Amazon indicated Wednesday it will oppose attempts to unionize among its workers in New York City — drawing the ire of local politicians and putting unions supporting their Long Island City development in an awkward spot.
The question comes as Amazon plans to locate half of its second corporate headquarters in Long Island City — and after it has opened a massive warehouse in Staten Island where workers have already sought to unionize.
“Would you agree to neutrality if workers at Amazon wanted to unionize?” Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked during an at-times heated Council hearing on the finances of the Amazon deal.
“No, sir,” Amazon Vice President Brian Huseman said.
That set the tone for the rest of the hearing — with Johnson grilling Economic Development Corp. President James Patchett, asking whether the de Blasio administration was “comfortable” with that answer.
“You know the mayor is an enormous supporter of union rights in the city,” Patchett said, to laughter in the crowd of spectators.
The mayor, asked about the comments at an unrelated Bronx press conference, said he’d pressure Amazon to allow for unionization.
“This is my message to Amazon: Welcome to New York City; this is a union town. There’s gonna be tremendous pressure on Amazon to allow unionization, and I will be one of the people bringing that pressure,” he said.
But it seems the city did not apply pressure when it might have had the chance — during the negotiations to secure the headquarters.
Johnson quizzed Patchett on whether the city had asked Amazon to be neutral when unions seek to organize, and Patchett would only say the city made clear union rights were important.
Patchett noted the city had reached an agreement with Amazon to use union building staff through the Service Employees International Union’s Local 32BJ, and that the deal is backed by the Building and Construction Trades Council.
“Not all unions. You picked a couple of unions, so some workers were valued, and other workers were not valued,” Johnson said. “And you’re pitting some workers against other workers, which isn’t right.”
Huseman, the Amazon vice president, said employees are better off without unions.
“We respect an employee’s right to chose or to choose not to join a union. We do firmly believe that the direct connection we have between our employees, and an open door policy, is the most effective way to respond to the concerns of the workforce,” he said.
The answer didn’t sit well with the pro-union members of the City Council.
“You are in a union city,” Johnson said. “That is not a way to come to our city, a city where 20% of our people live at or below the poverty line.”
Councilman Daniel Dromm, chairman of the Finance Committee, urged Amazon to reconsider and pointed to the concerns of Staten Island workers, who in announcing their union bid said some of them were urinating in bottles to avoid taking the time to go to the restroom.
“So is Amazon a pleasant place to work?” Dromm asked.
Huseman said it was, and that Dromm should speak with Staten Island employees Amazon had brought to the hearing.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents Long Island City and has opposed the deal, ripped the company.
“Shame on you. Shame on you, shame on your corporation for coming to New York City, because both you and I believe the administration have made a distinction somehow that because this is a headquarters, those people working in those buildings don’t need representation, don’t deserve to be in a union,” Van Bramer said. “All workers should have the right to be in a union, all workers should have the right.”
The confirmation that the company would not support any union bids came just about an hour after union members from the Building and Construction Trades Council and 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union rallied in support of Amazon, chanting “New York City is a union town.”
The deal has been opposed by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and by the Teamsters. But Amazon has agreed to use union labor to build the headquarters — and those union leaders sought to present the company as open to unions.
“I’m very close with RWDSU and the Teamsters. They’re not opposing this. They want an opportunity to sit down with Amazon,” Building and Trades Council President Gary LaBarbera said at a City Hall steps rally before Huseman’s comments. “I believe that Amazon recognizes where they are. Amazon has shown good faith to the unions – Building Trades and 32BJ – and obviously we support our brothers and sisters in labor. However make no mistake that we are here in full support of this project.”
After Huseman said the company would oppose union bids by its employees, a spokesman for LaBarbera said the union’s first obligation was to its own members — who could get union jobs with good wages and benefits if Amazon comes to town.
In a statement, 32BJ President Hector Figueroa said his union’s deal with Amazon would benefit the city.
“Building and staffing Amazon HQ2 with well-paid union cleaners and security officers is a positive development that will benefit New York and the Long Island City community,” he said, adding it would allow for a pathway to the middle class.