Discriminatory labor practices, safety risks, verbal abuse, and personal humiliation — these allegations are among the many that workers at B&H Photo Video’s Midtown Manhattan store are making against the nation’s largest non-chain photo and video retailer as they launch a new campaign for workplace reform.
On Sunday afternoon, more than 50 employees stationed at the Midtown outlet — the majority of them Hispanic — announced plans to unionize, joining coworkers at off-site warehouses in Brooklyn in an ongoing fight for improved working conditions. A group representative also delivered a letter to a B&H manager at the start of the protest that states these concerns as well as the store’s workers’ intention to form a union.
“We are very well organized,” Zenaido Rosendo, 31, who joined the protests after his shift ended, told Hyperallergic over the phone. “We want to have better treatment and have the company respect our rights. We need to feel like we have a secure job.”
Prior to the public demonstration, on Friday, a United Steelworkers union member had filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to organize a vote to unionize. With support from groups including the Laundry Workers Center and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (B&H is run by and employs hundreds of Hasidic Jews), the action places further pressure on B&H to examine its internal operations, which just over three months ago came under public scrutiny. In October, 200 workers at its large warehouses in Bushwick and the Brooklyn Navy Yard protested similar labor conditions, voting overwhelmingly in favor of unionization in early November. Negotiations with the company over terms of a contract will begin on Thursday.
While most B&H patrons who visit the photo giant’s store see only its approximately 70,000 square feet of sales space, the outlet also has a subterranean warehouse for storing and organizing merchandise. There, workers claim they face unfair treatment from supervisors based on their race as well as risks to personal safety on a daily basis.
According to members of the Laundry Workers Center, which has since October been helping this group of B&H employees organize, workers face unreasonable pressures to process orders from the retail department. When an invoice reaches the basement warehouse, they reportedly have only three minutes to find and send the requested merchandise upstairs before a manager reprimands them; while an average good takes just a minute-and-a-half to deliver, Rosendo said, bulk orders naturally require more time and may take five or six minutes to complete. Still, he said that managers will ask them why their efforts took so long and demand that they work faster. B&H’s representative Henry Posner told Hyperallergic that he has no personal knowledge of such speed requirements and that he has never heard any manager or supervisor raise his voice or speak harshly to anyone, although he stated that “it’s been a while since I went into the basement.
“This is the first time I can recall allegations like these specifically directed towards our Manhattan facility,” he wrote in an email. “I recall there were similar allegations before the Brooklyn workers voted last November. Like these, those were untrue in every particular [aspect].”
B&H, however, is no stranger to accusations of discrimination: employees have sued the store multiple times claiming unfair treatment based on race and gender. Rosendo, who was working at the warehouse as those lawsuits played out, said that while conditions improved slightly after the 2011 case, the environment today remains abusive.
Like their coworkers in the Brooklyn warehouses, B&H’s employees in Midtown also note that they lack basic training to handle utility vehicles, meant to move large or heavy loads, that are often kept in poor condition. Workers themselves often carry many boxes that may weigh as much as 40 to 60 pounds because the company reportedly does not want to spend money on additional moving equipment, which has led to past incidents and bodily injury. According to Posner, warehouse employees receive training as mandated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and NLRB, and the company “strictly conforms to ALL local, state, and federal recruitment, hiring, and employment rules and regulations including those regarding safety and employee training.”
Rosendo, who has worked at B&H for 12 years, told Hyperallergic that such physical labor is always assigned to Hispanic employees; even if someone is capable of other tasks such as scanning products and inputing data into computers, those jobs are largely reserved for Jewish workers. He described many displays of favoritism from B&H’s management based primarily on race, claiming that Hispanic workers receive minimum wage while Jews holding similar positions earn between $18 to $20 an hour — as one coworker reported after comparing pay stubs. Hispanic workers who have worked there for years also often struggle to secure promotions; yet, according to Rosendo, new employees who are Jewish — often trained by longtime Hispanic workers — have been known to ascend in rank as quickly as within one week on the job.
“How come we spend so many years there and train new workers from their community, and right away [B&H] promotes them to new managers?” Rosendo asked, adding that such newcomers often also make more money. Posner denies that the company pays its staff differently based only on racial, religious, or ethnic considerations.
Rosendo also described coworkers being subjected to humiliation when they go through metal detectors at the basement warehouse’s entrance, which Posner confirmed are theft-deterrence devices through which everyone has to pass. According to Rosendo, security officials ask Hispanic workers to pull down their pants if something sets off the detectors, a demand never directed at Jewish employees who trigger a detector. Other abuses arrive in the form of verbal insults: managers allegedly often call employees “donkey” or “crazy” in Yiddish, and workers feel like they have to keep such experiences to themselves not only because of the language barrier but also out of fear of punishment.
“I feel that I am discriminated, that maybe these people do these things to me because I don’t speak English or because I am Latino,” Rosendo told Hyperallergic. “ I feel like I want to cry because I don’t know how to express how I feel in English.
“In order to have a good relationship with the manager you have to be quiet,” he continued. “The moment you say something … they’re looking for the simplest issues as an excuse to take any retaliation actions.”
Following the move to unionize by workers at the Brooklyn warehouses, however, those at the Midtown store have noticed that their supervisors started treating them with respect and offering them perks including free coffee, free English lessons, and parties — “appreciation events,” as Posner put it, that B&H has been organizing “for various departments for some time.” Many workers, especially longtime ones, read such acts — which they say are anomalous — as evidence of B&H’s uneasiness in the face of mounting and increasingly public discrimination claims, which have garnered the attention and support of the public, including many members of the photo and video community that make up the store’s primary clientele. The recent benefits suggest that the company, which allegedly responded to the protests in October with threats of “termination en masse,” anticipated trouble in Manhattan and was attempting to appease those at the on-site basement warehouse.
“They tried to look like they were doing something good, but they were faking everything,” Rosendo said. “They tried to do all these things just so we don’t organize for a union.”
If the employees of the Midtown warehouse vote to unionize, United Steelworkers will explore the possibility of combining the bargaining process with that of the warehouse workers in Brooklyn to ease agreements over contracts. B&H has one month before the vote, during which it may organize its own anti-union campaign, but the workers are confident that they will they forge ahead to establish a better workplace and strengthen their position within the company.
“For the first time the managers were shaking,” Rosendo said of Sunday’s events. “They were nervous, asking us how they could help us. We know these people aren’t going to want to change, but we are going to make them change. Thanks to organizations like the Laundry Workers Center, we can see the power we have.”