Amazon faces rising opposition from trade unions and other critics as it forges ahead with plans to build a series of giant logistics centers across Massachusetts.
Local construction union leaders have led protests against the online retail giant’s plan to build a multimillion-square-foot “fulfillment center” in North Andover. Reports that it also may be looking to build a warehouse complex in Boston have triggered a backlash from one powerful city construction union..
“Amazon Bad For Boston,” reads the message on the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 103's high-profile electronic message board that overlooks the Southeast Expressway.
Union officials contend Amazon shortchanges construction workers who build its distribution centers and fails to provide decent health insurance and pension plans, while also faulting Amazon’s treatment of workers inside the plants.
“They are the richest company in the country,” said Lou Antonellis, business manager and financial secretary for IBEW 103. “They need the communities, not the other way around. The communities have the leverage here.”
In response, Amazon contends that full-time employees make $15 an hour and up, as well as “comprehensive benefits” that kick in immediately, “including full health, vision and dental insurance, 401k with 50% company match,” according to spokesperson Katelyn Richardson.
The company also offers up to 20 weeks of parental leave in a “Career Choice” program that prepays 95% of tuition “in high-demand, high-paying fields of their choice,” the Amazon spokesperson stated in an email.
When it opens, the new complex will employ 1,500 workers alongside an array of robotic helpers, Richardson said.
Ramping up the pressure, around 150 union leaders and activists and local elected officials mounted a protest last month outside Amazon’s planned North Andover shipping complex.
Union officials have been handing out leaflets at other Amazon construction sites, including one in nearby Haverhill.
Chris Brennan, president of Merrimack Valley Building Trades and one of the leaders of the Amazon protests, said he would like to see Amazon commit to using only union contractors to build its coming North Andover logistics hub.
“We want a union workforce,” Brennan said. “Some of the work has been awarded union but a good portion has not.”
Brennan also questioned the quality of the plans the company is offering, as well as whether the wages being offered will be adequate for workers to pay for all their expenses, not only health insurance, but child care as well.
“Amazon is missing an opportunity to pump some real careers into an area that was pretty much the birthplace of the labor movement,” Brennan said of the Merrimack Valley, home to the 19th century red-brick mills of Lawrence and Lowell.
So far, the protests have failed to prevent Amazon from moving forward, at least in North Andover.
Texas developer Hillwood is developing the $400-million project for Amazon on a 110-acre site that was once home to a major plant owned by Lucent Technologies.
A three-story office building at the front of the site will remain under ownership of a local real estate company, with the old Lucent manufacturing facility slated to be torn down to make way for the new Amazon complex.
Whiting-Turner, the general contractor, is well along with demolition of the existing building, focusing now on removing foundations and cleaning up.
The five-story, 3.8-million-sq-ft Amazon e-commerce distribution, warehouse and storage facility is slated to open in August 2022.
While Amazon has emerged as a top target for unions, Hillwood and Whiting-Turner have been bringing in a mix of both union and nonunion subcontractors.
One of the biggest sore points so far has been the decision to hire a nonunion electrical subcontractor.
Union activists and leaders are also taking aim at North Andover’s decision to dole out a $27-million tax break for the new Amazon complex, effectively lowering its payments for the first several decades of operation.
Amazon needs to build out its network of shipping facilities locally in order to reach customers in Greater Boston. Threatening to pack up and go to another state is not an option.
“Why do they need a tax break?” Brennan asked. “This company does not need one. It’s insane.”
However, Andrew Shapiro, director of community and economic development for North Andover, cited competition from “multiple potential sites,” in the local area for the giant Amazon logistics complex.
The former Lucent facility “was past its useful life,” making it in “the town's best interest to incentivize the property's redevelopment to ensure that it could provide more robust tax income and future economic development,” Shapiro said in an email.
Despite Amazon’s success so far in North Andover, expanding into Boston itself may prove more difficult.
Antonellis, the IBEW 103 business manager, is working with other trade unions in Boston to oppose Amazon’s efforts to build a warehouse or logistics facility at Widett Circle, a site that was the linchpin to Boston’s failed bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Unless the online retail giant agrees to build its facility with all-union labor and boost pay and working conditions for the workers’ inside, it will have a hard time gaining a foothold in Boston, long a bastion for organized labor, Antonellis said.
Amazon needs to be in Boston to be near its customers. But the city, riding a biotech, high-tech and health care boom, doesn’t need Amazon warehouse jobs, he contends.
“Until they are ready to embrace us everywhere, we don’t need them anywhere,” he said. “Boston doesn’t need them, they need Boston.”