WORKERS AT Cintas are airing the dirty laundry thatâ€™s piled up at the largest uniform company in North America. Last January, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) began an ambitious campaign to unionize some 17,000 workers at Cintas. CAROLE RAMSDEN, ELIZABETH SCHULTE and ORLANDO SEPÃºLVEDA explain whatâ€™s at stake in this union drive.
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“WE PROVIDE great places to work, wages and benefits that are usually equal to or above our competitors, and a culture based on respect and ethical standards.” So claims the Web site of uniform manufacturer and launderer Cintas.
But ask Cintas workers, and youâ€™ll hear a different story.” I have a 9-year old and an 11-year-old,” said Maria ColÃ³n, a Cintas worker in Branford, Conn., in a UNITE report called Cintas: The Dirty Truth Behind the Uniforms. “When one of them is sick, I have to stay home. The company says we need to make up every minute of lost time, no matter what the reason–even if it means working through lunches and breaks. They say if I donâ€™t work 40 hours, Iâ€™m fired.”
Most workers at Cintas–many of whom are immigrants–make as little as $6 to $8 an hour. With these low wages, few can afford the companyâ€™s health insurance. Family insurance for a Cintas worker in New York can run as much as $45 a week–with a $400 deductible for any care.
Plus, workers are forced to meet daily quotas. In some places, they arenâ€™t even allowed breaks. This makes for an extremely dangerous workplace.
Itâ€™s not like Cintas canâ€™t afford better wages, benefits and working conditions. In the 2003 fiscal year that ended May 31, Cintas raked in $2.7 billion in sales and $249 million in profits.
The company has more than 500,000 clients–including Chevron, Delta Airlines, General Motors and United Parcel Service–and more than 5 million people who wear their uniforms. It has 365 facilities in the U.S. and Canada–including 14 manufacturing plants and seven distribution centers that employ more than 27,000 people, of which 17,000 are blue-collar workers eligible for unionization.
Cintas is an industry giant that sets the standard in wages and benefits for uniform and laundry services, so a union victory here would have a tremendous impact in helping to organize smaller industrial laundries. This is why UNITE has launched an ambitious campaign to organize Cintas. In late June, the Teamsters signed on and announced that they would organize drivers.
In this showdown, labor is up against one of the most shamelessly antiunion companies in the country. Much of Cintasâ€™ expansion over the years has been the result of taking over smaller, unionized shops.
At the first scent of a union drive, Cintas goes for blood. “Cintas is taking union-busting to a new level,” said Pete DeMay, a UNITE organizer in Chicago. “One of their first reactions to the union drive was to bring in what they call â€˜industrial psychologistsâ€™ to interview people one-on-one to create the impression that if you want to raise your wages and benefits and get some respect at work, you must be crazy.”
DeMay said that the union had filed more than 100 charges against Cintas with the National Labor Relations Board, and more are filed every day. Cintas bosses are no strangers to law-breaking. The company has had more than 40 lawsuits filed against it for racial, sexual, age and disability discrimination. In 2001, it spent $10 million to settle a class-action lawsuit for its failure to pay overtime to thousands of delivery drivers.
UNITE is stepping up pressure on Cintas to sign a “card-check neutrality” agreement, under which it would recognize the union if a majority of workers sign cards. Solidarity will be key if Cintas workers are going to win their fight for decent wages and benefits and respect on the job. Their fight is our fight.
Getting super-rich off Cintas workers
CINTAS FOUNDER and Chair Richard Farmer could meet the unionâ€™s demands for every Cintas worker from his own personal fortune. Farmer came in at number 140 on Forbes magazineâ€™s recently released list of the 400 richest Americans–with a net worth of $1.5 billion.
Heâ€™s put his money to use, too–buying influence in Washington. Farmer was the second-largest individual contributor to the Republican Party in the last two election cycles.
“Standing up to get a union”
MARTA CUERVO had worked at the same plant for 20 years when Cintas took it over three years ago. After a labor solidarity panel sponsored by UNITE and the International Socialist Organization, she talked about conditions at her plant.
THAT WAS a terrible thing for us when we were bought by Cintas, for we lost a lot of things. For starters, we lost our health insurance and pension plan, which we eventually got again, but so much worse than what they were.
We lost bonuses, one sick day, Good Friday and the companyâ€™s anniversary day, which used to count as a paid holiday. We also lost the ability to plan our vacations, and those with less than five years of work lost a whole week of vacation. We work in a very hot and humid place, and without air conditioning. We have little access to water. The floors are always wet and slippery.
My job is very physical and repetitive, for which my hands are being medically treated. They sent me to the company doctor, but he only spoke English, so I went to a doctor who could understand my ailment. But I had to get a lawyer to get the company to pay for it.
Arriving to my job one day, I saw UNITE organizers giving away their bulletin, and it made me very happy because I was in a union in Colombia more than 25 years ago. For me, the union is like the daily bread.
You stand up to get it, because without it, itâ€™s hard to survive. Itâ€™s not right for someone who works every day eight hours to have barely enough money to pay the rent and none to buy medicine. They have no right to humiliate workers in that way. Itâ€™s with our labor that their millions grow.
“A call to arms for all of labor”
PETE DEMAY is a UNITE organizer in Chicago who is working on the campaign to unionize Cintas.
WE PICKED Cintas because itâ€™s the industry leader, and itâ€™s dragging wages and benefits down. This company can afford to grow, charge less for their product and undercut union employers that pay decent wages and benefits.
We think that if theyâ€™re going to be [the] industry leader and the most profitable, wealthiest uniform provider, they need to also lead the industry in wages, benefits and working conditions. The workers of Cintas and our union are determined to make them do that.
For the labor movement in general, itâ€™s a real call to arms, because the people that run this company are ideologues. This company is closely allied with President Bush. The head of Cintas is the second-largest individual donor to the Republican Party. This is the right sending a message to the labor movement that “we can bust you if we really want to.”
Theyâ€™re taking a stand on this one. Union members are also taking a stand. Union members who wear Cintas uniforms are telling their employers that they donâ€™t want to wear this stuff anymore, and itâ€™s uniting the labor movement in that way.
The UAW, the Teamsters, the machinists, HERE and SEIU are all rallying around this–and not just in the regular ways, like hanging a banner or carrying some signs. This is a huge solidarity piece, because we are asking real things of all union members. And theyâ€™ve been doing it, because they want to help us, but also because they know that if we let Cintas win, it will send a message to all of their employers–if you want to beat me bad enough, you can, if you have enough money.