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Over 200 employees from B&H Photo’s Brooklyn warehouses went on strike today, with dozens of people also demonstrating outside the company’s Manhattan retail store this morning to urge a boycott of the electronics giant. The employees — striking on International Workers’ Day along with countless others around the world — are accusing B&H of union busting, following the company’s announcement in January that it will close its two warehouses in Brooklyn to consolidate operations in a New Jersey depot later this year. Joining the workers were members of groups including the Laundry Workers Center, Democratic Socialists of America, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and Peoples Power Assemblies.
Contract negotiations are ongoing between B&H and the employees, who are represented by the United Steelworkers (USW), following a lengthy campaign by the workers to combat hazardous conditions and discriminatory practices. The move to New Jersey will uproot 330 jobs from New York and disrupt these talks, possibly violating federal labor laws, as Hyperallergic previously reported. Although B&H is offering all workers the opportunity to transfer to the new facility, located in Florence Township, they would have to travel an additional 70 miles to reach it — a commute that few, if any, are likely to find appealing. B&H confirmed that it would not be providing transportation.
“It’s our day, and we want to stop the company’s move to New Jersey, ” Ramon Cedano, who has worked at the company’s Brooklyn Navy Yard warehouse for eight years, told Hyperallergic. “I’m convinced that this is a tactic to destroy the union. I’m not afraid [about my future] because I’m sure I can find a job, but we have dedicated many years to the company and built it together. Now they want to throw [our relationship] away.”
According to B&H spokesperson Michael McKeon, the lease for the Navy Yard warehouse expires in 2018 with no renewal agreement, making the move unavoidable. The company scoured potential new locations in New York City for years before searching in New Jersey, he said; an apparent lack of real estate options landed them further from the Manhattan store than desired. McKeon said workers could reach the new facility in 45 minutes by car; however, Google Maps suggests that the journey would more realistically require a nearly two-hour drive from New York City or a three-hour trip by public transit.
“This is not about the union,” McKeon told Hyperallergic. “We started this search years ago. We just have to leave. We’ve asked the workers and the union to come with us, but at this point, the union hasn’t really engaged in a lot of negotiations with the new location.” He added that around 70 workers stationed in the retail store’s subterranean warehouse are not striking because B&H is continuing to negotiate in good faith with them.
“We’re hopeful that that is going to end in a fair contract,” he said.
Meanwhile, those based in Brooklyn occupied the pavement outside the store, repeating chants such as, “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down! New York is a union town!” Around noon, a delegation of workers and community members also delivered a letter to B&H management. It demands that the company “respect and acknowledge that WE, 300+ B&H warehouse workers and our wives and children, who have been without us, dedicated our lives to building up your operations … for decades.” Demonstrators organized by Democratic Socialists of America plan to continue picketing every Friday and Sunday throughout this month.
Passersby and patrons were targeted, too: a number of demonstrators stationed at the store’s entrance handed out flyers, asking people to support the workers by taking their money elsewhere. Customers leaving the store clutched their B&H plastic bags and quickly walked away; many approaching the entrance took the flyers but nevertheless went inside, where business seemed to go on as usual.
Most of the patrons I spoke with were visiting from overseas and did not know why the workers were demonstrating; they were simply concerned with getting their shopping done. One New Yorker, who withheld his name, said he had been shopping at B&H for two years and dismissed the strike as a waste of time. I caught one Nickolas Mendas, a tourist from Uruguay, as he was entering the store with his daughter. He told me he had heard about the strike when he visited last week and understood the situation; he was only returning to pick up his order before flying home tomorrow. He noted that the protest did concern him.
“The customer service at B&H is really good,” Mendas said. “But maybe next time I’ll go to Adorama.”