Cintas is the largest industrial laundry business in North America. According to Forbes, it is the 417th largest corporation in the United States and is run by Richard Farmer, the 140th richest American. Farmer’s personal wealth is estimated to be $1.5 billion. For the last year and a half, Cintas’s seventeen thousand employees have been the focus of an organizing campaign by Unite-HERE, the new merger of the old garment and hotel workers unions, in alliance with the Teamsters. The campaign has sought to develop support among students, politicians, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, and the religious community. The company, meanwhile, has fought back in the courts, the media, and through the political establishment. In March, I tagged along with the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice on fact-finding visits to Cintas plants in New Haven and Chicago. I wanted to see how the organizing campaign was faring on the ground.

Demographically, the Unite-HERE merger makes sense; both unions represent lower-paid, often newly immigrated workers in the service sector. But there’s more going on than that. Unite and HERE are run by high-profile leaders eager to reverse organized labor’s nearly fatal decline. In the past twenty years the percentage of workers in unions has fallen from about 20 to 13 percent. While 40 percent of public employees are organized, the portion of private employees in unions has dropped from a high of 33 percent in 1955 to less than 9 percent today.

Nonetheless, polls show that most Americans think unions are good for their members and for the economy. The latest Labor Day Gallup Poll found the union approval rating at 65 percent, up from 58 percent the year before. But, if we think it’s such a good idea, why aren’t more of us in unions?

One reason is that it is much harder to unionize an unorganized workplace than most of us realize. Workers have the right to join a union if they wish, but over the last fifty years that right has been narrowed by Congress and the courts until it is now amounts to the right to request a union recognition vote. Such an election can then be postponed while management pressures and proselytizes on the job, usually with the aid of professional union-busting consultants. And then even if the election is held and won, the results can be contested and tied up in court for years.

In Canada, on the other hand, union participation has remained around 30 percent. There, the law limits managerial interference in union drives and "card check" recognition is common. Card check is a process in which only a majority of employees have to sign cards saying they want a union in order to have one. In the United States, card check was part of the original New Deal National Labor Relations Act, but was eliminated in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act. The recently introduced Kennedy-Miller Employee Free Choice Act would reinstate card-check recognition and tighten penalties on employer interference, but the bill has little chance of passing. Even with 30 Senators and 183 Representatives cosponsoring, the legislation languishes in Congress and has received little attention outside the labor media. Who is going to tell the nonunionized 87 percent of the workforce that Congress is even considering a card-check bill?

Labor has placed its bets on legislation before, but did so when unions were in a position of strength. In the current climate, unions must increase their visibility and influence in order to pass legislation that will increase their visibility and influence. That is the challenge facing Unite’s Bruce Raynor, who will head Unite-HERE. Raynor led the successful decades-long fight to organize the J. P. Stevens textile workers. HERE’s John Wilhelm, who many believe will succeed John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO, led a similar fight to unionize Las Vegas hotels and casinos in the 1990s. Both organizing efforts were extended drives in the private sector that actively sought community support. Unionizing Cintas will require the same broad-based strategy. This battle will be fought in the courts, in the media, in schools, and in church basements.

In New Haven, our interfaith delegation began the day at St. Martin de Porres Church in Dixwell, the historically African-American neighborhood adjacent to Yale. There we heard direct testimony, translated from Spanish, by Cintas laundry workers. Some of it was heartbreaking: stories of shop-floor intimidation and injury. One woman who developed a debilitating rash while folding towels said she was only taken off the job long enough for the rash to go away. (Unite contends that Cintas temporarily moved that hazardous work to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, when the company was sued for polluting the water supply in Connecticut.) Others spoke about weekly sessions of antiunion propaganda and, more promisingly, what the potential presence of a union could lead to: sudden pay raises and compliance with OSHA safety requirements.

After lunch we drove to Branford, a New Haven suburb, to visit the local Cintas facility to hear management’s side of the story. Of course, there’s a well-understood theatrics to such events. Management will not allow the group past the reception area. Police will be called and will arrive as the union delegation-some in clerical collars-is in the middle of a long and public prayer. But the theatrics dramatize a point. The workplace has become invisible to the public at large and to the religious community. The flustered young manager who met our delegation in New Haven told us that we would have to call the national office in Cincinnati to arrange a visit. And Cincinnati informed us that we were free to look at the Cintas Web site’s virtual tour, but not the Branford site!

In Chicago, we began our day at St. Pius V, in Pilsen, one of the city’s oldest Mexican-American neighborhoods. At the Cintas facility in the northwest suburb of Schaumberg, we prayed in the reception area before being thrown off the property. We also went to some subcontractor locations, further down the economic food chain. Here small entrepreneurs produce uniforms for Cintas, and there’s little evidence of any regulation by the state. It’s a story a hundred years old, stretching back to when Pilsen’s residents were Czechs. A workforce isolated by culture and language (these days, Spanish and Polish) works at the entry level of the economy; a union tries to organize as jobs slip into the world of subcontracting. In one location no one knew that the Illinois minimum wage had been raised to $5.50 an hour, a matter of some importance for those working for $5.15 or less. In more than one place we were told that employees had to provide their own toilet paper and soap, ironically two of the items Cintas sells its own customers, along with its uniforms, rugs, rags, and towels.

Cintas is also known for subcontracting abroad. According to the union, the corporation runs plants in Mexico and Haiti that violate its own code of conduct. This fact has drawn criticism from activists and from one of Cintas’s shareholders, who during an annual meeting accused the company of running a sweatshop. In a strange sequence of events, Cintas subsequently sued the union and the shareholder. And so the fight for union recognition creeps toward the public square.

In the dismal days since Ronald Reagan fired the striking air-traffic controllers, the only high-profile strikes that have succeeded have been those that recruited allies outside the union and courted public sympathy. The Mineworkers at Pittston, the Steelworkers at Ravenswood, the Communications Workers and Electricians at NYNEX, and the Teamsters at UPS, all won against the odds by reaching out to concerned citizens across the country, and even overseas. UniteHERE’s organizing drives rely on the same strategy. This approach requires money, staff, stamina, patience, and much coordination. It is also a departure from tactics traditionally employed by unions like the Miners and the Teamsters, which relied heavily on internal solidarity and were disdainful of outside alliances. But such coalition building may be the only option left in an era in which public policy is so antagonistic to organized labor. Good will toward the union movement is still out there. Maybe we are all more communal and less individualistic than, we are led to believe.

Tom Smucker, who spent thirty years as a telephone central-office technician in New York City, is a retired member of Local 1101, Communications Workers of America.

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Published in the 2004-07-16 issue: View Contents
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