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Warehouse workers for B&H Photo Video voted for union representation with the United Steelworkers in a landslide victory, with 200 electing to unionize and 88 dissenting —amounting to a voter turnout of about 80%. The election, administered by the National Labor Relations Board, follows a year of organization efforts in partnership with the worker-led community organization Laundry Workers Center United. Although workers have for many years described hazardous working conditions in both the electronics retailer’s Brooklyn warehouses as well as experiences of discrimination and verbal abuse, the decision to unionize represents the first time they have successfully come together to actively demand change.
“We went through a lot,” Santiago Cano Solis, a warehouse worker for nine years, told Hyperallergic shortly after the election results were announced. “We really worked, and we were able to win. Now we have to celebrate because we won.”
Spirits were already high this morning when workers gathered near the Bushwick and Navy Yards warehouses before the start of their workday to be briefed on the voting process. Many expressed their confidence in a victory and were ready to vote; at the Brooklyn Navy Yard building, over 150 workers lined up outside and started chanting in Spanish, “What do we want? Union! When do we want it? Now!”
Near the Evergreen warehouse at Green Central Knoll Park, 33 others formed a circle around Dave Wasiura, a United Steelworkers staff representative, who assured them of the benefits of union representation.
“Today you decide if you want to have a voice in your workplace,” Wasiura said. “There will be a better day ahead as we move together as one union and one brother.”
Workers filed into the voting booths, located in the warehouses themselves, when they opened around 6am. B&H representatives were not present during the actual voting nor were there any reports of intimidation from employers, although the company allegedly attempted to dissuade workers from supporting unionization through threats of termination en masse, aggressive interrogations, and even bribery in the weeks and even days leading up to the election. Some people have also accused B&H of creating sockpuppets to sway public opinion on the controversies through tweets or comments that aggressively defend the company’s treatment of its workers. B&H’s director of corporate communications, Henry Posner, denied such allegations, telling Hyperallergic that such tactics are “unethical … I’ve seen some of these Twitter accounts. We have asked at least one to stop his/her online activity, and he or she agreed to do so and apparently has done so.” Some of the comments Hyperallergic saw online yesterday have since been deleted.
Public support for the workers’ efforts have nevertheless grown rapidly ever since they announced their decision to organize with the United Steelworkers on October 11. Most recently, the Photo/Video Alliance for Fair Labor published an open letter last week in solidarity with the workers, and it has already received hundreds of signatories, including many arts professionals — from author and critic David Levi Strauss to Robert McNeely, previously an official photographer for former President Bill Clinton.
Juan Guerrero, a four-year worker at B&H’s Evergreen warehouse, said that one benefit he is looking forward to most is, “being able to work in a clean environment without having to go to a hospital.
“I was perfectly fine until I started working here,” he said. “I’ve had muscle spasms two times already. Yesterday I went home because I couldn’t breathe. There was nonstop coughing.”
Workers and organizers have already planned many evenings of celebrating, but the vote is only the first step in what may be a long, uphill struggle. The National Labor Relations Board gives both B&H and its employers one week to make any objects before it certifies the election. While the workers probably won’t file any objects, the retailer may; if it does not, however, both parties will begin collectively bargaining a contract.
Hyperallergic reached out to B&H and received the following statement from Posner:
B&H Photo has always stood behind our employees’ legal right to seek union representation, and today’s outcome and our commitment to engage in a respectful dialogue with our Employees and their representatives still holds true.
Our employees have played a central role to the success of our business, and that is why we have gone to great lengths to ensure the highest standards for living wages and benefits, workplace safety, and respect and dignity in the workplace. We look forward to continuing an ongoing dialogue with our employees to make sure that like our customers, their satisfaction is a central focus of our business model.
Jeanne Mirer, another attorney representing the workers, said that although B&H may delay the process “to make it difficult for us,” she could not think of any objections it could file that would have legal ground.
“Hopefully there won’t be any hurdles,” Mirer told Hyperallergic. “We’ll know within a week where they stand, and hopefully we’ll start bargaining. I hope they understand that this is a really important landslide, and there could be a real problem if they try to make it difficult.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of dissenting votes as 80, when it was in fact 88.