Earlier this year, grassroots organizations like the one I co-lead helped block the planned Amazon HQ2 deal in New York. The fiasco of the HQ2 roll-out, and the fast and furious campaign to block it, laid bare some of the dynamics that threaten our economy and our democracy. We ignore those threats at our peril. But the fight also reminds us that organized people are capable of inspiring and transformative work. That inspiration is supporting us through a strategic effort to help envision and lead what comes next.
The 23,000 members of Make the Road New York are immigrants and low-income New Yorkers of color. They live throughout Queens, New York City, Long Island, and Westchester. They are families resisting landlord harassment and skyrocketing rents. They are lifting and packing under egregious conditions on Amazon’s warehouse floors. Our members have seen the local bodega boarded up and replaced by a Starbucks where they can’t afford a cup of coffee. And they have experienced ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents showing up at their door, tearing a spouse away from them and their children forever.
Amazon’s move to force its empire-building on the neighborhoods of Queens—while showered with tax giveaways of $3 billion or more—brought together all of these crises and others.
Early rumors of Amazon’s plans triggered a predatory real estate buying spree. Our members were living the reality. Landlords started announcing within the first few days, “Amazon’s coming, so your rent is going up by $500.” The story of Seattle, which we studied closely, made the reality sting even more: Skyrocketing homelessness. Families of color forced out of their homes. An increasingly white population taking their place, as Amazon’s elite workforce displaced residents lacking tenant and homeowner protections. This should not be the destiny of the most diverse immigrant neighborhood in the nation.
But what about the jobs?
We were asked to accept Amazon’s assurances that they would create tens of thousands of good jobs. But we had seen total failures in similar deals, like the Buffalo Billion fiasco, where $750 million in state funds yielded only 700 new jobs. The reality is that tax credit programs have very little accountability for what counts as a job “created,” how long the job must exist, and at what pay level. New York’s corporate giveaways are a whopping success at channeling public funds to private corporations, but an utter failure at delivering public good.
The idea that any trillion-dollar corporation would get over $3 billion in tax breaks was deeply offensive. That it would be Amazon was intolerable. It isn’t a secret that Amazon deploys predatory practices. The Harvard Business Review in 2015 exposed the ways that Amazon was surveilling third-party sellers on its platform, copying their successful products under Amazon’s own brands, then privileging their own brands in search algorithms. Mainstream press has repeatedly revealed Amazon’s horrific warehouse working conditions. And the MIT Technology Review shared in October 2018 that Amazon is the backbone of the ICE deportation machine.
When questioned by City Council, Amazon executives admitted they would block their workers’ right to organize. When challenged on their efforts to provide facial recognition technology to ICE, they said all government agencies deserve the best technology. We also knew that Amazon is decimating the retail sector and is again this year paying zero dollars in federal taxes.
How did we win, and what did we learn?
Amazon walked away with no credible answers to our critiques, in large measure because we were right about their business model, and we told the truth…the truth, backed by sophisticated organizing. Many factors went into our ability to help lead this swelling opposition. I will share a few of them here, as they are instructive for our future work and for our field.
We built a deeply aligned movement ecosystem over time.
Seeing immigrant families, Amazon workers, small business owners, and low-income neighbors flatly reject Amazon’s plans broke through into the public conversation in a new way. Nothing explains the need for change like mothers, children, and neighbors telling their stories from the heart. And nothing conveys the intensity of that need for change—or draws earned media to share it—like having those same folks in the streets and halls of government.
But this did not happen by itself. The fight to block Amazon’s planned HQ2 from Long Island City lasted four months, but the complex ecosystem of organizations was built over decades. Organizations like ours in Queens have been doing the painstaking work of training leaders and engaging community members—building by building, block by block—since the early 1990s, gathering weekly in our community centers over 20 years.
When the news of the HQ2 plans hit the airways, we had an ecosystem of institutions and activists to call. Together, we pulled off a first emergency meeting on 36 hours’ notice, and representatives of over 80 organizations showed up.
We had to convene the best minds across the country and within New York rapidly to understand the proposed deal, the intersecting and complex programs involved, and the laws that might provide a hook to impact the final deal. And we had to be able to influence the moves of powerful policymakers at the city and state level. We were fortunate to be able to do this through our “outside game”—namely, people in the streets. But we were also able to get into strategy conversations behind the scenes with key elected officials as well as non-governmental experts. Open Markets Institute, the Institute for Local Self Reliance, the Fiscal Policy Institute, and Good Jobs First are just a few of the groups we were able to partner with quickly to identify and work the levers to impact the deal.
Many organizations who shared our critique were unable to play a public protest role for a range of institutional reasons. However, pre-existing relationships of trust enabled us to coordinate quietly to ensure that everywhere they turned, Amazon and their elected official apologists encountered skepticism and questions—about Amazon’s working conditions, what had happened in Seattle, ties to ICE, and more. It was the ability to build on preexisting trust across this ecosystem that enabled us to shape a campaign of high complexity and intensity.
