Tuesday, June 14, 2016
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 G-d'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.
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