Detroit Cintas Workers Prepare To Strike As Union Revs Up National Organizing Campaign

It’s a hot day in Detroit, and Cintas laundry worker Susan Amos is mad. Not about the heat, though. Amos shouts into a bullhorn, addressing her fellow workers at a rally in front of their plant. “I’ve been here 15 years and I still won’t be making ten,” she spits out. “They live off us.”

Last February, UNITE kicked off a campaign to organize workers at Cintas shops nationwide. The Cincinnati-based company is the largest provider of work uniforms and industrial laundry services in North America, employing approximately 17,000 workers at over 350 locations.

While Cintas makes considerable annual profits ($232 million in 2002), UNITE spokesperson Katie Shaller says that the company “pays poverty wages. They’re the biggest and the worst in the industry-[Cintas is] definitely dragging down wages on a national scale.”

Seven-to-nine dollar hourly wages for production workers with prohibitively expensive health insurance is standard pay at Cintas. “We understand their need to make a profit,” says UNITE’s Laundry Director Kurt Edelman. “They just don’t need to make a rapacious profit.”

Industrial laundries are seen by the union as both reliable and viable places to organize because, unlike manufacturing facilities and UNITE’s garment shops, they cannot be moved overseas.

USING CARD CHECK

One of the largest union drives in recent years, the campaign is notable not only for its scope and ambition, but also for its method of organizing unorganized workers. UNITE has chosen to avoid the traditional NLRB union-election route, trying instead for a card-check neutrality agreement.

Under card-check, management agrees to remain neutral during the organizing drive-no anti-union campaigns, no money spent on anti-union attorneys-while workers decide whether or not they want the union to represent them.

“The [NLRB] is not very progressive anymore-the company would fight us tooth and nail,” says one UNITE organizer. “New methods of organizing are needed when the old ones don’t work as well anymore.”

Jobs with Justice activists and union supporters have organized rallies at Starbucks across the country in sympathy with the organizing campaign. Starbucks recently signed a nationwide contract with Cintas for apron and linen services.

UNITE insists the campaign is not a boycott, but simply a way of making Starbucks, which has a code of conduct they hold their vendors to, aware of the fact that Cintas is not upholding their end of the deal.

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In addition, an alliance has been forged with the Teamsters, who have committed to organizing Cintas’s drivers. In July, over 90 Congressional leaders, led by Representatives DeLauro and Miller, sent a letter to Cintas CEO Scott D. Farmer urging the company to remain neutral and agree to card-check neutrality.

ANTI-UNION CULTURE

The fact that there has never been a successful organizing drive at Cintas is a major reason for UNITE to favor the card-check method. Says Shaller, “Cintas has a long history of thwarting every organizing drive there has been with NLRB elections. Cintas has spent up to $3,400 per worker to bust the union during an NLRB election.”

An anti-union attitude is woven deep into the company’s corporate culture-even the employee handbook tells workers that it strongly opposes unions. Only about a half dozen of Cintas’s 350 shops are organized, mainly because they already were so when Cintas bought them from now-defunct competitors.

In fact, the company initiated a decertification campaign when they acquired a large number of unionized competitors, leading to the decertification of 47 shops.

THE HEAT IS ON IN DETROIT

Cintas has already stated that they are opposed to a card-check agreement and want a traditional election instead.

However, it is possible that the unionized shops could be used as an organizing tool. The contract for a Detroit Cintas shop organized under UNITE expired August 1, and workers are poised to strike.

At the July 31 rally where Susan Amos voiced her frustrations, many workers angrily denounced management and threatened walkouts as visiting Cintas executives waited inside for their time to meet with the workers, many of whom ended up walking out of the meeting.

“We have no choice,” said worker Howard Simpson when asked if he was ready to walk. “It’s the only way we’re going to get anything. It’s embarrassing-how they call us partners and they won’t even negotiate with us when we come to the table.”

More information on the Uniform Justice campaign.