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Amazon’s Defeat in NYC Galvanizes Movement to End Billion-Dollar Corporate Welfare

StoryFebruary 19, 2019
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New York City is still reeling since Amazon announced last week that it was scrapping plans to build a major office facility in Queens. The decision came under mounting pressure from grassroots activists and local politicians who opposed the deal. Amazon had announced the project in November after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered Amazon nearly $3 billion in tax subsidies to come to the city. But local politicians and community organizers rallied against the tech giant and won. The lawmakers who took down Amazon say their victory is just the beginning of a major fight against tax subsidies for huge companies—which they call “corporate welfare.” We speak with New York State Assemblymember Ron Kim, who helped fight Amazon and introduced the End of Corporate Welfare Act to the state Legislature earlier this month.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we end today’s show looking at the fallout since Amazon announced last week that it was scrapping plans to build a major office facility in New York City. The decision came under mounting pressure from grassroots activists and local politicians who opposed the deal. Amazon had announced the project in November, after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered nearly $3 billion in tax subsidies to come to the city, potentially creating 25,000 jobs. As part of the deal, New York even offered to build a helipad for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who is the richest man in the world. One of the leading opponents of the deal was Democratic Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of Queens, the borough where Amazon was planning to build its new headquarters.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I think it’s incredible. I mean, it shows that everyday Americans still have the power to organize and fight for their communities, and they can have more say in this country than the richest man in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Bill de Blasio has blamed Amazon for walking out on its plan to come to New York City, saying the tech giant, quote, “took their ball and went home.” Governor Andrew Cuomo is going after the local lawmakers who took down Amazon.

Well, for more, we’re joined by one of those lawmakers, Ron Kim, member of the New York State Assembly representing Queens and a candidate for New York City public advocate. He introduced the End of Corporate Welfare Act to the New York state Legislature earlier this month. His recent piece for BuzzFeed is headlined “Amazon Shows It’s Time for States to Stop the Corporate Welfare Bidding Wars.”

Assemblymember Ron Kim, welcome to Democracy Now! So, talk about what happened. Were you shocked when Amazon said they’re pulling out?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER RON KIM: I was a bit taken back. I thought they were going to stick around to talk to our groups, to labor unions, to politicians, to figure out some sort of a reasonable compromise to coexist and be good neighbors, and for them to actually have meetings the day before, with the Mayor’s Office, to labor groups. And then, all of a sudden, without any notice, they’re pulling out.

This is very indicative of what Amazon has done before as a corporation. They say one thing; they do another. They’re only driven by profit. And it’s about time that we push back. I mean, in this time, I’m actually reminded of a quote by an urban philosopher, the undisputed former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who once said that everyone has a plan, unless they get punched in the mouth. And I think Amazon, you know, they got punched in the mouth by grassroots activists, local politicians and community leaders.

This is a time not to play defense. We’ve got to play offense. You know, we’ve got moderate Democrats and corporate-driven politicians trying to court them back, saying, “Well, you know, maybe if we offer something else, but can you guys come back to the table to renegotiate?” This is not the time to renegotiate. These monopolies, we can’t rely on them to create quality jobs for our communities. You know, we spend too many years, we spend too many decades, subsidizing the growth of these mega-monopolies that are fundamentally designed to extract and exploit us. And instead of them extorting another dollar from us, we need to hold them accountable, moving forward.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted your response to two things. One is, on the same day that Amazon announced that it was pulling out, press reports came out that the company had paid no taxes in the last year, no federal income taxes whatsoever.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: For two years, right.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER RON KIM: Two years in a row, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then, also—

AMY GOODMAN: Even got money back.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And got money back.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re talking about the largest retail company in the world, right?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, this issue of—that Governor Cuomo has been saying that the public, as a whole, was in favor of Amazon, and it was just these radical activists and a few malcontent political leaders that caused this disaster.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER RON KIM: Something is desperately wrong in this country when 80 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, when we, as a nation, rank last, in all developed countries, in upward mobility, and the biggest corporations are paying 0 percent tax to the federal government. And they’re going from state to state trying to extort as much taxpayers’ money out of us. That is—we have shed the light on something that’s broken. And this is the time to seize that opportunity to set a new course for an economy that works for all of us. This is the time to do it.

And politically driven politicians that are stuck on this neoliberal ideology will continue to call people, activists as “socialists” and “communists,” “anarchists,” to protect the status quo, because the status quo enriches them. You know, the whole ecosystem around giving away corporate welfare, who benefits? Corporate-driven politicians, lobbyists, intermediaries that are just waiting on the sideline to get as much money out of that pie.

