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B&H Photo’s Move to New Jersey May Violate Labor Laws

United Steelworkers has accused the retailer B&H Photo of violating federal labor laws with its plan to relocate part of its operations to central New Jersey.

Workers lining up outside B&H’s Evergreen Avenue warehouse in Bushwick on the morning they voted to unionize (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

B&H Photo has announced that it will close its two warehouses in Brooklyn and consolidate operations in a New Jersey depot, prompting the United Steelworkers (USW) to accuse the company of seeking to disrupt ongoing labor contract negotiations, thereby violating federal labor laws. The union filed unfair labor practice charges against the electronics retailer with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on January 13, the day after the the company first shared the decision to relocate by the end of the year. USW representatives have been collectively bargaining on behalf of warehouse workers for about a year, following a landslide vote to unionize to fight hazardous working conditions and discriminatory practices.

B&H is now offering all of the 335 or so current employees the opportunity to continue working at the new, over 500,000-square-foot facility, but with the new building located in Florence Township — an area closer to Philadelphia than to New York City — the likelihood that any will accept is slim. The daily commute would require accommodating an additional 70 miles, covered by a nearly two-hour car ride or three hours by public transit — one way.

“Moving to South New Jersey will make it difficult, and certainly a challenge, for employees currently relying on public transportation to accept employment offers at the new site,” USW District 4 Director John Shinn said in a statement. “This is clearly an illegal tactic designed to avoid the company’s obligation to bargain in good faith.”

B&H said the move was necessary because the lease for its Brooklyn Navy Yard warehouse expires in 2018 with no renewal agreement. According to its statement, it partnered with real estate group Jones Lang LaSalle as well as Empire State Development “for several years” to find a suitable space in New York before turning to New Jersey and settling on the Florence Township facility. The company will still retain its Manhattan store, which includes its own subterranean warehouse, where workers, too, voted to unionize last February.

“We have no choice when it comes to our lease because it is ending with no ability to extend it, and spent more than a year looking for a closer alternative with no success,” B&H spokesman Henry Posner told Hyperallergic. “We believe we have treated everyone as fairly as possible by giving six to 12 months’ notice so everyone can make their own decisions.” The company, he said, had held a formal meeting this month to inform them of the relocation. Posner was not able to confirm if the lease for the warehouse B&H leases in Bushwick was also set to expire; according to DNAInfo, the Navy Yard warehouse will become a movie studio.

“Union negotiations continue and will not be impacted by the relocation, as far as we are concerned,” Posner said, noting that neither past calls for unionization, worker protests, nor negotiations had factored into the decision to move. When asked to respond to USW’s charges, he replied, “If the union needs to posture for the workers, that’s up to them. We have made it very clear that the workers, and the union, are welcome to come with us. That’s hasn’t changed.”

He added that the company has not yet considered establishing any plans that may alleviate travel distance or expenses. According to Jorge Lora, a 37-year-old employee at the B&H warehouse at 105 Evergreen Avenue in Bushwick, many of the workers see the location switch as just another “dirty strategy of the company to make things impossible” and get rid of workers who have challenged them. He does not plan on accepting the offer to work in New Jersey.

“I feel bad because we have made a lot of effort,” Lora told Hyperallergic. “Now the company is playing very dirty with the negotiations. We said it would be in good faith, and it is not so, and this situation has made me feel depressed.” Health and safety conditions at the warehouse, he said, have improved since the union vote, and managers also generally treat workers with more respect. But Lora faces greater concerns now that he faces the prospect of having to find a new job.

For B&H, shifting a large share of its operations to New Jersey gives the company the space it says it needs but also presents an opportunity to start afresh, in a new building that has a clean record. Last February, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration found several hazardous violations at both of the company’s Brooklyn warehouses, slapping the company with a $32,000 penalty; less than two weeks later, the Department of Labor sued it over racist and sexist labor practices at the Navy Yards location.

“B&H will be taking every step necessary to ensure that the facility is up to code from the start and avoid future OSHA violations,” Posner told Hyperallergic in regards to the New Jersey warehouse.

NLRB’s regional office will now investigate USW’s charges and decide whether or not to issue a complaint against the retailer. If it does, the agency will prosecute B&H in front of an administrative law judge who will determine the remedy for unfair labor practices. How quickly the legal process proceeds is anyone’s guess, but USW representatives will continue in the meantime to fight for the workers’ right to bargain collectively.

“As a union, we know that as long as we stay united, our solidarity will prevail against the challenges before us,” Shinn said. “In addition to our legal filings, we will reach out to elected officials and community leaders to ensure B&H warehouse workers receive a fair opportunity for their voices to be heard on the job and at the bargaining table.”

This is not the first time B&H has planned to move far from Brooklyn: in 2013, Crain’s reported that the company appeared to be headed upstate to another expanded warehouse in Chestnut Ridge, New York. At the time, its lease on the Navy Yard building was apparently due to expire in 2017. B&H’s business affiliate, Chestnut Ridge Venture LLC, had already purchased the site, which is located about 40 miles from the city, but the move evidently never happened.

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