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B&H Warehouse Workers Fight to Save Their Union

Colin Kinniburgh Jun 2

Issue 225

On November 4, 2015, workers at B&H Photo Video’s two Brooklyn warehouses voted 200-88 to form a union under the United Steelworkers, overcoming a barrage of threats, intimidation and anti-union propaganda from management. After years of facing abuses and hazards on the job, it looked like they were within reach of a union contract and the dignity that would come with it. 

But B&H wasn’t ready to concede defeat. This January, in what workers and their allies allege is a deliberate and illegal attempt to evade the union, the company announced plans to close its Brooklyn warehouses, one at the Navy Yard and a smaller one on Evergreen Avenue in Bushwick, and move their operations to a new facility in Florence Township, New Jersey. If the move goes ahead, it could leave its 335 Brooklyn employees both without a union and without a job.

B&H says any of its current employees are welcome to transfer to New Jersey. But the proposed location for the new warehouse, more than 70 miles away, is virtually inaccessible from New York by public transit. It is closer to Philadelphia. For Alberto Sanchez, who has worked in B&H’s Navy Yard warehouse since 2009 and lives in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, commuting there would be impossible. “We are invited, but honestly it’s well known that the company doesn’t want the union,” Sanchez told The Indypendent. “They know that people don’t want to move. The new location is far, and most of us have families who depend on us.”

With contract negotiations up in the air, the workers have stepped up their campaign to keep their newly unionized jobs in New York. With support from groups including the Laundry Workers Center (LWC) and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), they have been holding twice-weekly pickets outside B&H’s flagship store on Ninth Avenue, and have gone out on strike twice: once during the national Day Without an Immigrant on Feb. 17 and once on May Day.

“This company, their culture is exploitation and they don’t look like they want to change,” says LWC co-director Mahoma Lopez. Latino employees at the Brooklyn warehouses have described a pattern of abuse — working 13-hour shifts or longer, having to lift boxes and operate heavy machinery without any training or safety equipment. Exposure to asbestos and flecks of fiberglass from walls and insulation has left some workers with rashes, nosebleeds and other health issues. Several discrimination lawsuits have also been filed against the company over the past decade, charging that it treats its Orthodox Jewish employees better than the Latino employees doing the bulk of the manual labor.

‘Plain and simple, it is union avoidance.’

In September 2014, a tractor-trailer just outside the warehouse exploded and caught fire. The flames reached more than two stories high, and smoke billowed into the B&H shipping and receiving area. Management tried to ignore the fire, and when the workers were finally allowed to leave, they had to pass through metal detectors rather than use the emergency exits.

For many of the workers, the 2014 fire was the last straw. That fall, they approached LWC and, with Lopez’s help, began to organize. Lopez’s own career as an organizer began when he was working at a Hot & Crusty bakery on the Upper West Side. In January 2012, he and his fellow workers began organizing a union. They won their union election four months later, but the owner then announced that he was closing the store. Lopez and his fellow “job defenders” occupied and picketed the store until it reopened and, in October 2012, signed a three-year union contract. Could a similar victory be replicated at B&H?

On a Sunday afternoon in May, a B&H manager stepped out of the store to photograph the picket. Picketers, fearing that the company was keeping tabs on workers involved, danced in front of him, blocking the camera with their signs. Another manager looked on silently, declining to answer questions. The company had called the police, who, in a first for the biweekly pickets, separated the 40-odd protesters from the store entrance with steel barricades. 

As workers and their supporters greeted would-be shoppers with chants of “What’s disgusting? Union-busting!”, B&H’s sales staff offered fliers in English and Spanish, explaining that the retailer’s “Brooklyn warehouse lease expires in early 2018,” leaving the company no choice but to relocate. B&H Vice President of Operations Jacob Mittelman elaborated further in a February press statement: “The union knows our lease ends next year and we do not have the ability to stay in our current location. It’s not clear what they want us to do. We outgrew the existing facility some time ago.”

The company insists that it has been planning to move out of its current Navy Yard facility for years. In 2013, it bought a plot of land in Rockland County, about 30 miles north of the city. But as Hyperallergic’s Claire Voon points out, that move never materialized. Why, then, should this one?

“Plain and simple, it is union avoidance, and they’re treating their workers in an appalling fashion,” says Ariel Zakarison, a volunteer who has been helping to coordinate DSA’s presence on the picket lines. “They’re doing it because they can get away with it, because of the demographic of workers who they employ. It’s really shameful.”

The biweekly pickets have grown since May Day, when dozens of supporters flooded Ninth Avenue alongside some 200 striking workers, and campaign allies are now looking to broaden the struggle. DSA is mounting a social-media campaign, including videos and other materials, to educate the public about the  B&H workers’ fight. Zakarison has convinced her employer, the arts department at Hunter College, not to buy anything from B&H until the dispute is settled, and aims to encourage other schools and institutions to do the same. (These efforts are independent of the union, which has made no such appeal.)

Will all this be enough to tip public opinion in the workers’ favor and, ultimately, keep B&H’s warehouse in New York? They may not get much relief from a Trump-era National Labor Relations Labor Board, where a Steelworkers complaint over the move is currently pending.

Even before announcing its move to New Jersey, Alberto Sanchez said, B&H had begun hiring temporary workers in response to the successful union drive. It’s a “shitty game” that the company is playing, the LWC’s Mahoma Lopez said, “trying to train agency workers and then trade those workers for union workers.” But Lopez is heartened by the way the campaign has garnered support from groups across the city and beyond. “The workers — they are not alone,” he says.

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Photo: B&H warehouse workers picketing the store on May Day. Credit: Jeff Rae.