This is—we have to call it what it is. It’s not working. This is not a compassion plea for people, either; this is an economic argument. A number of economists have come out in the last 10 years. There is no statistical correlation between the corporate incentives and the growth in revenue and the economic growth that these companies promise. In fact, you look at Buffalo—upstate—Billion, you look at what’s happening in Foxconn, you look at every single data point for the last 20 years, all the promises that these corporations make on front to extort money from us, they never deliver on the back end.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about another issue, is the split that occurred in the labor unions of New York City over Amazon, with some of them, the construction trades, obviously, backing the building of the new Amazon headquarters, and also Local 32BJ of the SEIU, supposedly a progressive union, immediately cut a deal with Amazon and was supportive of Amazon coming. But other unions were saying, “Hey, wait a second. You’re talking about the largest retailer in the country, totally nonunion and hostile to unions.” In fact, the leaders came into City Council and said that they would not remain neutral in the unionization drive. Your sense of what happened to the labor movement in the city over this issue?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER RON KIM: You know, I have the utmost respect for 32BJ and Héctor, the leader of that group, and a number of other groups that have cut that deal with Amazon up front. But I think they’re waking up to the realization that when you cut these deals in the dark, with one or two executives, without including the rest of the city, the rest of the labor groups that have been sidelined, when an abusive company has actually online videos of teaching their employees how to beat the union, how to organize against a union, and then punishing their managers and workers for even talking about organizing toward a union, there is a problem. And I think, whether it’s 32BJ or a number—any other group that have cut that original deal, they are standing—there’s consensus that Amazon is fundamentally an abusive company. And we want to hold them accountable, moving forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Cuomo said in a statement, “[A] small group [of] politicians put their own narrow political interests above their community—which poll after poll showed overwhelmingly supported bringing Amazon to Long Island City—the state’s economic future and the best interests of the people of this state. The New York State Senate has done tremendous damage. They should be held accountable for this lost economic opportunity,” he said. So, can you talk about this division that has really exposed a schism between Democrats? On the one hand, you have AOC—right?—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, yourself and other politicians, and, of course, the huge grassroots movement. And on the other hand, you have these kind of political enemies, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Cuomo, on the other side. Where is the fundamental—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Along with Representative Carolyn Maloney.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right.


AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Maloney, as well.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER RON KIM: Right. And not to mention the LIC representatives like Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and Mark Gjonaj, who are on our side on this.

This is in—and Mayor de Blasio, Bill de Blasio, and the way that he reacted to this, versus Andrew Cuomo, Governor Andrew Cuomo—Governor Cuomo continues to blame people and politicians for what happened, and the mayor is blaming Amazon. And there’s a clear difference on how they feel about this issue. The governor thinks that the bigger the company, the likely they’re going to resolve our economic crisis. That is a deeply flawed—you know, a mindset that is flawed, and we shouldn’t be going down that direction.

You know, this is the time where we have to reset the economy and make sure that we move toward an economy of abundance, that takes care of every single person in our community and makes sure that we reinvest our dollars in stuff that matters—our municipalities, our broken subways, our arts institution, our schools. Those are the things that add intrinsic value to our communities, which attracts the people and talent to our city, which then attracts the companies to come here to hire them. That’s how this thing works, not to bribe these multinational companies to come here, when, time after time, they fail to deliver the jobs that they promise.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the End of Corporate Welfare Act that you’ve introduced?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER RON KIM: Sure. One of the core problems—and Governor Cuomo actually has come out multiple times saying, “I didn’t have a choice. I had to compete. Other people are doing it. I have to compete and try to give as much taxpayers’ money to lure these companies in.” And that’s what some people call as the prisoner’s dilemma, a bidding war, an economic cage match that we must stop—which is the reason why in places like EU, in Europe, they completely banned the practice of corporate welfare and corporate incentives.

So, here, the federal government is not going to intervene, so I’m going state to state—we have seven states already signed up—to sign a multistate compact to say, “We’re not going to compete to give away corporate welfare to attract these companies; instead, we’re going to have a mutual cooperation to work collectively to hold these corporations accountable.”

So, this—I mean, by the way, this is New York City. We set the terms and conditions for people and companies to come here to do business. They don’t set the terms for us. I mean, how did we get to this point?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ron Kim, I want to thank you so much for being with us, member of the New York State Assembly representing Queens and a candidate for the New York City public advocate.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And that does it for our show. Today we want to celebrate Democracy Now!'s 23rd birthday. That's 23 years covering the movements changing America and the world. A huge thank you to all the people who have made Democracy Now! possible throughout all these years, our staff and volunteers, over 1,400 public radio and television stations around the world, and especially our listeners and viewers.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s see if we can hold this up. Don’t forget, you can keep up with us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Roku. Thank you, everyone, for supporting news with a heart, for helping us go to where the silence is. Happy birthday, everyone! You all made it possible. You made it possible for us all to celebrate Democracy Now!'s 23rd anniversary. Thank you so much. And we want to thank our amazing staff, Democracy Now! produced by Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Sam Alcoff, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Charina Nadura. Let's blow those candles out, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ready? One, two three.

AMY GOODMAN: All right, Juan. Congratulations! Thank you, everyone. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, with 23 years of Democracy Now! Thanks so much for making it happen.

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