B&H workers say they face anti-union campaign

Worker group files unfair labor practice charge as chaos halts work at photo equipment megastore’s warehouses

Employees at B&H’s Brooklyn Navy Yard warehouse say they were questioned in small groups by company representatives about their unionization drive, Oct. 15, 2015.
Jonah Markowitz for Al Jazeera America

NEW YORK — A labor group working with warehouse employees of the New York megastore B&H Photo Video filed an unfair labor practice charge against the company on Friday, a day after workers say they were pulled into meetings with corporate representatives and advised against unionizing.

Employees at two of the B&H warehouses say they were asked throughout Thursday about the unionization drive they launched on Oct. 11 with support from the Laundry Workers Center, a group that organizes immigrant workers. At one point, workers say, the situation at one warehouse escalated, and more than 100 employees left the building, believing they’d been fired en masse when they were told to "get out" by company representatives.

The National Labor Relations Board confirmed it had received at least one unfair labor practice charge related to the incidents.

The workers are seeking to unionize with the United Steelworkers. In a story on Monday, Al Jazeera America reported on the workers’ allegations that they are forced to work up to 16-hour days under unsafe conditions, which include dust-filled warehouses, lack of basic safety equipment such as gloves and workplace accidents stemming from the absence of training. In one incident on Sept. 4, 2014, workers said, they were not permitted to leave the Navy Yard warehouse for up to 30 minutes after two tractor trailers parked next to the warehouse caught fire, threatening to spread to their building.

The company says it treats employees well and denies hindering employees’ efforts to unionize.

“B&H adheres to labor laws and regulations,” Juda Engelmayer, the senior vice president of public relations firm 5W, which has been contracted by B&H, wrote in an email. “And we have no issues with the desire to organize as long as the process does not unlawfully interfere with our abilities to function as a business.”

Engelmayer wrote that none of the workers had been fired and that “employees at the Brooklyn Navy Yard walked off the job voluntarily.”

The workers painted a different version of Thursday's events. Throughout the day, employees in both warehouses say they were brought into meetings and asked about the unionization effort by people they didn’t recognize. Pedro Ramirez, who works in the Navy Yard facility and said he was in one of these groups, said one man advised the workers not to join the union. “They told me they would take away our benefits,” he said. “But we don’t have benefits.”

Edwin Rojas, an employee in B&H’s shipping department at the warehouse on Evergreen Avenue, said he was told, “If you think a union will enter here, it will be over my dead body.”

Workers say the situation at the Navy Yard escalated after one employee was allegedly pushed by a B&H representative, after the employee protested the meetings.

Video footage shot inside the warehouse cafeteria appears to show the company representative pointing his finger toward the exit as he says, “Get out, get out, get out!” He then says, “If you don’t go back to work, you’re getting replaced immediately.”

“Certainly the workers would have understood they were fired by what they were told,” said Jeanne Mirer, one of the lawyers representing the B&H workers.

One employee who returned for his jacket said his cellphone was smashed by a B&H manager. 

The news about the events at Navy Yard quickly spread down the assembly line at the other warehouse on Evergreen Avenue. There, employees began leaving their positions and gathered outside the manager’s office. Soon, employees from the basement and the second floor joined the group. Workers say that after about 30 minutes, the police arrived and said that if they were going to continue their protest, they had to move outside.

Despite Thursday’s chaos, all the warehouse employees were permitted to return to work Friday morning. Many of the workers said they would continue their efforts to unionize. “I told them,” said Rojas, referring to the B&H representatives, “You are no one to change my mind.”

Workers stand outside the warehouse.
Jonah Markowitz for Al Jazeera America
According to the Laundry Workers Center, which helps organize immigrant employees, 199 of approximately 240 B&H warehouse workers have signed union cards.
Jonah Markowitz for Al Jazeera America
B&H's warehouse workers say they are routinely denied basic safety gear such as gloves.
Jonah Markowitz for Al Jazeera America

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