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B&H Workers Try to Stave Off Warehouse Closings

August 11, 2017
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – In a last-ditch effort to save their jobs, about 15 workers at B&H Photo Video’s two Brooklyn warehouses joined about 55 supporters for a protest outside Gracie Mansion Aug. 8.
B&H announced in January that it was going to close the warehouses, one in Building 664 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and a smaller one at 105 Evergreen Ave. in Bushwick, and relocate the more than 300 jobs to Florence, New Jersey, about 70 miles away. The company had planned to close the Bushwick warehouse on Aug. 7 but extended the deadline to the end of the month. It says it will close the Navy Yard facility later in the year.
“I believe the most important thing is to save our jobs because if we lose our jobs, we’re going to suffer the consequences,” Ramon Cedano, a 47-year-old Dominican immigrant who’s worked at B&H for eight years, told LaborPress in Spanish through an interpreter. “We have families to support.” 
The closing was announced more than a year after the workers voted to join the United Steelworkers. The union filed several complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the company had refused to bargain in good faith and that the closing was a ploy to bust the union. The NLRB dismissed the charges related to the closing, but “has indicated that they have found merit” in the charge over B&H’s refusal to continue to bargain for the first contract and “will issue a complaint on this matter if B&H does not settle,” says Del Vitale, assistant to the director at Steelworkers District 4.
In a statement released Aug. 2, B&H dismissed the protests against the closing as “a misleading campaign by several so-called labor advocacy groups alleging that the warehouse moves are part of a scheme to avoid bargaining with the union.” It said it “has been negotiating in good faith with the United Steelworkers union regarding a contract for our Manhattan warehouse employees (not affected by the relocation) and our Brooklyn employees regarding the effects of the move”—but omitted mentioning a contract for the Brooklyn workers.
The Steelworkers have now “turned our attention to the more immediate matter of bargaining severance and transition assistance,” says Vitale.
The protest was scheduled at Gracie Mansion, where Mayor Bill de Blasio was hosting an event celebrating Dominican heritage, to demand that the mayor “publicly call out B&H and say that they’re responsible for these jobs,” says Rosanna Rodriguez of the Laundry Workers Center, which helped the workers organize. “We know the de Blasio administration knew B&H was going to move the facility and destroy union jobs,” she adds.
B&H claims that its “plans for the move began years before employees voted to join a union.” It said in the Aug. 2 statement that it can’t renew its lease on the Navy Yard space, which expires early next year, because New York City assigned the rights to the lease to Steiner Studios, a large film production facility in the adjacent building, “more than five years ago.”  It says it was unable to find a suitable warehouse space in the city, and that the move to New Jersey “is part of a long-held plan to modernize its fulfillment center in a large, single facility to better serve customers and compete more effectively in the global economy.”
“Despite the best efforts of the Navy Yard to keep B&H, including offers of both new and renovated space, the company ultimately decided to relocate,” a spokesperson for the mayor’s office told LaborPress. “Only then did the Navy Yard pursue other tenants to ensure the space used by B&H remains active. Their lease expires May 31, 2018. City agencies stand ready to support the impacted workers, including offering job training and placement assistance.”
Ariel Zakarison of the Democratic Socialist Alliance, which has joined the weekly pickets at B&H’s flagship Ninth Avenue store, said the group wants to show solidarity and “make an example of companies that have racist labor practices and are union-busters.”
In February 2016, the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs filed a lawsuit against B&H, alleging that the company hired exclusively Hispanic men for entry-level laborer jobs at the Navy Yard warehouse, completely excluding women and contributing to “the near exclusion of black and Asian employees”; that it “promoted and compensated its Hispanic workers at a significantly lower rate than comparable white workers”; and that it “relegated Hispanic warehouse workers to separate, unsanitary and often inoperable restrooms.”
If B&H doesn’t cease those practices, the suit demands that its more than $46 million in federal contracts, including an agreement to supply the Federal Bureau of Investigation, be canceled. The case is still pending, according to a Labor Department spokesperson.
Meanwhile, B&H has hired high-powered help to counter the campaign to keep the jobs in Brooklyn. It retained the union-busting law firm, Jackson Lewis, to represent it before the NLRB. It also hired Mercury Public Affairs, a public-relations firm that specializes in crisis management and boasts that it “developed a successful strategy for a global automaker to keep union out of U.S.”
Mercury also claims credit for helping New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former New York Gov. George Pataki win in traditionally Democratic states. But its staff is bipartisan: It includes former Sen. David Vitter (R-La.); Fernando Ferrer, the Democratic mayoral candidate in 2005; and Rachel Noerdlinger, formerly Al Sharpton’s press secretary. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder hired it for two months in 2016 to help with media relations during the Flint water crisis, paying it out of his 501(c)(4) “dark money” fund. Walmart hired Mercury in 2012 to lobby Los Angeles officials to approve a proposed store, but dropped it after a staffer at the firm was caught posing as a student journalist to get into a union press conference.
Mercury vice president Chapin Fay, who spent two hours watching the protest, told LaborPress that “several” B&H workers have moved to New Jersey, accepting the company’s offer of jobs in the new warehouse, and that B&H is working with the Steelworkers to help them make the transition, such as by finding schools for their children. He said he didn’t know if it was doing anything to help the workers staying in Brooklyn find other jobs.
“I don’t want to move,” says Daniel Flandez, 31, a packer in the Navy Yard warehouse, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. A Mexican immigrant and the father of a two-year-old daughter, he’s worked there for six years. He says only “one or two” workers have taken jobs at the New Jersey warehouse, and they were management sympathizers. The company, he adds, didn’t offer the other workers any help finding new jobs, and “they didn’t offer transportation for moving to New Jersey.”

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