NYC Council Grills Amazon on Plans for Queens HQ

MANHATTAN (CN) – At the second fervid oversight hearing over Amazon’s plans to build half of its new headquarters in Queens, officials faced an onslaught of questions Wednesday by the New York City Council about union busting and the company’s work with federal immigration officers.

JOSH RUSSELL/Courthouse News Service

The meeting today is part of a series of hearings the council has scheduled to shed light on what it says were backroom deals between Amazon, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“Would you have come to Long Island City if you weren’t getting $3 billion in subsidies?” Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked Amazon representatives bluntly at the onset of Wednesday’s hearing, reprising an argument he made at the first hearing in December. 

Johnson, who announced Monday that he’s considering running for mayor in 2021, said that he’d been warned by Seattle residents about Amazon’s deceptive practices and damage to small business.

Johnson asked the company’s reps if Amazon would agree to neutrality if workers at Amazon wanted to unionize.

“No, sir,” said Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, touting Amazon’s belief that an “open-door policy” is best way to respond to concerns of the workforce.

“That is not a way to come to our city,” Johnson said, “a city that was built by unions, a city that loves unions.”

“It’s a union-busting deal from the beginning,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, the council member representing the Queens neighborhoods of Sunnyside, Woodside, Long Island City, Astoria and Dutch Kills.

Van Bramer criticized Amazon for throwing around the figure that the new headquarters would bring 40,000 jobs, while only setting aside 30 customer-service jobs at the offset for New Yorkers who get housing subsidies to live in the Queensbridge, Ravenswood, Woodside and Astoria Houses.

“You are just not listening,” said the lifelong resident of Western Queens. “You are just not hearing us. You are spending more to mail those garbage mailers all over the city than you are spending on the people of Queensbridge.”

Barry Grodenchik, the council member for the 23rd District, said the city is not seeking much. “All we’re really asking you to do … is just to stay neutral,” he said. “You could be like Switzerland here, you’ve got all the money and you can be neutral.”

JOSH RUSSELL/Courthouse News Service

Territories within Grodenchik’s district include portions of Bayside, Fresh Meadows, Jamaica Estates and Queens Village.

Johnson sharply asked Huseman if any of the jobs coming to the Long Island City headquarters would for the work Amazon does with ICE, querying if the immigration agency uses Amazon software “to round up and deport people.”

Huseman initially deflected Johnson’s inquiry by reciting company policy that maintains that the Amazon can not disclose what potential customers do with their technology, then quickly defended their facial-recognition software as mathematical matching algorithm that has been helpful for law enforcement investigations of child kidnapping and child sexual abuse.

“That’s doublespeak,” Johnson said of Huseman’s deflection then pivot on questioning about the facial recognition software.

Van Bramer urged Patchett, a de Blasio appointee, to use the city’s opt-out option as leverage to compel Amazon to commit New York City’s values as a sanctuary city and union town.

“The city has the power to say if you work with ICE, the deal is off. If you continue to be anti-union, the deal is off,” Van Bramer said.

Van Bramer argued that giving tax incentives to a company that provided ICE with facial-recognition software is at odds with the city’s status of a sanctuary city for immigrants.

“That is wrong, even if it’s legal, it’s immoral,” he insisted.

Earlier this month, a coalition of more than 85 racial justice and civil rights groups wrote to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, urging the company to commit not to sell the technology to the government.

“By continuing to sell your face surveillance product to government entities, Amazon is gravely threatening the safety of community members, ignoring the protests of its own workers, and undermining public trust in its business,” the letter states. 

In one of the mayor’s recurring weekly segments on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” earlier this month, de Blasio told a caller that there was not enough public information on Amazon’s deals with ICE.

But “if it turns out that Amazon has a contractual relationship with ICE,” he said, “I’m certainly going to call on them to end that.” 

“I think that Amazon should, to the maximum extent possible, explain to people what is going on with this,” the mayor added. “Tech companies should start questioning themselves what types of government activity they want to participate in and set some limits on that. They have to put moral considerations ahead of profit.”

Protesters assembled outside City Hall before the 10 a.m. hearing, later dropping two banners from the chamber’s balcony with the message “Amazon Delivers Lies,” and “Amazon Fuels ICE Deportations.”

(Josh Russell/CNS)

Members of the crowd, including dozens from the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, also held up individual signs each time they believed the Amazon or Economic Development Corporation reps lied or dodged the council’s questions.

The bright, hazard-orange colored signs read “caution: Amazon LIES.”

A contingent of nearly 150 anti-Amazon community members filled the City Hall chamber to capacity, at times laughing and hissing at the tech company’s responses to the City Council’s Finance Committee. The crowd fervently cracked up in response to Amazon VP Holly Sullivan’s claim that, “We don’t build campuses, we build neighborhoods.”

Huseman said at the Wednesday hearing, 130 New York City high schools were in Amazon Future Engineers programs, including one in every four high schools in Queens.

“And we’re just getting started,” Huseman remarked several times at the city council hearing.

Huseman also told the council that Amazon has partnered with Laguardia Community College, City University of New York and the State University of New York to offer training and certification in the emerging cloud computing industry.

Parked on Broadway next city hall, a mobile LED billboard truck displayed support for the Amazon deal from the New York City & Vicinity District Council of Carpenters: above Amazon’s smiling face logo, the billboard proclaimed “amazonHQ2: Good For New York City.”

At the close of today’s hearing, Amazon committed to appear again before the City Council on Feb. 27.

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