This workweek got off to an unusual start for Jorge Lora. In recent months at his workplace, a Brooklyn warehouse run by photography-equipment retailer B&H, he and his coworkers had become resigned to a miserable routine of working to exhaustion while subjected to injury, racial abuse, and wage theft. But he was surprised when he arrived this week. The atmosphere was calmer, supervisors weren’t hassling them, and, best of all, his workday was shorter: Instead of the usual 13-to-18-hour shift, he worked “only 12 hours.”
“Honestly, I was thinking that today there would be tension in the workplace,” Lora said through a translator on Tuesday. But this was the calm before the storm. He and his co-workers’ campaign to unionize the warehouse staff just launched last Sunday with a street rally and delivery of a list of grievances to management, along with an announcement of the initiation of the formal unionization process, with 199 out of about 240 workers signing cards approving the union. So far, the management has issued a few public statements denying the charges and grudgingly acknowledging the campaign. But Lora says, “We are ready for the retaliation. We know that’s going to happen. That’s not going to stop us, because we have the power.”
The workers accuse the famed photo-gadget emporium of discrimination against the largely Latino immigrant warehouse workforce. On a typical workday, according to a list of charges issued by workers and their legal counsel, workers labor several hours straight without eating or drinking, sometimes in sweltering heat. The local advocacy group Laundry Workers Center (LWC), which is helping the workers organize along with the United Steelworkers union, say a combination of economic exploitation and workplace oppression have driven staff to regularly work over-80-hour weeks. They are routinely denied rest breaks and paid sick days.
Latino workers report systematic bias in the assignment of schedules, wages, and workplace cellphone use and bathroom privileges, and that sometimes they have been hit with outright racial epithets. And with a stark divide between the largely Orthodox retail-store staff and the warehouse workforce, Latino employees say they were denied the leave schedule reserved for observant Orthodox Jews. The language barrier further silenced them, as management forced Spanish-speaking workers to sign English-only employment forms.
The claimants also allege they were exposed to “more unsafe conditions” compared to non-Latino coworkers, including blocked exits, toxic chemical exposures, and a lack of basic protections like safety hoists and gloves for handling loads. On Tuesday, Al Jazeera America reported on the struggles of several workers to cope with health problems, from severe falls to kidney stones, all linked to chronic overwork and hazardous conditions that are sadly common among poor immigrant workers. The company tended to downplay workers’ complaints of occupational injury and refused to cover medical expenses.