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Jewish Leaders and Activists Pledge Support of B&H Photo Workers Fighting to Unionize

(screenshot via @JFREJ/Twitter)
(screenshot via @JFREJNYC/Twitter)

Two hundred-and-twenty-five Jewish leaders from congregations, universities, and cultural institutions across the nation are calling for B&H Photo Video to end management practices that allegedly violate some of their workers’ rights. On Tuesday, a group of rabbis and workers delivered a letter to a manager at the photo giant’s flagship store in Manhattan that expresses concerns over incidents of verbal abuse, discrimination, and hazardous workforce conditions. Signed largely by rabbis but also by a handful of professors and directors of institutions, the letter represents a significant gesture of solidarity with the workers who voted to unionize in hopes of improving their everyday working environments — firstly, in November, those based at the two Brooklyn warehouses, followed in February by those in the store’s basement warehouse. Contract negotiations between B&H Photo and the workers’ representative, United Steelworkers, are ongoing, but employees claim that managers still intimidate them to lower morale and test their will to unionize.

“We strongly affirm the legal right of B&H warehouse workers to unionize and improve their standard of living,” the letter reads. “We call on you to negotiate a fair contract with workers that reflects their demands for a safe, equitable workplace. In standing up for their rights, B&H warehouse workers continue in the legacy of organized labor to create a more dignified and humane economy.”

Members of JFREJ and B&H Photo warehouse workers demonstrate outside the company's flagship store (photo by Erik McGregor, courtesy Laundry Workers Center) (click to enlarge)
Members of JFREJ and B&H Photo warehouse workers demonstrate outside the company’s flagship store (photo by Erik McGregor, courtesy Laundry Workers Center) (click to enlarge)

New York-based activist group Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) had decided, of its own accord, to prepare the letter last October after discussions with Laundry Workers Center (LWC), the workers’ rights training group that has helped the B&H Photo workers organize. The signatories are diverse, identifying as “Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Humanist, and secular,” according to JFREJ. Hyperallergic was not able to confirm if any were Hasidic — the sect to which B&H’s owners and many of its Jewish employees belong. According to a representative for LWC, a primary reason for the letter was to emphasize that the workers’ campaign is not anti-semitic; another was to demonstrate to the workers that they do have allies within the Jewish community.

The letter details previous claims of unfair treatment of workers that range from verbal abuse to threats of deportation, and includes references to Torah verses that describe fair employment practices. B&H Photo has previously received official government word of illegal business conduct: in February, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) slapped the company with citations and a $32,000 fine for a number of workplace hazards; three weeks later, the Department of Labor sued it for discriminating against individuals based on their gender and/or race.

“We are counting on B&H owners and management to bargain in good faith and sign a good contract with warehouse workers that brings an end to these working conditions,” the JFREJ letter reads.

For its part, B&H Photo has not legally broken any terms during the bargaining process and has attended every scheduled negotiation session. A small number of workers, however, say that they have been unfairly fired for supporting a union: Maurilio Bafurto, an employee of nine years at the company’s Evergreen Avenue warehouse in Bushwick, was fired in April after managers told him he broke merchandise, which he denies; last month, Ricardo Ramirez, another strong voice in the campaign to unionize, was also fired after working at the same location for nearly one year, with managers telling him they did not need anyone in his position anymore. Less than a dozen more have either been suspended or have described feeling pressured to leave their positions.

B&H Photo has denied these reports, with spokesperson Henry Posner publishing a statement on the Jewish Daily Forward.

“At no point was any employee terminated as an act of retaliation, such claims are outright fabrications with no basis in reality,” he writes. “In the seven months since the warehouse employees voted to unionize, only a handful of warehouse employees from a company of close to 2000 were terminated, and all for valid documented reasons.

“In fact, the United Steel Workers Union was aware of any terminations beforehand and did not object, recognizing our right to continue to operate our business.”

In the months since the government-issued reports, the workers have noticed improved conditions in the warehouses, where managers have demonstrated less aggressive behaviors and worker reports of on-site hazards have dropped, according to LWC. However, they still have to face the difficult, day-to-day challenges of moving heavy material, and many are still working daily shifts of 10 to 12 hours. Changes to such circumstances are what the workers are fighting for as they continue to negotiate for a union.

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