heading off to Princeton, where he matriculated summa cum laude in 1986.

Bezos has a habit of coming out on top even if he starts at the bottom. He proved this once again as he became the youngest vice president in history at his Wall Street firm before jumping off a cliff once again, making the implausible drive to Seattle, where he launched Amazon.com on July 16, 1995. On that day, Jeff Bezos created the thing called eCommerce. By 2018, the company reached a market value of over $1 trillion.

Today, Bezos may be the world’s richest man, but he is still the child of an unwed teenage mother and a Cuban immigrant, which brings us back to Queens and HQ2.

Elmhurst is a 12-minute drive from Amazon’s site in Long Island City. Had it gone according to Bezos’ plan, a wave of fruitful aftereffects would have rained on Elmhurst, including 25,000 new salaries, healthcare benefits, tuition reimbursement, and hi-tech training. When alloyed to the hard-working, entrepreneurial immigrants described by Dr. McVane, a mercurial thing called prosperity happens, where parents can afford college tuition so children grow up to be doctors and bankers. More urgently, it would help rebuild a town in desperate circumstances during a pandemic. Instead, there is nothing but silence. How did this come about?

Labor unions bullied, or you could say bribed, politicians to retaliate as the company announced its intention to come to town. The unions don’t like Amazon, that’s no secret. The company’s formidable growth makes it the second largest employer in the country. Unions are in decline in the workplace, but not politically.

Which explains why people elected to serve the public like State Senator Michael Gianaris and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the company’s chief antagonists. They are simply adhering to that old rule, “follow the money.”

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AOC tweet declaring victory against Amazon HQ2

When Jeff Bezos raised Amazon’s minimum wage to $15 or higher, he earned rare praise from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, but the honeymoon was short-lived. While the media barely paid attention, labor unions went on the attack. It wasn’t just sour grapes, either. With salaries now over $35,000 and more per year, the unions were able to ‘afford’ to organize. It became a growth opportunity for the unions and the politicians they fund.

If Bezos didn’t immediately recognize the HQ2 plan might backfire, it didn’t take long for unions to send the message. Eventually, he capitulated, writing, “While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans, state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us.”

While Governor Andrew Cuomo was a cheerleader for HQ2, local politicians made it sound like Amazon was going to destroy the neighborhood. The target was somewhat naive millennials who have moved into the neighborhood, and Amazon went from bringing in jobs and economic growth to the alien bad guy in a movie about a quaint village.

Backchannel

The phone calls between unions and labor activists turned on activists like New York Communities, as you can see by the professional signage in the photo. During the COVID epidemic, unions needed a story to compete with Amazon’s first responder status. They enlisted the help of a Staten Island warehouse employee. The message was clear, blame the company, mount a walkout, and let a complicit media takes its course. Only instead of spreading the word, the employee threatned the spread of infection by failing to follow social distancing guidelines. He was repeatedly warned and subsequently fired. A day later, Mayor DeBlasio had the company investigated.

The media dutifully reported the firing, but neglected to mention that 4,000 coworkers were busy helping people get essential deliveries.

Politicos manipulate the media by providing access in return for good press. The media complies because it gets them shareable and clickable stories. Why bother digging for a story when the union’s email is right there with tweetable quotes?

Most working-class folks don’t know or care that Amazon is nonunion. They only want a lifestyle that permits a few luxuries — getting kids through college or taking a vacation to Disneyland. But unions care a great deal. The company pays higher wages, better benefits, and employees get tuition reimbursement and company stock options. While union membership declines every decade, Amazon’s workforce rises to over 800,000, making it the nation’s second-largest employer. Unions realize there is little chance of organizing Amazon, but at least they can demonize it and hope it will go away, which is what happened.

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King of Queens

Michael Gianaris, a State Senator for District 12 of New York, is no backroom, cigar-puffing pol. Gianaris graduated from Harvard Law School in 1993 and went to work for a corporate law firm, Chadbourne and Parke, where he defended corporate clients. Until 2018, he accepted contributions from business, mainly real estate, as The Deal confirmed: “Since he was elected, Gianaris has been the beneficiary of well-in-excess of $100,000 in real estate industry contributions.”

Then the music stopped.

After watching representative Rep. Joseph Crowley get shellacked by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2016, Gianaris moved quickly to burnish his anti-business credentials. As John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said: “You’re saying, “I’m not taking money from the biggest political donor.” The change in perception wasn’t an accident. But it paid off.

There’s a large population of millennials in the area.

A real estate lobbyist put his finger on the Gianaris’ problem: “His district has changed — it intersects with the district lost to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There’s a large population of millennials in the area.” Politics is complicated, and Gianaris saw that being pro-business wasn’t going to help, so he caved. The result is that Gianaris takes only labor union funding, and it has turned into a goldmine, according to JustFacts.org.

The change in the political zeitgeist that drove Gianaris to demonize Amazon also influences the media. Newspaper reporters have to get paid — they are only as good as their clicks these days. So they cater to a vocal minority of viewers and readers who share articles on Facebook and Twitter because that distributes their work far beyond the publication’s natural boundary.

Although millennials are idealistic and well-meaning types, some are desperate for a worthy cause to add a bit of purpose to a young life. The rallying cry for the twenty and thirty-somethings wasn’t labor union issues but the call of small vs. big, the old false dichotomy between business and the people. Their ethos is artisanal, and they saw working-class women selling tamales in Elmhurst in the same way as Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883 for the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me!”

The Con

But the people of Long Island City and Elmhurst don’t think of themselves as indigent immigrants walking off the pier at Ellis Island. They enjoy their cultural heritage, but their lives are dependent on jobs that pay healthcare benefits and decent salaries, the kind Amazon was going to bring.

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The reason labor unions were victorious in the “war against Amazon” wasn’t just the backroom dealing but the way the media joined the cause. From The Atlantic Monthly (funded by Steve Jobs’ estate) to progressive journals like Pro Publica (funded by donors enriched in the mortgage banking crisis), the message went forth that it was a duty to keep the company out of New York. The media complied in return for better access to the politicians and fatter bottom lines. The tweet below from Atlantic Monthly reporter Amanda Mull tells just how well the strategy worked. Although she is not a business reporter, her social media following doubled after the Amazon debacle due to this tweet and others like it:

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On February 19, 2019, Amazon announced it would no longer pursue HQ2 in Queens. Amazon added, “We are disappointed to have reached this conclusion — we love New York, its incomparable dynamism, people, and culture.” And so the real victims, the tired, poor, huddled masses now suffering from COVID in the Elmhurst Hospital ER, are left in the lurch. Politics isn’t their game. When they leave to go back to selling tamales, they’ll wonder where those Amazon jobs went. The real story of what went down — between unions, media, and elected officials — was tucked away, nice and quiet.

Written by

Producer of Extraordinary Lives 2019 @TellyAwards for documentaries @ IconicVoices.tv; Author of Be Somebody @ jeffcunningham.com; ex-publisher @Forbes

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