New York City Democratic Socialists (DSA) have launched an official boycott against B&H Photo to end the electronics retailer’s exploitation of hundreds of its workers, many of whom will likely lose their jobs later this year when the company moves its Brooklyn warehouses to New Jersey. That migration, announced in January, may violate labor laws, and is seen by many workers and their supporters as a tactic to prevent the formation of a union, which about 80% of employees voted in favor of in November 2015.
The socialist organization has been working closely with employees for months, holding solidarity rallies outside B&H’s Manhattan store every weekend since the end of March. They were there yesterday — along with warehouse workers and members of Laundry Workers Center — to spread word of #BoycottBnH. The campaign, which invites people to sign an open letter on its website, represents a ramping up of efforts on a global level to support the workers not only in their fight for a union but for better rights in general.
“The decision to call the boycott has to do with the nature of B&H‘s business,” DSA’s Francis Reynolds told Hyperallergic. “Though there’s a lot of traffic to the store itself, much of their business is through their website. Calling for a boycott and encouraging people to spread the message via social media is a way to reach those customers across the country who may never come to the physical store.”
B&H has a known track record of hazardous working conditions and workplace discrimination, particularly in its two Brooklyn warehouses, where the vast majority of workers are Hispanic. In February 2016, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) fined the company for a number of labor violations; a week later, the US Department of Labor sued it over discriminatory practices. B&H spokesperson Henry Posner told Hyperallergic earlier this year that the company “will be taking every step necessary to ensure that the [new] facility is up to code from the start” to avoid future violations.
— Eric Dirnbach (@EricDirnbach) July 16, 2017
DSA decided to launch the boycott on Friday, a few days after the deadline B&H gave workers at the Evergreen warehouse in Bushwick to decide if they wanted to relocate when the building closes in early August. Workers could have agreed to relocate to the new New Jersey warehouse, which is about 70 miles away; relocate to the Navy Yard warehouse, whose lease expires in nine months; or relinquish their jobs and receive a severance pay. According to Reynolds, they voted to reject this final offer. Relocating to the Navy Yard warehouse would mean “working 13-hour days under a set of ‘conditions’ that would effectively reduce their rights and make them vulnerable second-class workers (temporary, at-will employees),” he said, adding that the severance pay was “meager.”
Workers are now demanding that B&H reverse its decision to close its warehouses, but the company has emphasized that the migration is unavoidable as both leases are set to expire.
“We have offered a fair package to cover relocation costs, or severance for those who don’t want to move,” B&H spokesperson Michael McKeon told Hyperallergic. “We made clear in January that every worker was welcomed to come with us. Some will, and have leased apartments, enrolled kids in local schools and prepared to move. But not as many as we hoped so far.”
The company has yet to announce the options for workers at its second Brooklyn warehouse in the Navy Yard but expects to do so in the coming weeks. When its lease ends next year, the space will be overtaken by Steiner Studios, which already has established headquarters in the industrial complex.
DSA will continue to picket every Friday and Sunday outside the Manhattan store. While some potential patrons have stopped at the entrance to learn about the protests and chosen to shop elsewhere, many have crossed the picket line. From B&H’s perspective, business continues as always.
“The protests have had no impact on our business and expect the petition will have just as much impact,” B&H spokesperson Michael McKeon told Hyperallergic. “We have not engaged them because they do not represent our workers. The union does, and we have regular conversations with the union.”