Amazon and the Jobs Charade

Critics are blasting leftists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for chasing Amazon away from New York City. But we have nothing to apologize for — it's the Left that is fighting for unionized, well-paying jobs.

US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks as other House Democrats listen during a news conference at the US Capitol on January 30, 2019 in Washington DC. Alex Wong / Getty

“Thanks for nothing, AOC,” reads a billboard now in Times Square, citing “lost NYC jobs,” “lost wages,” and “lost economic activity for NY.”

The billboard, a dig at New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Left over Amazon’s recent reversal of its plan to open a second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, was sponsored by the “Job Creators’ Network,” created by Home Depot cofounder Bernie Marcus and funded mostly by the right-wing Mercer Foundation. That these actors lack credibility as champions of working-class Queens is obvious, not to mention the fact that AOC, though she did support community activists in their fight against Amazon, had no authority over the deal and her district doesn’t even include Long Island City.

Yet the billboard’s far-right take hasn’t been that different from that of the mainstream media: one giant concern troll over these “lost” Amazon jobs and the Left’s complicity in that calamity. There’s been much hand-wringing on the issue even from well-meaning progressives and liberals. Mayor Bill de Blasio himself joined the chorus of scolds, reprimanding AOC for her support of the anti-Amazon campaign: “Working people want jobs.”

But in truth it’s the Left, not Amazon, that’s been working hard to create good jobs in New York City.

It’s surprising how many people seem stuck in the 1980s on this matter. Capital flight isn’t an issue for 2019 New York City, and we’re not short on tech jobs: our tech sector is the nation’s second-biggest after Silicon Valley. A 2017 report by the New York State Comptroller found that employment in the city’s tech sector grew three times faster than the rest of the city’s private sector between 2010 and 2016.

The Amazon HQ was a giveaway to Big Real Estate, creating jobs that would allow people to buy expensive condos in Long Island City and North Brooklyn. Jobs that pay $150,000 a year don’t create new opportunity; they merely multiply the options of the “haves.” A person who gets such a job most likely already has one, probably in a place that isn’t as cool as Long Island City. Not one of the $150,000 positions would have gone to anyone currently living in a Queens housing project.

Amazon HQ would also have brought administrative and custodial jobs, some of which might have been more accessible to people not currently in the labor force. But Amazon is a notoriously awful place to work. A union would have improved matters, but Amazon has been a doggedly anti-union employer. Indeed, when politicians, responding to activists’ criticisms of the company, tried to make labor organizing rights a condition of Amazon HQ, Amazon balked, and this may have been the last straw for the company. In any case, those jobs will still be created — just somewhere other than Queens.

Large, anti-union companies like Amazon or Walmart aren’t just bad for their own workers. They set low standards, poisoning the labor market throughout a city or region, dragging many other workers’ wages and conditions down. A robust left movement insisting on workers’ rights, the kind nourished by the anti-Amazon fight, could do the opposite.

Another vehicle of good “job creation” is a robust public sector. Many of the groups fighting Amazon — and the elected officials they’ve recently put into office — have been at the forefront of progressive demands to improve our public transit system and fund our public schools, both of which would create good jobs while addressing vital social needs. Giving billions away in tax breaks and welcoming known tax evaders to the city is precisely not the way to get any of that done.

Amazon defenders kept gassing on about the “revenue” the company would bring, despite the tax breaks. This was fantastical, as Amazon deftly avoids irksome civic obligations of this kind. The company paid $0 in federal taxes last year, despite doubling its profits, according to a report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, released the day before Amazon’s Valentine’s Day breakup with NYC.

And speaking of AOC, her proposed Green New Deal creates jobs while also helping avert human extinction, so for the mayor to condescend to her that “working people need jobs” is profoundly unserious. If anything, he should be studying the Green New Deal and asking how to implement a municipal version here.

Indeed, everything the Left — with AOC as an especially well-spoken (and well-tweeted) standard-bearer — is now advocating creates good jobs, while the kind of corporate welfare Amazon was expecting to receive does nothing of the kind. Numerous studies show such subsidies are ineffective at job creation, rewarding companies for business they would have brought anyway and lacking any mechanisms to make companies keep their promises. (Why wouldn’t tech companies want to come to New York? People like living in exciting places, and New York is one of those, at least for now, until a lack of reasonable taxation unravels our subways and schools and neighborhoods like Long Island City become mud flats amid rising waters.) With such research in mind, the same day Amazon H2 collapsed two vocal critics of the deal — democratic socialist State Senator Julia Salazar, who represents North Brooklyn, and Assemblymember Ron Kim, who represents Flushing, Queens — introduced legislation to end such giveaways.

The Left could emphasize some of the things that are working in the city’s current economic development path and press the city to expand such efforts. The city-owned Brooklyn Navy Yard, for example, is home to a diverse collection of employers, including manufacturers and other green businesses, and is a project easily replicated in other neighborhoods.

It’s rich to hear Mayor de Blasio blast AOC on the subject of “jobs,” given that he knows perfectly well what kind of economic development would bring more opportunities to people who need them (as opposed to tech bros who already have them). He knows that swindles like Amazon H2 are not the answer, which is probably why he keeps changing up his public messaging on the subject.

I interviewed de Blasio when he ran for mayor in 2013. He initially presented as an uninspiring knucklehead, and I remember barely anything he said. He was incoherent and irritably defensive on the issue of political corruption — not surprising given the cheesy, low-rent scandals that have plagued his tenure as mayor (remember the rat-proof garbage bags?).

But I recall one glimpse of intelligent life. At one point, I asked him about Congressman Jerry Nadler’s plan to redevelop the New York City port, a strong vision for reviving a decently paying, unionized sector. De Blasio seemed so transcendently dim; I was expecting to have to explain it to him. But something weird happened. He came to life, abruptly. His whole face lit up and he nerded out, talking at length about port development. He was almost relatable: the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with and talk about bringing good jobs to New York. You could almost see why a cool lesbian leftist would have married him. (Yeah, no, just kidding. That remains a mystery.)

As mayor, de Blasio has remained attentive to the possibilities of port redevelopment, though we don’t hear much about it; maybe he should talk about these ideas rather than trolling AOC like a horny right-winger.

Of course, the real-estate industry doesn’t want real port development. It wants that waterfront space. The capitalist class, whatever slogans it might like to slap onto a billboard, doesn’t want most people to have good jobs. Capital wants people to be desperate so they will accept crappy working conditions and beg corporations to come in and offer jobs of any kind under any conditions.

But now, the real-estate industry has just lost its pants, shirt, and trunks. Capitalists worldwide are momentarily frozen in horror, as if the public guillotining had already begun, right in Court Square. We’ve shown that people won’t accept just any bullshit in the name of “jobs.” That, politically, is a promising place to be — and while we’re here, we may as well start asking de Blasio about real economic development again.