The working conditions that led employees of B&H Photo to seek unionization in the fall and file a discrimination suit in February also had the potential to tip into anti-Semitism.
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The Manhattan-based company, thought to be the largest independent electronics seller in the United States with 2,000 employees and 5,000 daily visitors, was founded in 1973 by members of the Satmar Hasidic community. Ultra-Orthodox Jews still hold most of the management positions.
Workers say managers apply one set of rules to Jewish employees and another to ethnic minorities. B&H managers “don’t understand that we are human beings,” Raul Pedraza, a 48-year-old warehouse worker in Brooklyn, told Haaretz. “They treat us like animals, like machines that work and work and work.”
As a result, anti-Jewish feelings were percolating among the Latino employees, said Rosanna Rodriguez, codirector of the Laundry Workers Center, a labor training organization.
But progressive Jewish activists have neutralized some of the negative sentiment and combated generalizations of Jews, as B&H workers meet protesters espousing Jewish values on their side of the picket lines.
Members of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a New York City-based social justice organization, and Kolot Chayeinu, a congregation in Brooklyn, joined the protests against B&H in November. Before then, the several hundred Latino workers employed by B&H at its three warehouses “had seen Jewish people only as the oppressors,” Rodriguez said.
Following the vote to unionize, members of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice attended a party for the workers and their families. “It meant a lot to the workers that we were eating together,” said Amanda Altman, a community organizer for the group. “It was a meaningful building of trust between the groups.”
(A “cultural exchange,” intended for the Jewish and Latino activists to share their perspectives, was postponed by a January blizzard and tentatively rescheduled for May.)
Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu led a prayer at the first B&H rally and has helped gather congregants to support the warehouse workers and low-wage workers at other businesses. She said her social justice activism was informed by her faith.
“Labor issues are enormous in Jewish teachings,” she said, citing specific passages of Torah and rabbinic commentaries. “There’s a collective Jewish sense that these issues are crucial to the Jewish experience and worldview.”
This is always the case, she said, but it’s worse when Jewish bosses treat non-Jewish workers badly. “When many of us see Jews in particular acting in an oppressive way toward their non-Jewish workers, that feels additionally disturbing because my brothers are behaving badly. It’s us,” she said.
Lippmann added that of course everyone should pay their workers fairly and everyone could find wisdom in Jewish text, “but especially Jews whose way of life hinges on Jewish text.” She directed a couple of rhetorical questions to B&H’s ultra-Orthodox managers: “You forgot to read that part? Or you’re just okay with treating your non-Jewish workers differently?”
The discrimination suit brought against B&H by the U.S. Department of Labor in February isn’t the first time the company has been sued by the federal government or workers. Suits over the past decade have charged the company with unequal pay and claimed that it has denied promotions because of gender and ethnicity.
Earlier this year, B&H was also fined for hazardous conditions at its Brooklyn warehouse. Lizabeth Schalet, an attorney representing the warehouse workers and a Kolot Chayenu board member, said a civil lawsuit against B&H may lie in the company's future in addition to the federal lawsuit.
She said “there are two sets of rules” for employees – one for Hispanic workers and one for non-Hispanic workers, which determine how many breaks employees can take and even if they can use a cellphone during the day. B&H managers “have a discriminatory bias against Hispanics,” Schalet alleged, saying this sentiment caused them to treat employees differently.
“There’s only so far anyone who’s not Hasidic is going to get” professionally at B&H, said a current employee, who is Jewish and did not want to be named for fear of losing his job. “I don’t think that’s a secret.”
Diversity at B&H varies from one department to another, with the sales force the most integrated in terms of race and gender, he said. Just one woman, who is Hasidic, works in upper management, the current employee said.
The company denies these accusations, calling them “far from factual.” “Every one of our employees is treated with respect and dignity, no matter of race, religion or gender,” said B&H spokesman Henry Posner.
“Our employees are well compensated, offered generous benefits, and they are given 17 paid days off in addition to three weeks’ paid vacation. Few companies offer this.” As a result, he said, B&H workers tend to stick with the firm for a decent stretch.
But advocates for the workers note that much of the paid time off must be used on Jewish holidays, when B&H is closed, or employees get lower paychecks for that period. In an email, Posner called the allegations “scurrilous narratives” about a store that has kept its operations in New York rather than outsource them overseas.
“We continue to make daily decisions, taking into account first and foremost our dedicated employees and customers, and we will continue to do so,” he said.
Asked if B&H management had discussed whether the lawsuits and allegations were rooted in anti-Semitism, Posner wrote back, “no comment.”
While progress has been made on the relationship between the Latino workers and their Jewish advocates, work remains to be done on dispelling their impression that being Jewish means being ultra-Orthodox. The workers “look at me very strangely initially when I tell them I’m Jewish,” Schalet says.
“Sometimes they say ‘no you’re not,’ and I say ‘yes I am.’ I’ve told many of them that I’m Jewish and that my congregation fights against injustices. I want them to understand that not all Jews are like the owners that they’re so upset with. It’s important that they understand that we’re not monolithic, and I think they do.”