February 13, 2017
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY - “Show them your faces,” Raul Pedraza urged in Spanish. “Show them the 375 families they’re going to abandon.”
Pedraza, who works at the B&H Photo Video warehouse in Bushwick, was one of about 150 people picketing in front of the company’s Ninth Avenue camera store in a chilly drizzle Feb. 12, protesting its decision to close its two Brooklyn warehouses by the end of the year.
B&H told workers two weeks before that it will move their warehouse and order-fulfillment jobs to Florence, New Jersey, a town of 12,000 people between Trenton and Philadelphia.
The about 375 workers at the two warehouses, plus another 60 who work in the basement of the Ninth Avenue store, voted to join the United Steelworkers in 2015, and have been trying to negotiate a first contract for 18 months.
“We thought they were negotiating in good faith,” says John Shinn, director Steelworkers District 4, which covers nine Northeastern states including New York and New Jersey. “They never said they were thinking about moving.”
B&H has refused to negotiate over the relocation of the two warehouses, he added. The Steelworkers have filed an unfair-labor-practice charge on the issue with the National Labor Relations Board.
The company said in a statement that the relocation “was driven solely by real-estate issues and the need for a larger facility.” “The union knows our lease ends next year and we do not have the ability to stay in our current location,” said Jacob Mittelman, vice president of operations. It also said that “the company has made clear that all impacted workers are welcome to relocate to the new facility, and B&H provided notice several months in advance to give everyone a chance to consider a plan for the move.”
The catch, the union says, is that the most of the workers live in Brooklyn, and new warehouse is in a rural/suburban area more than 70 miles away, with very limited public transportation. There is no direct New Jersey Transit bus to Florence from New York City. To get there by train, you have to go from Penn Station to Trenton and change for a 20-minute light-rail ride.
“It’s two hours away driving,” says Ruben Sanchez, a bearded 28-year-old in a Chicago White Sox cap who has worked at the Navy Yard warehouse for nine years. “It’s so far, most people won’t go. Most employees don’t have a car. They don’t have a way to transport themselves.”
If the union members aren’t a majority of the workforce at the new warehouse, Shinn says, B&H won’t have to recognize the union. “By moving the plant, they’re trying to run away from the union,” he charges. “We feel it’s a real betrayal.”
B&H workers wanted a union because they were fed up with having to work 80 to 85 hours a week during the December holiday season, bosses who “just give you orders,” and discrimination against the predominantly Latino workforce, says Sanchez, an immigrant from the Mexican state of Puebla.
“They are afraid because workers have organized and shown strength and solidarity,” Steelworkers organizer Arturo Archile told the crowd—a mix of B&H workers and supporters, from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and various student socialist groups—as they assembled at the Hudson Yards subway station before marching to the B&H store. “We are not going to stand for these jobs being taken away.”