We built democratic people’s organizations that can help spark and shape movement moments.
This campaign made clear which organizations have deep accountability to working families. Organizations with a real base of individual members were key to this effort, from Make the Road to DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) to CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities to New York Communities for Change and more. Organizations accountable to a base of immigrant families and people of color did not hesitate to help lead—despite many donors’ and funders’ discomfort with the campaign.
We were responding to our members’ deep instinct that this was the right fight at the right time. Not only were we largely unfunded in this work, but virtually every organization involved lost substantial funding as a result, or at least faced disbelief or ire from some supporters.
This moment shows that we must shift the dynamics of nonprofit funding for our field. We must build robust organizations deeply accountable to a base, so that the people most impacted by the failures of our economy have the backing they need to speak up and make sure the rest of us listen. We must continue to build organizations capable of shaping true movement moments, even when the urgency and magnitude of the need requires disruption.
We helped shape the electoral landscape.
Those of us who work for 501c4 organizations—in addition to or instead of 501c3 organizations—have also partnered on electoral work. When the HQ2 moment hit, those organizations had recently united to help replace the breakaway Democrats in the “Independent Democratic Conference” with progressive state senators. And many of the activists who ultimately blocked HQ2 had come together to elect Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That recent electoral context created the space for our legislators to step up and take bold positions in support of our communities’ outcry against HQ2.
It took many neighborhoods to beat a billionaire
We forged national and international alliances before the HQ2 moment hit, and we leaned on allies like the Partnership for Working Families and the Center for Popular Democracy to keep us in sync with folks from Seattle to Europe, Northern Virginia to Minneapolis. Local Progress, a national network of local progressive elected officials, connected us to the Seattle councilmembers who taught us what to expect from Amazon. Seattle councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold even flew to New York to brief legislators here.
Deep in a housing affordability crisis that Amazon’s first headquarters had exacerbated, Seattle councilmembers worked to implement a modest progressive tax for corporations with annual revenues of over $20 million. At first, Amazon acted as if negotiating in good faith, talking about tweaks needed. On Mother’s Day, Amazon said it could live with the compromise. Less than 48 hours later, Amazon instead launched a massive campaign to kill the tax altogether.
The experience of Seattle reminded us to be skeptical of shiny promises without enforceability.
But more importantly, the time we spent connecting with the very leaders who had lived the painful lessons there and with others like Stand Up Nashville and activists in Northern Virginia, who were organizing growing resistance to Amazon in their cities, enabled us to think longer term.
The HQ2 fight created openings for long-term work to transform policy, power and narrative on numerous key fronts, from workers’ rights to antitrust, to economic development models to rules to govern the surveillance economy. This month, a group of the allies who fought to block Amazon’s HQ2 in New York launched Phase 1 of a Beyond Amazon vision. This set of principles addresses the ways in which New York’s economic development model has failed, as exposed painfully through the HQ2 fiasco. In particular, our guiding principles are the following:
- We must invest directly to create good jobs and meet neighborhood needs.
- Subsidies must always create good jobs for neighbors who need them most, and public good for our communities.
- We must cap subsidies and tax breaks.
- We must shine a light on backroom economic development deals and take back the power to hold corporations accountable.
One potential breakthrough of the HQ2 fight was making gentrification and displacement impossible to ignore. Accordingly, one of the centerpieces of the Beyond Amazon platform is the need to transform the cost-benefit analysis used to approve or deny economic development projects. New York State Senator Mike Gianaris, a long-time ally of Make the Road New York who played a lead role in the HQ2 fightback, has announced his intention to introduce legislation to require a community impact assessment on economic development projects requesting public subsidies to address issues like gentrification and burdens on infrastructure.
The Beyond Amazon platform would prohibit tax giveaways to corporations whose CEOs earn more than 30 times their average worker. Corporations like Amazon are helping billionaires like Jeff Bezos to pocket wealth accumulated through predatory pricing, surveillance and the sale of our data, and other extractive practices, so we also propose a tax on these same corporations to begin to recoup some of that value for our communities.
We also stand for investing directly in public infrastructure like bridges, parks, and the caring economy rather than spending public dollars on giveaways to corporations. It is actually these investments that make our cities vibrant, in turn attracting the talented people and innovative companies that help grow our economy.
Finally, we must begin the process of reclaiming our democracy and our economy. This means implementing public financing of elections to interrupt big money’s death grip on our democracy, and it means updating our laws to stop billionaires like Jeff Bezos from continuing to amass unprecedented power and wealth. This country has a now-dormant tradition of breaking up predatory monopolies; we must revive these tools.
If the HQ2 battle taught us anything, it is that we should not underestimate the power of our own voices. Long-term deep organizing can lay the groundwork for movement moments, and then help shape those moments to achieve breakthroughs in the consciousness of this country. This was one of those moments. And it is only the beginning.