Thought Piece: Does MoCo really need Amazon?

Last year, all three County Executive candidates pretty much swooned over the idea of Jeff Bezos possibly picking White Flint as the new site for the coveted Amazon HQ2 and its “50,000 high-paying jobs.” Ultimately, nobody got the full prize, as the behemoth opted to split the new headquarters between New York and Northern Virginia. Eventually, Amazon backed out of its New York location due to opposition credited to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Crystal City still wound up with there promise of 25,000 six-figure jobs, and already accelerating housing costs. As the finalized Amazon decision coincided with the 2018 midterm elections, MoCo’s centrist punditry circles speculated that Marc Elrich’s victory might have played a role in Amazon’s decision not to locate in Montgomery County.  (A more cogent hypothesis would be that NoVa had two things built in with which Montgomery could not compete; an existing educational IT feeder program and access to an airport, but I digress.)

Elrich, meanwhile, much to the dismay of his left-leaning base, was emphatically pro-Amazon. He told me once that he figured the new tax revenue could help pay for his Bus Rapid Transit program. In fact, one of the things Nancy Floreen attempted to use to deride Elrich was his apparent need to write a letter to Bezos explaining that Amazon was still welcome and that he would not govern the county as a Chavista.

Fast forward to roughly a year later, and Amazon is back in the picture. This time, Elrich is on the record inquiring to Amazon about bringing its warehouse to Montgomery County.

I will say right off the bat that this is not a good idea.

First, in honor of Labor Day, I’ll point out the obvious: Amazon is known for having some of the worst labor practices in Corporate America. Sure, they  may pay their sweatshop Fulfillment Center employees $15/hour (which Montgomery County will require by 2021 anyway), but at what physical cost?

Numerous documentaries and exposés have uncovered the Amazon Fulfillment Center’s production quota policies and their labor practice’s lack of, well, fulfillment. This type of exploitation is not anything a member nor ally of the DSA should endorse, and some key supporters have already called the executive out for it.

Second, as Elrich is practically tripping over himself to be seen as more business friendly, the Chamber of Commerce-type fiscal conservatives who opposed his candidacy aren’t really budging. Sure, these are jobs but they are not the high-paying jobs that really grow the tax base. Moreover, Amazon Unfulfillment Center employees making $15/hour will be in the income bracket still needing the social services that the existing tax base must provide. Not to mention the fact that there is virtually no housing available for people in this income bracket.

Giving Marc the benefit of the doubt, which I am always inclined to do, it is possible that he would seek to impose more fair labor policy requirements with which Amazon would comply, although the regulations generally are passed in Annapolis. If MoCo could manage to bring in an ethical Amazon warehouse, then that would be a noteworthy victory…but color me skeptical.

Ultimately, attempting to lure in an Amazon warehouse is not a wise political decision for Marc Elrich. It further alienates Elrich from his left-wing base, which is hanging by a thread as it is. To the business establishment, it just looks like we’re going after Amazon’s sloppy seconds and letting Virginia take away the big prize. It would look even worse if the county attempted to lure Amazon and still failed.

The County Executive should instead refocus on job growth in the sectors more near and dear to him and the rest of us: small business incubators, biotech, and light industrial. As an ideological socialist living in a capitalist world, I am more inclined to welcome growth from ethical employers, locally grown small businesses, and jobs with opportunities for MoCo’s existing youth to earn livable salaries. This doesn’t have to come from big names or from fighting with neighboring jurisdictions over shiny objects.

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