Photo provided by the authors.
By Alex Lucena and Alicia Salvadeo
As developers in our area continue to level working class neighborhoods to make room for Google, Uber, and high-profile startups, Amazon is now considering Pittsburgh for its second headquarters. Some are hopeful about what this could mean for our city, but questions persist regarding lack of transparency surrounding the bid, the integrity and accuracy of the proposal, and its socioeconomic impact. We have no reason to expect Amazon, or any other corporation, could actually deliver wealth and opportunity to working people.
Contrary to the praise of Seattle’s neoliberal politicians and business leaders, a closer look at the impact of Amazon’s original headquarters reveals the harm done. When corporate giants march into regions starving for solid, well-paying jobs, they often do so irresponsibly, destabilizing public infrastructure and accessibility while spitting out unemployed, underemployed, and underserved people. The consequences of twisting a city’s priorities to pull in a massive tech-based corporation include increasingly unaffordable housing and a diversion of tax dollars from public services to private interests.
Seattle’s homeless population has ballooned since Amazon’s arrival, as housing prices rose by as much as 31% and rents by 57% in some neighborhoods. An underfunded, inaccessible public transit system reinforces gentrification and racial inequality. While the people of Seattle and politicians like City Councilperson Kshama Sawant stand up to Amazon’s destructive takeover, the company is turning to another city to exploit.
Jeff Bezos and Amazon executives pitch that HQ2 will generate up to 50,000 “high-paying” jobs. But white collar workers exposed their company in 2015 for the toll that came with six-figure salaries: abusive treatment, on-call hours, and late night harassment. Hundreds have shared the serious physical and psychological repercussions they attribute to Amazon’s corporate culture, including having considered or attempted suicide.
Amazon’s distribution workers also suffer long hours and brutal conditions, but without a sustainable paycheck or decent benefits. Within a few months of establishing several thousand warehouse jobs in exchange for millions in state and local tax breaks, Amazon recently became Ohio’s 19th ranking employer whose workers rely on SNAP benefits. An economic boon was promised to Licking County, Ohio, where nearly 13% of residents live below the poverty line; yet one in ten Amazon employees of the warehouse located there receive food assistance. The Economic Policy Institute found that the opening of Amazon warehouse centers does not increase regional employment, but in some counties decreases employment as local competitors shed higher-paying positions.
Nonetheless, Amazon’s call for HQ2 proposals is clear in its desire for generous incentives in exchange for jobs. Corporations like UPMC already take advantage of subsidies, to the detriment of underfunded public services and infrastructure. Citing post-industrial depopulation, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald (D) boasts the region’s capacity to accommodate an incoming population, ignoring the “Google effect’s” sacrificial impact. Attracted to a cheaper cost of living and higher-paying tech jobs, newcomers transform local priorities while the cost of living skyrockets for native Pittsburghers. Our communities suffer the direct and calamitous effects of this quid pro quo.
Right now, without Amazon’s HQ2, many working class families can’t afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment, but companies like Walnut Capital reap tax breaks while driving gentrification and reckless redevelopment. Communities and activists fight to preserve and develop affordable housing and reduce homelessness, but housing costs have as much as tripled over the last decade; HUD-subsidized homes fail to meet housing standards; and vacant housing continues to deteriorate.
Moreover, the Port Authority’s proposal for a Bus Rapid Transit plan caters to the convenience of more affluent neighborhoods, while further marginalizing working class communities relying on service. The city faces a water crisis due to Veolia’s attempt to maximize profit, which has destroyed infrastructure; homes and schools suffer high lead levels in the water supply, especially in poor and predominantly black communities. Pittsburgh Public Schools are struggling. Without sufficient training or education, working people are left behind, and income inequality in the country’s “most liveable city” widens.
All workers deserve at least a $15/hour minimum wage, unionized jobs, and free education. Taxing large companies like Amazon, UPMC, and Uber could fund critical, basic social services, high-quality public schools, clean water, accessible public transit, safe and dignified housing, and more. The wealth and resources of these corporate behemoths should also come under democratic public control.
Corporations and developers must be held responsible, pay taxes, and work for and with our communities. The prioritization of a “business-friendly” climate puts the whole city at risk, while our so-called “renaissance” benefits a select wealthy few at the expense of many.
Existing problems, and the HQ2 application, illuminate a city and county government led by a corporate-allied Democratic Party unwilling to stand up for struggling residents’ needs. The two-party system has repeatedly demonstrated its subservience to capitalist interests that create more obstacles than they fix. Working and oppressed people must build an organized movement, led by community groups and activists, strong unions, and independent candidates who refuse corporate cash while fighting alongside our communities. A new party of the 99% will win real and lasting economic and social justice victories and ensure that development can truly deliver what working people need.
Alex Lucena and Alicia Salvadeo are members of Socialist Alternative Pittsburgh.