Amazon has decided to take its marbles and go home. The richest guy in the world has been defeated by community organizers in Queens, after immigrants, workers and local small businesses stood up and won. It’s astounding.
This might not really be over yet. But it’s over enough to consider what happened, why, and what it means.
First, it’s a gigantic blow against the neoliberal economic view that has dominated America and the world since the formation of the unholy alliance between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In this worldview, the government’s role is to assist corporations and their leaders — and then hope that some benefits flow down to the non-wealthy. Massive corporate giveaways like the $3 billion offered to Amazon by New York City and State are all too common. In a more sensible world, government would first ask how it can help ordinary people thrive, and design its economic development programs accordingly.
No one should be confused about the dominance of the neoliberal framework over economic policymaking in America. But Amazon is a giant that is guilty of numerous sins, from its warehouse working conditions and union busting to collaboration with ICE. In addition to the massive giveaway of public money, HQ2 likely would have ramped up already high local housing prices and strained a crowded transit system. Community organizations and unions channeled the justified anger and concern of local residents, taking to the streets and the halls of power. Count their victory over Amazon as one big ideological step in the right direction.
It’s also a magnificent example of how, as the famous saying has it, elections have consequences. Had Amazon finalized their HQ2 plans six months earlier, it would have been signed, sealed, and delivered. But the November 2018 midterms were an earthquake, and New York went even further than the rest of the country. It wasn’t just Trumpism and right wing Republicans that were rejected (though Democrats flipped eight Republican state Senate seats) but also corporate Democrats who were in bed with Republicans.
The “Trump Democrats” in New York’s state senate, who sided with Republicans to keep them in power, were crushed in Democratic primaries by progressive insurgents backed by the Working Families Party, community organizations and a surge of grassroots activism. This shift in the balance of power was something that Amazon was not prepared for. They like their elected officials to be docile — but that does not describe the fifteen freshman senators, nor the senate’s new leadership team.
Beating back the world’s richest man is an adrenaline shot for activists, lawmakers and ordinary people across the country who are sick of a status quo in which states grovel before the corporate masters of the universe, competing to see who can come up with the most expensive package of goodies for them.
Amazon brought attention to this Hunger Games-style contest between cities and states, but this same dynamic plays out again and again across the country. The results often disappoint even the “winners” of this race to the bottom. Just look at what happened since Donald Trump and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced a massive tax subsidy for Taiwanese electronics company Foxconn to build what was supposed to be a new factory near Milwaukee.
Last month, Foxconn announced that, upon reflection, it probably won’t create the plant or the jobs -- but may keep some of the $4.8 billion subsidy anyway. In New Jersey, a recent scathing report from the state comptroller found that Gov. Christie and conservative Democrats in the legislature gave away as much as $11 billion to big companies like Prudential, Panasonic, and more without evidence the tax breaks provided “any economic benefit” at all.
For all that this looks like a victory for working people, it can’t be our high water mark. We will only stop Amazon and companies like it from extorting and exploiting other communities by going big, bold, and national in our fight against corporate power.
There are smart policies that could stop more Amazon and Foxconn style boondoggles before they ever start. In New York, Sen. Julia Salazar and Rep. Ron Kim are sponsoring legislation which would create a multi-state compact to end the corporate welfare bidding war between the states. The goal would be to convince multiple state governments to pass the same deal, ensuring a joint ceasefire instead of a unilateral disarmament. That — along with a rollback of Trump’s outrageous tax cuts in Congress — is the kind of bold policy-making we should champion.
New Yorkers won big this week, and proved that people power can defeat corporate power — as long as we organize. Now we need to build on this momentum, and work towards an economy and a political system that works for all of us.