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The Internationalist
  November 2015

Overwhelming Vote Gains Union Recognition

B&H Workers in Big Win
for Labor and Immigrant Rights

Warehouse workers and supporters rally outside B&H Photo store in Manhattan, November 1. The crowd chanted, “¡El 4 de noviembre, vamos a ganar!” (On November 4 we’re going to win.) On November 4, the B&H workers won union recognition by a vote of 200 to 88.  (Internationalist photo)

Hundreds of immigrant warehouse workers in Brooklyn, New York, won a historic victory on November 4 when their year-long organizing campaign brought a landslide unionization vote at the nationally known B&H Photo Video professional supply firm. On October 11, 18 and November 1, they had held spirited demonstrations outside the store on 34th Street in Manhattan. Now the decisive day had arrived. Well before sunrise on the 4th, workers gathered near the company’s warehouses at the Navy Yards and Evergreen Avenue.

Hoy vamos a ganar – we’re going to win today,” workers kept saying with a mixture of determination and jubilation as they had coffee and pastries brought by supporters and made sure everyone was showing up for the union certification election, held inside each of the two workplaces. As the polls opened at 6:30 a.m., the workers marched in detachments to the voting sites, chanting “¿Qué queremos? ¡Unión! ¿Cuándo? ¡Ahora!” (What do we want? Union! When do we want it? Now!) For activists in the workers movement and supporters of immigrant rights, it was a morning to remember.

 “We’re going to get 200 votes,” vowed organizer Mahoma López of the Laundry Workers Center (LWC), reflecting the intensive, systematic nature of the organizing campaign. López is the leader of the Hot and Crusty bakery workers, whose successful 2012 unionization campaign inspired the B&H Photo warehouse workers’ drive, which has been spearheaded by the LWC together with the United Steelworkers (USW). (See “Victory to the B&H Photo Warehouse Workers’ Struggle!”, 19 October,

Shortly after noon, as organizers and supporters waited impatiently nearby for the count, the news came – the vote in favor of the union had won by an overwhelming 200 to 88, with approximately 80% participation. Inside, workers spread the word from department to department. Managers were downcast – “their heads were hanging,” several workers reported – while some “congratulated” the workers on their victory, in a mocking tone but also recognizing the indisputable fact.

As they gathered after work that evening, workers expressed pride at standing up successfully to a company that used every trick in the anti-labor manual to try to intimidate, silence and wear them down. Two days before the vote, the company held a raffle and announced a party for the workers, but so few came that it was canceled. “We showed it can be done” workers said. Above all, there was determination to maintain their solid organization and unity, which won the union recognition vote, in the next battle: to win a union contract. Arturo Archila, lead organizer for the USW, told the workers, “This is your day, your victory. Now you will determine the demands for the contract struggle.”

Two nights later, hundreds of workers, their families, together with organizers and supporters, packed a Brooklyn social hall in a spirited celebration of this victory. Workers’ children chased balloons, strobe lights flashed, the dance floor was filled. T-shirts were silkscreened with the slogans “Arriba trabajador, abajo explotador” (Up with the workers, down with the exploiters), and “Unión, fuerza, solidaridad” (Union, power, solidarity), frequently chanted in the demonstrations.

Above: Hundreds of B&H workers, their families, organizers and supporters celebrated the victory at party on Nov. 6. Below: with workers’ area leaders on stage, one of them, Jorge Lora, reads poem about the struggle. (Internatioinalist photos)

The formal program of the evening began with a recognition of the group of elected area leaders that was a key factor in the victory. Workers expressed appreciation for the role of the LWC in orienting the struggle, as well as to the dedicated team of lawyers, who played a key role in blocking one company dirty trick after another, and to groups that supported the struggle. The fact that the United Steelworkers threw its support behind the workers struggle, becoming their collective bargaining representative, was cited as a key part of the campaign. A high point of the evening was the reading of a poem in Spanish by warehouse worker Jorge Lora, who said in part:

“More than a year ago, on a date I don’t recall, a group of workers decided an empire had to fall. Subjected to mistreatment, disrespect and discrimination, this group was made up of workers who come from many nations.... It brought great satisfaction to see the union win... now the fight to win a contract is about to begin.... This struggle will continue.”

We noted previously how the victorious struggle at the Hot and Crusty bakery in Manhattan inspired the one at B&H. Now the victory at B&H will inspire others among the heavily immigrant working class of New York, Internationalist Group spokesman Antonio told the crowd at the November 6 celebration. “This is an example for all immigrants, as well as U.S.-born workers,” he said. There are “half a million undocumented immigrants in New York City,” he noted. At least 150,000 Mexicans live here, overwhelmingly workers, together with “Ecuadorans, Guatemalans and Dominicans, as well as Africans, Haitians, Chinese, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and so many others of us who share a life of exploitation with the black, Latin, Asian and white workers born in this county.”

“We have to prepare for this example to spread,” he continued, and for the next phase of this fight. Winning a union is a crucial first step. In the fight for a contract, it will be essential to mobilize the independent power of the workers as a class, with active support from the rest of NYC labor (transport, communications, construction, education and other unionists) and defenders of immigrant rights. So, too, is remembering the lesson of struggles like Hot and Crusty, that “Jugar con reglas del patrón es segura perdición” (Playing by the bosses’ rules means you’re sure to lose). To win, the workers must rely on their own class power, not on the institutions, media and politicians of the capitalist system.

“¡Unión, fuerza, solidaridad!

