How Hasidic-Owned B&H Photo Store Puts Money Before God’s Word

(CLARIFICATION BELOW)

Muslims have the Kaaba in Mecca. Sikhs have the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Photographers have B&H on the west side of Manhattan.

To call it an audio and visual equipment store is like calling Katz’s Deli a mere sandwich shop. There’s a reason you’ll hear numerous languages spoken on the floors of B&H. There’s simply no place on earth that boasts this much equipment, used and new, with a huge knowledgeable staff, which is why even a stroll through the store has you rubbing elbows with high-end event photographers, journalists, studio managers and filmmakers. The whole mechanized system of bringing requested equipment from the back to the front is a sight to behold. B&H is managed by Hasidic Jews, mainly of the Satmar sect of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. What’s astonishing is that the company forgoes sales on Shabbat and on major Jewish holidays, even through its website. The company can take itself out of the market for religious observance and still stay profitable. That’s how amazing this store is.

There is, however, one way that B&H puts money before God’s word, and that’s the company’s treatment of workers.

In February, the U.S. Department of Labor sued the company for discrimination against non-white and female warehouse workers in Brooklyn. Several months prior, citing discrimination and unsafe working conditions, those same workers voted overwhelmingly to join the United Steelworkers of America.

But the company is now stalling in sitting down to settle a collective bargaining agreement, worker advocates say. And it’s the reason why more than 200 Jewish religious and community leaders are slated to speak out with the workers on June 14 outside the iconic store to call on B&H to do the right thing.

It’s easy enough, in times like this, to simply point to the role that Jews have played in the establishment of labor unions. But there’s a deeper and more spiritual element at work here. Even at your most progressive Seder, the story of Passover is most often a symbol for general liberation; less often is it told as a story of exploited workers ripping off their chains and rebelling against exploiters. Put that in the very real historical context of ancient Egypt — the earliest recorded strike involved tomb builders (although not Hebrew slaves) striking against Pharaoh Ramses III — and we realize just how essential justice for workers who create wealth is to Jewish morality.

“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor,” screams Jeremiah 22:13. “Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight,” commands Leviticus 19:13. Isaiah goes so far as to call into question one’s religiosity if he or she oppresses workers. And even the role of Shabbat, the most holy of routine rituals, invokes the importance of the idea that all people should be relieved of their labor, regardless of what the labor is.

This is why it seems like finding justice for B&H should be easy. Management simply has to abide by the nation’s labor law and work with the USW to implement wage rules, safety regulations and working procedures that benefit everyone. Failure to do this just makes it look as if the hyper-religious management of B&H has, in the words of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, drowned the word of God “in the icy water of egotistical calculation.”

This all comes as the ultra-religious Jews of Brooklyn are, rightly or wrongly, giving the rest of the tribe a bad name. The community is embroiled in the widening corruption scandal involving the New York City Police Department and the de Blasio administration. A recent public radio series also exposed the Satmar community’s reliance on public welfare. And a public official’s insistence on making special accommodations for Jewish women at a public pool — at everyone else’s expense — added weight to the impression that this group can get whatever it wants due to its unmatched political influence in the borough.

Continuing to fight with the warehouse workers at this point benefits no one. That’s why it’s critical for Jewish labor advocates to pressure the company now and to expose how un-Jewish fighting with the workers actually is.

If B&H can stay profitable while staying closed for all of Sukkot, then surely it can remain a healthy company with a fair and just collective bargaining agreement with its warehouse workers. As an added bonus, winning this battle will strike a blow against anyone who tries to use religion to justify union-busting and violating workers’ rights.

Ari Paul is a journalist in New York City who has covered politics for The Nation, The Guardian and many other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @AriPaul

CLARIFICATION: This piece claims that “the company is now stalling in sitting down to settle a collective bargaining agreement, worker advocates say.” However, B&H management says that it is negotiating fairly with the union. The worker advocates — in particular, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and the labor group the Laundry Workers Center — had cited an environment of retaliation and intimidation against workers, including the firing of several workers in February, which they argue would stifle worker organizing and make bargaining for the workers difficult. B&H also disputes these claims, and maintains that it is working toward a contract with the union.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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