Protesters gathered at Gracie Mansion in Manhattan on Wednesday evening where the Mayor Bill de Blasio held a gala celebrating the accomplishments of New York’s Dominican community. About fifty activists distributed flyers outside the mayor’s residence in solidarity with approximately 300 Latino warehouse workers whose jobs are under threat at B&H Photo Video. The protesters accuse de Blasio’s office of complicity in the electronics giant’s attempts to bust the warehouse workers union. About 20 B&H warehouse workers later joined the rally after their shifts had ended, arriving just in time to greet the mayor’s gussied-up guests as they left the party.
After a hard fought union drive at B&H’s two Brooklyn warehouses and over a year of contract negotiations with the United Steelworkers union, B&H announced this January that it would be moving its operations to New Jersey. The lease at the larger of B&H’s warehouses, located at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is expiring and the company says it wants to consolidate the two into one. Pointing to a Jan. 13 DNAinfo article in which David Ehrenberg, head of the city’s Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, told the news outlet of plans to open a movie studio at the waterfront site, the worker advocates charge that the de Blasio administration knew of B&H’s plans to head to New Jersey even as the company was in the midst of negotiations with its Brooklyn workers.
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According to City Hall spokesperson Freddi Goldstein, the city tried to convince B&H to stay, offering them new and renovated locations within the Navy Yard. “Only then did the Navy Yard pursue other tenants to ensure the space … remains active,” Goldstein wrote in an email to The Indypendent. He went on to say that they were prepared to help the workers by offering “job training and placement assistance.”
Steiner Studios is scheduled to open a film production site at what is, for now, B&H’s Navy Yard location — part of de Blasio’s plan to create a film hub along the East River in Brooklyn. Two firms affiliated with the studio donated $5000 to de Blasio’s now-defunct charity, Campaign for One New York, shortly before applying for building permits for the Navy Yard location.
“If de Blasio were just to express that he thinks that this is a bad thing that this company is doing, that I’m sure would make a difference,” said 31-year-old Ariel Zakarison, a volunteer organizer with Democratic Socialist of America, one of the groups behind the rally at Gracie Mansion. “But he hasn’t even released a statement of any sort.”
Despite the company’s efforts to dissuade workers from unionizing, B&H employees voted overwhelmingly to join the United Steelworkers in November 2015. The unionization campaign was largely driven by the Laundry Workers Center, a nonprofit which seeks to organize low-income laundry, restaurant and warehouse workers. The success of the union drive followed charges of racial discrimination at B&H that go back years. Latino workers were reportedly forced to use separate bathrooms from white employees and were given lower wages than the company’s white temporary workers.
Thirty-year-old Santos Ramos, a Guatemalan immigrant who has worked at B&H’s Navy Yard warehouse for five years, said that during the union drive he watched as his boss smashed a coworkers phone after he filmed a confrontation between management and pro-union workers. B&H is currently under federal investigation by the National Labor Relations Board in response to a United Steelworkers complaint that accuses the company of union avoidance.
The company says that its current employees are welcome to stay on at its new location, but Ramos and other workers contend the offer is unrealistic, given the long distance commute from Brooklyn they would face. B&H has not offered its Brooklyn employees travel compensation. It’s smaller warehouse in Bushwick is scheduled to close this month; the Navy Yard location, next year. B&H workers and their supporters have vowed to keep up their pressure on B&H and to pressure the mayor to intervene on their behalf.
Photo (top): The mayor hosted an event honoring Dominican heritage at Gracie Mansion Wednesday night. Protesters were gathered outside. Credit: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office.