A high-profile and lucrative business known throughout the photo and video industry, behind the scenes B&H’s operation brings to mind the sweatshop labor and callous disregard for workers’ safety that led to the “uprising of the 20,000” garment workers – mainly Jewish and Italian immigrant women and girls – in New York City, two years before the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911.

Laundry Workers Center organizer Rosanna Rodríguez speaking at November 1 rally outside B&H store. B&H workers' leader Raúl Pedraza at left, LWC activist Diego Apaza at right.  (Internationalist photo)

Facing a hard-line opponent in B&H management, LWC organizer Rosanna Rodríguez emphasized, the workers’ victory required courage and hard work, “a year of organizing, and a lot of sacrifice.” This preparation, together with lessons the workers drew from attempts over the years to resist the employers’ abuses, paid off big time. “The B&H workers have shown a level of organization, discipline and determination that I have rarely seen over many decades in the workers movement,” a veteran labor activist told The Internationalist.

Three weeks before the vote to unionize the B&H warehouses, the workers showed the power of their solidarity and determination when managers and anti-union “consultants” threatened workers with mass firing at the Navy Yards location in retaliation for refusing to sign anti-union documents. On hearing of the employers’ provocation, workers at the Evergreen Avenue warehouse immediately stopped work in a solidarity protest that knocked the bosses for a loop, forcing them to retract the firing threats and “apologize” for their “mistake.”

Having signed up the notorious Jackson Lewis “union-prevention” firm, the company continued to follow the anti-union playbook, but each play fell flat as the workers confirmed that organizers’ predictions of the company’s tricks were coming true one after another. Workers answered the owners’ attempt at intimidation with a large and spirited march on the company’s midtown Manhattan store three days after the mass firing threat, chanting: “On Thursday we showed that we are not afraid!” and “¡Unión, fuerza, solidaridad!” (Union, power, solidarity).

Workers whose voice and individuality is smothered in the daily grind of exploitation – treated “like animals” by bosses who saw them as little more than beasts of burden, as several put it – learned what they could do in the course of collective struggle “for our dignity and our rights.” The struggle brought out enormous creativity, as workers painted their slogans on boxes to carry on high at the protest marches. Workers raised and lowered boxes and signs as they chanted “Arriba trabajador, abajo explotador.”

(Above) Workers carried boxes with their demands during the protest marches. Among them, “Respect,” “Equality,” “The right to call the family in case of emergency.” (Below) At November 1 rally outside B&H in Manhattan, workers cast symbolic ballots, each calling out the reason why he was voting for the union.  (Internationalist photos)

Another heart-felt chant was “Uno, dos, tres, queremos nuestros breaks” (One, two three, we want our breaks). Many had been working 58 hours a week, or more, with only a short pause for lunch. In the November 1 rally in front of the B&H store on November 1 there was a symbolic vote. When casting his ballot, each declared his reason for voting “yes” to unionization: “safety on the job,” “no more discrimination,” “better pay,” “respect,” “dignity,” “for my children” and “I am voting for the future” were among the many responses.

 In this union town, the B&H warehouse workers’ outspoken courage sparked support from many quarters. More than a thousand photographers and artists signed a petition backing their cause. For City University of New York students brought to the protests and support activities by the CUNY Internationalist Clubs, the experience has been “an incredible learning experience,” as one young woman activist put it, “since the things we read and study about in the Marxist education circles come to life right there, and we’re part of it.”

(Above) Internationalist Group and CUNY Internationalist Clubs at the November 1 rally. (Right) At the victory party, Internationalists along with union leaders and activists sang songs written about the B&H workers’ struggle. (Internationalist photos)

At the November 6 celebration, a the Internationalists and others joined in singing two songs written by a comrade the night before the historic vote for unionization. One chorus went, “Es la hora de decisiones, los obreros no somos reos, los almacenes no son prisiones” (“It’s the decisive hour, workers are not inmates, warehouses are not prisons”). Another mocked the bosses’ raffle, vowing “we won’t let ourselves be bought by the bosses’ tricks.” 

Nationally, there has been a lot of media attention to protests and “strikes” at notorious low-wage companies, including fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s and Walmart. But in fact, very few workers in those shops actually strike, fearing they would immediately be fired, and these are run by union bureaucrats as media events, often to showcase Democratic Party politicians. A real attempt to unionize low-wage workers requires a sustained organizing effort to mobilize the rank-and-file independent of the bosses’ parties. This is what the victories at Hot and Crusty and B&H show.

Workers’ consciousness and organization will continue to be crucial in the fight to win a union contract entailing significant advances for the workers at a company where “the warehouses seem like prisons.” Continuing and deepening ongoing workers education activities will be crucial in the coming period. It will also be vital to establish a women’s committee linked to the union (due to discriminatory company hiring policies, all the warehouse workers are men), to fully integrate workers’ wives and companions into the struggle in a situation where this question can be key to victory or defeat, as shown in many class battles of the past.

Through their intensive campaign over the past year and resulting union victory, B&H workers can help spark and lead struggles of the entire working class in the New York area. New organizers are emerging in the course of the fight. The enormous potential for an offensive against intolerable inequality, discrimination and racist repression requires a class-struggle leadership equal to the task, committed to taking the struggle of the working class through to victory over this entire capitalist system of merciless exploitation. The B&H Photo workers’ victory will be an inspiration and an example to all who seek to make that happen.

¡Luchar, vencer, obreros al poder!
(Fight, win, workers to power!)