On the day European Union regulators brought antitrust charges against Amazon, Niagara University’s social justice speaker series concluded its fall session with a panel presentation focused on the online retail giant and how communities can be empowered to organize  against corporate monopolies.

Panelists included Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a national policy resource center for grassroots groups and public officials promoting corporate and government accountability in economic development and smart growth for working families; Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, which works to develop grassroots leaders who organize their communities to run and win environmental justice and public health campaigns in the region; and Michael Rayhill, board member of the Coalition for Responsible Economic Development for Grand Island, the organization that successfully launched and navigated a campaign against the Amazon warehouse that was planned for Grand Island, N.Y.

The panelists shared their insights as to why and how people should organize to ensure they have a voice in discussions that impact their communities.

LeRoy started the discussion with ways Amazon has reshaped retailing, which has had an impact on retail property values and tax revenues across the country, and how it has changed employment opportunities in the industry, from customer-facing jobs in brick-and-mortar storefronts to warehouse jobs fulfilling online purchases. He also talked about how Amazon’s evolving business model is driving the construction of an increasing number of warehouses that are located in affluent areas with access to the infrastructure and transportation needed to operate successfully. Yet communities who have these resources are offering incentives to attract Amazon and corporations like it.

“Why on earth would you subsidize something that the company must do to compel its business plan?” he asked. “Not only should Amazon not get subsidized, they should be paying to arrive, they should be giving out community benefits to arrive.”

Newberry contrasted the culture of “expecting billionaires to save us” with the reality that it is the community itself that must promote the kind of economic growth that will benefit the people living within it.

“Our work on the environmental justice side and on the worker justice side really focuses on strategies that are focused on closing this income gap … through actual transformational shifts in how our public money is spent and where it goes,” she said. “As citizens of the United States, do we want our public money going toward wealthy people to make them more wealthy, or are we actually … investing them to make our own solutions.”

Rayhill spoke about how he was able to energize his neighbors to join his efforts in protesting against the plan to build an Amazon warehouse on Grand Island, which he noted was progressing “in the midst of a global pandemic with little to no public feedback.” 

“it was an inspiring collective effort amongst a huge cross-section of Islanders, people of all political backgrounds, people who had never voted before, people who had never peacefully protested before, people of all ages,” he said. “I think in the end, it was a really positive experience.

“I think everyday citizens need to be brought to the table, and that there needs to be more of a co-equal partnership amongst elected officials, advisory boards, and everyday citizens,” he continued. “I think, hopefully, that’s where the future is taking us.”

Clips from the Frontline documentary “Amazon Empire” augmented the discussion, which was presented in collaboration with Burning Books, an independent bookstore in Buffalo, N.Y.



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