Rally at Cintas supports workers rights

BRANFORD, Conn. – Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro often speaks about growing up when her mother worked in a sweatshop, bent over her sewing machine. But on July 29, standing on the platform of the Teamsters’ truck outside the Cintas Corp. plant here, the story brought the crowd to a hush.

Decrying the sweatshop conditions at Cintas all these years later, and calling on the company to agree to allow the workers to organize free of harassment and intimidation, DeLauro’s message for respect and workers’ rights was unmistakable.

The plant gate rally, held after the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Cintas over $10,000 for violating safety and health standards, was attended by a wide array of unions and supporters. The violations included blocked fire exits, unmarked fire doors and failure to provide required vaccinations for workers exposed to blood-borne pathogens.

“They call us ‘partners,’ but when we speak up, they don’t listen. Fire exits are blocked, we aren’t given the protection we need at work, and we are sick of it,” said Amanda Roldan, who works in the folding department of the uniform and laundry facility. Most of the workers are recent immigrants from Latin America.

State Rep. Juan Candelaria, addressing the workers in Spanish, pledged his commitment to their cause. “It is your right to choose unionization free from harassment, firing or threat of job loss,” he said. “Together we are strong and we will make these goals a reality.”

The rally was held three weeks after Reps. DeLauro and George Miller (D-Calif.), joined by over 90 members of Congress, issued a letter to Cintas’ CEO urging the company to remain neutral and allow workers to freely choose union representation.

“I stand here today in solidarity, and in support of the hard fought and hard won rights of American workers to organize in the workplace – to fight for a fair wage and the opportunity to share in the American dream,” said DeLauro. “These workers are asking only to be treated fairly … they deserve our support.”

UNITE and the Teamsters union have joined together in the effort to organize all 300 Cintas plants in the U.S. and Canada. Cintas, the leading employer in the uniform and laundry industry, boasted $249 million in profits in fiscal 2003. The 17,000 workers they employ are subjected to substandard wages and unsafe working conditions.

The company is currently under investigation for over 100 violations of federal labor law. In March, Cintas drivers filed a national class action lawsuit alleging that Cintas intentionally refused to pay drivers up to $100 million in overtime pay.

The author can be reached at joelle.fishman@pobox.com