Last night in front of Gracie Mansion, the Upper East Side residence of New York City’s mayor, a group of roughly 70 demonstrators — including about 20 B&H Photo Video warehouse workers and another 50 labor rights activists — protested the imminent closing of the electronics retailer’s two Brooklyn warehouses and the relocation of the workers’ jobs to central New Jersey.
Standing by the gates to and on the street corners directly across from the mayor’s residence, the protesters — under the watch of a handful of NYPD officers — brandished signs, chanted slogans, and handed out flyers to passersby, some of whom engaged in conversation and a couple of whom even joined the protest. The demonstrators blamed Mayor Bill de Blasio for not doing anything to prevent B&H from closing its warehouses — resulting in more than 300 jobs moving out of the city — and for his complicity in what many see as union-busting efforts on B&H’s part.
For almost two years, employees at B&H’s warehouses have been involved in an ongoing labor struggle (punctuated with charges of discrimination and mistreatment), which escalated when they voted to unionize in November 2015. Although the workers voted to join the United Steelworkers (USW), B&H management and the union have yet to negotiate their first agreement. Many workers and their supporters see the proposed move of B&H’s Brooklyn warehouses (one on Evergreen Avenue in Bushwick, the other in the Navy Yard) to New Jersey as a way for management to avoid making an agreement with them. Earlier this year, USW filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that B&H was violating federal labor laws by moving its warehouse operations to central New Jersey. Because the city owns the Brooklyn Navy Yard warehouse that B&H has been renting since 2008, protesters see the mayor’s lack of action as siding with B&H management against the workers. They saw last night, when de Blasio was hosting a reception celebrating Dominican heritage (a majority of the protesting B&H warehouse workers are Latino), as the perfect time to take their fight to the mayor’s mansion.
The goal was to “to protest publicly against the mayor’s complicity with B&H’s drive to destroy the workers’ jobs and union rights,” explained Rosanna Rodriguez, Co-Executive Director of the Laundry Workers Center (LWC), which facilitated last night’s protest. She added: “I’m Dominican, and some of the B&H workers are, too. The mayor says he’s pro-immigrant, but his actions are not reflecting that.” She added that in the spring, B&H workers tried to set up a meeting with the mayor’s office to discuss their situation, but so far nothing has been scheduled. According to LWC, B&H will shut down its Bushwick warehouse later this month, while it plans to vacate Navy Yard Building 664 later this year.
Ramon Cedano, a Dominican who has been working at B&H’s Navy Yard warehouse for eight years — his first and only job since he moved to the US — said he’s increasingly disappointed in the USW, which didn’t participate in last night’s protest. “When we started meeting with the union, it looked OK, but the union isn’t being helpful,” he said.
“The union doesn’t seem to be participating in the protest, and that’s an interesting fact,” said B&H spokesperson Michael McKeon. He added that B&H is still negotiating with USW concerning workers at the company’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, who voted to unionize in February 2016. The building houses both its retail operation and, beneath it, a warehouse — the only part of the B&H operation that’s staying put. In a recent press release, the company pointed to the July 24 withdrawal of the case USW brought against it as evidence that the NLRB had “dismissed allegations that B&H was moving its Brooklyn warehouses to New Jersey to avoid the union that represents its warehouse employees.” USW has not responded to Hyperallergic’s inquiries and the NLRB has not replied to our Freedom of Information Act request for the letter approving withdrawal of the case against B&H.
As for the hundreds of warehouse workers in Brooklyn who stand to lose their jobs, McKeon says that B&H is “trying to offer a rational package to those who want to move [to New Jersey] or a severance package to those who don’t. We’re trying to do the right thing.” Asked about the number of workers who have agreed to move, McKeon responded: “It’s a handful at this point but so far we’ve only asked Evergreen [Avenue warehouse] workers to make a decision,” a share of the B&H workforce he estimates at about 50 union workers. He added: “We will ask the Navy Yard workers, by far the majority, to make decisions in the coming weeks.” However, packages or not, the move may prove impossible for many workers who’ve made their lives in Brooklyn.
“I would follow the company, but they won’t offer transportation [from New York to the New Jersey warehouse],” said Cedano, who lives in Bushwick and can’t uproot his family. “In a private car, it would take three hours to get there; with public transport, even longer.” He added that he knows of only a few fellow workers who are following their jobs out of state.
In addition to highlighting the challenges the B&H warehouse workers are still facing, last night’s protest brought a few larger questions to the fore. I asked the youngest protester in attendance, Justin — the 14-year-old the son of LWC’s other co-director — why he thought this action was important. “It’s important because it involves the status of immigrant workers fighting for their rights,” he said. “They don’t want to work all night, and they want to get paid as much as their coworkers.”
The protest brought out members of many groups beyond the B&H workers and LWC organizers, including members of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Internationalist Group, the New York City Democratic Socialists, and City University of New York students, who chanted: “What’s disgusting? Union busting! What’s outrageous? B&H wages!”; and “Unión, Fuerza, Solidaridad!” The B&H warehouse workers themselves arrived about two hours after the official start of the protest, clearly exhausted — they had to work late last night.