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On Eve of Union Vote, Hundreds of Arts Professionals Sign Open Letter Supporting B&H Photo Workers

#bhexposed campaign stickers created by Radix Media in support of B&H workers (photo via @radixmedia/Instagram)
#bhexposed campaign stickers created by Radix Media in support of B&H workers (photo via @radixmedia/Instagram)

B&H Photo Video workers are continuing to push for unionization and improved work conditions in the national electronics retailer’s two Brooklyn warehouses, and although the company has intensified its attempts to quell these efforts, the campaign is gaining vast public support. On October 22, a coalition of photography and video professionals launched an open letter to B&H management, calling on the photo manufacturing giant to end the hazardous working conditions and discriminatory practices that over 200 of its warehouse workers claim they regularly face, and to negotiate a fair labor contract.

The Photo/Video Alliance for Fair Labor, organized with members of Laundry Workers Center United (LWC) and OWS Arts & Labor, posted the letter online, and within a week it received over 1,000 signatures from artists, journalists, gallerists, educators, students, photo technicians, and others — and the list of names continues to grow. Workers will decide in a vote tomorrow whether or not to unionize; a previous trial vote showed that over 80 percent support the motion, the New York Times reported.

“We stand with the workers of the #BHexposed campaign, and call on B&H Photo Video to allow the workers to form a union, free from intimidation and retaliation, and quickly negotiate a fair contract,” the letter reads. “Many of us can no longer in good conscience patronize B&H, and we stand together closely watching the company, ready to act and support the workers.”

(image via @milkmcspilly/Instagram)
A chalk message outside the Javits Center on October 22 (image via @milkmcspilly/Instagram) (click to enlarge)

Signatories include entire groups, from Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) and People’s Climate Arts to the Workers Art Coalition, the Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP), and the Art Handlers Alliance of New York. Among artists who have signed in solidarity are photographers Liz Deschenes and Dana Hoey, painter and critic Stephen Westfall, multimedia artist A.L. Steiner, and multi-disciplinary artist and activist Blithe Riley (who has worked with Occupy Wall Street’s offshoot Arts & Labor). Still others include the esteemed author and critic David Levi Strauss, Light Industry founder and director Thomas Beard, and Tel Aviv-based curator Chen Tamir, who until recently served as Flux Factory’s executive director.

Also adding his signature is Robert McNeely, previously an official White House photographer for former President Bill Clinton, who told the petition writers, “I have bought equipment from B&H for decades and even have spoken at B&H-sponsored events in the past, but I am appalled by the conduct of B&H’s management described by workers as they have tried to organize a union and get a fair contract. I stand with B&H warehouse workers and encourage everyone to support them as well.”

Annie Shaw, one of the organizers of the letter campaign, told Hyperallergic that the Photo/Video Alliance for Fair Labor drafted the open letter after B&H began retaliating against workers for organizing, allegedly even threatening “termination en masse.”

B&H workers demonstrating outside its Manhattan store (photo by @rrraquiii/Instagram)
B&H workers demonstrating outside its Manhattan store (photo by @rrraquiii/Instagram) (click to enlarge)

“We knew that it would reach important photographers since many of them are B&H’s main clientele,” she wrote via email, stressing that workers were not involved in the petition’s writing process. “We intend to keep raising awareness of this struggle, especially since B&H is continuously using many anti-union tactics against the workers.”

The most recent of such tactics allegedly occurred yesterday afternoon, when management organized large meetings at both warehouses — each essentially a “party with food, music, and raffles,” as LWC volunteer Diego Apaza told Hyperallergic, as a way to convince workers to vote against union formation. The gatherings were even graced by B&H owner Herman Schreiber himself, who gave speeches stating that the workers were family and that B&H deserves another chance. According to Apaza, a poster hanging on a wall announced that management was also calling for an apology from the workers.

“The company knows they’re going to lose and is just pulling out anything they can,” Apaza said. “They filled two shopping carts with food and toiletries and placed them in the hallways of both warehouses. They had a sign there that said, this is how much food you could buy for your family if you didn’t have to pay the union. They’re scaring the workers with union fees so they have to pick between the union and their family.”

At least five workers, he said, have even been bribed with as much as $15,000 each “to switch sides,” and those who agreed to were given company-made red T-shirts that convey their opposition for the union. Others are still claiming that B&H is continuing to conduct private interrogations during which hired, third-party individuals shout at and insult them in attempts to challenge their pro-union stances.

B&H workers demonstrating (photo by @angel_luis_morales/Instagram)
B&H workers demonstrating (photo by @angel_luis_morales/Instagram) (click to enlarge)

According to Apaza, warehouse managers have improved some conditions — but these simply include allowing some workers to leave on time rather than remain past official work hours as well as greeting them in the morning and saying farewell at night.

“B&H can make all the changes that they want,” Apaza said. “The only thing wrong with that is that they’re waiting until now to make them. For B&H, it’s really about power. It’s about them trying to keep a population [of patrons]. One of the biggest things with the petition is trying to keep the base of B&H informed about things like this.”

The open letter has shown success from the start: it garnered over 400 signatures within nine hours of going live, largely due to volunteers approaching people that day at the PDN PhotoPlus International Conference + Expo at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. Since then, support has built by word of mouth, with many people reaching out to the Photo/Video Alliance asking how they can help.

In spite of the claims about B&H’s anti-union campaign — into which the National Labor Relations Board has launched an investigation — Apaza says the workers are optimistic about the vote on Wednesday.

“I feel like the spirits are high … the workers say over and over again it’s because of the community support,” he said. “They had tried to do something similar before and said they were scared to speak up then, but they sounded a lot different now … it’s incredible how much they know they’re united.”

B&H did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

The open letter, in full, reads as follows:

To the owners and management of B&H Photo Video:

We are writing today in support of the over 200 B&H Photo Video warehouse workers who are seeking to form a union and secure a contract to protect themselves against the dangerous work conditions and discrimination they are currently facing.

As photo and video professionals, artists, music professionals, educators, and students, we believe that the images we create have the agency for social change. This is why it is deeply upsetting to learn that the equipment and materials used to create our work has been brought to us on the backs of other workers who are treated so unfairly on a daily basis.

B&H Photo Video warehouse workers describe alarming problems:

  • Exposure to dusts including fiberglass, benzene and asbestos, that led to chronic nosebleeds and skin rashes
  • Lack of access to water that led to some workers developing kidney stones
  • Being instructed to carry heavy loads alone, leading to musculoskeletal injuries
  • Workers required to work 13-16 hour shifts with only one 45 minute lunch break, and no other breaks
  • Verbal abuse including being called derogatory names
  • Little or no safety training
  • On one occasion workers were not allowed to leave the warehouse for more than 30 minutes during a fire that was filling the building with smoke
  • Retaliation against workers organizing a union

We stand with the workers of the #BHexposed campaign, and call on B&H Photo Video to allow the workers to form a union, free from intimidation and retaliation, and quickly negotiate a fair contract. Many of us can no longer in good conscience patronize B&H, and we stand together closely watching the company, ready to act and support the workers.

We also ask that universities, schools, non-profits, unions, photo agencies, and other groups follow the lead of WITNESS and IATSE in publicly declaring their support for the B&H warehouse workers.

Signed,
The Photo/Video Alliance

See the full list of signatories of the open letter here.

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