For more than 40 years, shoppers looking for photo and electronic equipment have gone to B&H in Manhattan. But in the last decade, the Hassidic owners of B&H have faced multiple discrimination lawsuits for the mistreatment of their Hispanic employees.
In response, workers voted to unionize last year to improve working conditions. Just months later, B&H announced they were moving their warehouses two hours away to New Jersey. Over 350 workers could lose their jobs, and they’ve been protesting the warehouse move weekly. Eli Horowitz went to a protest to get the latest on the ongoing saga.
HOROWITZ: At 34th St and 9th Ave, under the green B&H awning, hundreds of Sunday strollers are weaving around a group of 20 protesters. One of those protesters is Chris Mowey.
MOWEY: We’re out here protesting the fact that in response to their workers at the warehouses trying to form a union, the B&H management, instead of trying to negotiate with those unions legally, move the warehouses 75 miles away to New Jersey where the workers can’t possibly maintain their jobs.
HOROWITZ: One employee facing that very predicament is Andre Martinez, who’s worked at B&H for eight years and spoke to me through a translator.
MARTINEZ: [through translator] “I have two hernias from carrying heavy boxes of 80 and 90 pounds at work. I’ve been affected significantly. I can’t work.”
HOROWITZ: The Laundry Workers Center has helped workers like Martinez organize and ultimately unionize. Mahoma Lopez works at the center and was at the protest. He says that the employees voted to join the United Steelworkers last year, and B&H is trying to bust the union.
LOPEZ: Because they are planning to move to New Jersey that’s basically a tactic to run away from the union.
HOROWITZ: Lopez says they can’t stop B&H from moving their warehouse but they can try to get customers to boycott the store.
LOPEZ: Basically put pressure onto the company and ask the customers to don’t buy because we need to support the workers. We cannot permit losing 300 jobs in New York City just because this company is very greedy.
HOROWITZ: If you walk into B&H, you’ll see many Hassidic employees and managers. Most declined to comment, but employee Chester Strolevich says the move to New Jersey is nothing more than a real estate decision.
STROLEVICH: [confrontation between a DSA volunteer, Horowitz and Strolevich] B&H has lost the contract of the building in Evergreen Ave and Navy Yard, we have to move from there and we found a huge place in Florence New Jersey.
HOROWITZ: Strolevich says B&H might give employees train vouchers or $5,000 to help employees find new jobs. No one from management confirmed this. One manager came outside and gave me a copy of B&H’s official statement which calls the allegations of discrimination false. Minutes later, New York City Councilmember Ben Kallos stumbled upon the protest and joined in.
KALLOS: B&H needs to make sure they take care of their employees and they shouldn’t be closing up any of their warehouses and moving them anywhere but New York City. If you’re using warehouses outside the city then you’re not a city company.
HOROWITZ: Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side, East Harlem and Roosevelt Island, says B&H is a staple of New York and he’s shopped there himself, but he says what they’re doing is wrong.
KALLOS: When your employees organize and they have an election to join a union, closing up shop and moving somewhere else isn’t right.
HOROWITZ: For now, workers like Andre Martinez, the employee out of work with two hernias, have no choice but to make the four-hour round trip commute to New Jersey if they want to keep their jobs.
MARTINEZ: [through translator] “I’m in doubt as to whether or not I’ll go, I don’t know yet. I have my family here.”
HOROWITZ: The protestors are hoping their picket lines and a strike on International Workers Day could force B&H to change their minds.
Eli Horowitz, Columbia Radio News.