Joining a Union

Why it's hard to organize workers

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...

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About the Author

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.