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Not a Mitzvah at B&H

Photo Giant B&H exploiting workers, now the workers are forming a union with United Steel Workers.

Brian Young's picture
Oct 19, 2015

200 workers are fighting back against the largest non-chain photo store in the US. Last week, the employees held a rally to publicly denounce B&H over their history of safety complaints and alleged discrimination.  The employees then flooded the flag ship store to deliver their demands which include better workplace safety, less hours and recognition of their right to organize with the United Steelworkers.

The workers say that the safety violations go beyond a lack of training to include working in factories filled with asbestos and fiberglass, causing them to break out in rashes, suffer kidney stones from not being allowed to go to the bathroom, fainting and dizziness. According to a statement from the workers, “My nose bleeds two or three times a day sometimes,” said B&H worker Silverio Cano. “I went to the doctor, and she told me that the nosebleeds were caused by the dust in the warehouse.”

The workers, many of whom are undocumented men, ask for simple safety equipment like gloves, but are told that gloves are too expensive. One worker said “They treat us as if we were animals,” Florencio Salgado said. “We are involved in this because we are tired of being abused.” 

"We decided to change the conditions in our workplace. We demand respect and to be treated as human beings,” said Raul Pedraza, a B&H warehouse worker for over 6 years.

The final straw that broke the camel’s back, was in 2014 when a truck caught fire right outside the factory. Conjuring up images of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, workers were told they could not leave the warehouse, even as flames licked the side of the building and smoke filled the warehouse.  When the employees were finally allowed to leave, they were forced to go through metal detectors, causing some to be in the warehouse for another 30 minutes.

Oscar Orellana, works 13 hour shifts at the Brooklyn Navy yard warehouse.  After coming home from a long shift, he can barely lift his 2 year old daughter after being hurt on the job.  Orellana was hurt when he fell from an 8 foot high pallet he was unloading.  While one of his job responsibilities was to operate a forklift, he was never given training in how to safely operate it, even though he let his manager know he had never used one before.  He even asked for a hard hat, but was told that B&H would not provide one. 

This is not the first time B&H has had problems with their labor force.  According to Al-Jazeera, "In 2007, B&H settled $4.3 million discrimination lawsuit filed by Latino workers over unequal pay and lack of health benefits. The suit forced B&H to submit to monitoring by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Yet, despite the monitoring, B&H was soon slapped by a new round of lawsuits. In 2009, a group of female workers sued the company, arguing they were paid less than male employees and were not promoted because of their gender. B&H promptly fired the lead plaintiff. (The suit was later dismissed.) In 2011, in the third suit in five years, B&H was hit by another multimillion dollar racial discrimination lawsuit, filed by two Latino workers, who claimed the company refused to promote them and that B&H was an “abusive work environment.”

After the workers rally, B&H responded by calling employees in the warehouse into meetings to discuss the organizing effort.  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.” 

After the meetings, tensions escalated with 100 workers walking out of the warehouse believing that they had been fired for organizing.  Tensions had escalated after an employee refused to enter into a meeting and was pushed by a B&H employee.  Video shows a B&H rep 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.”

As news of the alleged firings spread throughout the warehouse, workers began walking off of the job and met to rally for the dismissed workers outside of the mangers office.  After about 30 minutes police arrived and moved the workers outside. 

After the rally, all workers were permitted to return to work the following day.  One worker said “I told them.  You are no one to change my mind.”

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