The corporate behemoth’s “record of driving small businesses out of town and paying below-poverty line wages to its employees will only exacerbate the current decline of New York City’s middle class,” Bill de Blasio declared. “We must do everything we can to spur job creation in New York City, but that does not include opening our doors to a proven job-killer.”
The year was 2011 and de Blasio was not yet mayor, just the Public Advocate with plenty of public axes to grind. Walmart wanted a toehold in the five boroughs and Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor, was doing everything he could to lure the retail giant, with its history of union-busting, to New York.
De Blasio said no way.
Six years later, de Blasio—who railed against the “tale of two cities” and still fancies himself the leader of a progressive national movement—is now the mayor urging another corporate behemoth with an equally pernicious history of union-busting to set up shop in New York. Amazon, which has successfully decimated brick-and-mortar businesses while jamming low-wage workers into hellish shipping warehouses, is dangling the prize of a second headquarters to cities across America, and New York desperately wants in on the competition.
“God bless Amazon,” de Blasio said at an unrelated press conference on Monday. “We have a lot to offer them. We’re going to work very hard at it. I expect to meet with Amazon leadership. We’ve already started to set that up. We’re going to make a strong proposal.” On Wednesday the Mayor's Office forwarded a press release from the city's Economic Development Corporation that breathlessly touted "More Than Two Dozen Proposals For New Amazon HQ."
Up against a host of cities probably willing to throw far more tax subsidies Amazon’s way—de Blasio said he would merely take advantage of existing subsidies under state law, not add new ones—New York might not be a front-runner. Amazon already revealed plans to open a warehouse in Staten Island, and may look to other cities to build goodwill with political leadership.
Still, the fact that de Blasio is lobbying so hard to bring Amazon here has perplexed and angered old progressive allies.
“It’s very hypocritical,” said Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, a leftist community organizing group. “Amazon is horrible for workers, horrible for communities, horrible for small businesses.”
Westin, once close to de Blasio, has since accused the liberal mayor of selling out to big business and real estate developers. He fought on de Blasio’s side against Walmart, and lamented how differently the mayor has approached the two companies: “1950s capitalism is not good but the capitalism of the 21st century is great.”
What’s striking still is how the Democratic political class in New York has applied vastly different standards to Walmart and Amazon. A years-long lobbying push by Walmart to open a store was scuttled, in part, by a left-leaning City Council and politicians like de Blasio. Community protests and unions leaders fought the corporate giant every step of the way.
Walmart, though, lacked the glossy veneer of a tech company—and even the most liberal Democrats hate being perceived as being anti-tech or against “innovation.” De Blasio spoke at a TechCrunch conference and has championed the Bloomberg era cause of turning New York City into a new Silicon Valley. When he’s strayed from this ethos—attempting the cap the numbers of another union-busting tech giant, Uber—he has faced the wrath of a multimillion dollar ad campaign and the mockery of other Democratic politicians.
Part of de Blasio’s shift has come from how he perceives Walmart and Amazon. Walmart has spent a longer time in the public eye as a villain, and the Walton family is a prolific donor to right-wing causes. Jeff Bezos, the billionaire Amazon founder and current owner of the left-leaning Washington Post, has fought the working class more tactfully.
The Amazon headquarters jobs will also be higher-paying, open mostly to college-educated employees with tech backgrounds. They won’t be low-wage and physically taxing, and this allows de Blasio to distinguish Amazon from Walmart in New York, according to James Parrott, the director of economic and fiscal policy at the center for New York City affairs at the New School.
“The kind of jobs Amazon is talking about [for its headquarters] are high paid and tech-oriented as opposed to the analog part of retail, like the distribution center,” Parrott said. “One of those is coming to Staten Island already.”
Melissa Grace, a spokeswoman for de Blasio, said there are significant differences between the two corporations.
“Walmart superstores have low-wage jobs and drive out neighborhood shops. An Amazon headquarters provides good-paying jobs in an e-commerce industry that will exist regardless of the facility’s location," Grace told us. "The superstore is bad for New York. The headquarters isn’t.”
Amazon is now worth twice as much as Walmart. A global hegemon of staggering proportions, it has contributed more to the destruction of smaller retailers than any run-of-the-mill corporate giant could have dreamed. As major manufacturers automated and fled overseas, retail jobs, in most struggling towns and smaller cities, were all that were left. Amazon is quickly killing them off.
Greg LeRoy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, a national policy resource center critical of corporate subsidies, said it was an unusual, even for a company like Amazon, to stage such a “public auction” over where it should locate a new headquarters. Leroy warned New York against using any kind of subsidies to lure Amazon, pointing to the fact that the wages earned by employees can never be taxed enough to make up for lost revenue
“You can only really describe them as big transfers of wealth from taxpayers to shareholders,” he said.