Uniform justice campaign targets Cintas

BRANFORD, Conn. – When workers at the Cintas uniform plant here began organizing several weeks ago, the company responded with illegal surveillance and pink slips for union supporters. The workers, many new immigrants, are among 17,000 being organized at 300 Cintas plants in the U.S. and Canada.

Maria Colon, who works in the company’s ticketing department, told the World she is “ashamed” of the way Cintas is responding to the situation. “Cintas has rules and regulations that the workers have to follow,” Colon said. “But Cintas thinks they are above the law.”

The “Uniform Justice” campaign launched this month by UNITE! (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), is one of the largest national organizing campaigns in recent labor history. Cintas, a notorious anti-union company, is the largest uniform rental provider and industrial launderer in North America. The Fortune 500 company, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, reported $234 million in profits last year.

A spirited rally outside the plant on Feb. 5 sent a strong message of solidarity from the Greater New Haven Central Labor Council. “We are in a major fight for workers’ rights at Yale University,” said Council Vice President Andrea Cole. “And we are going to bring that fight right here to Cintas. It is no longer acceptable to deny workers the right to unionize.”

Pam Curtis, UNITE! organizing director, said the union has filed charges for violations of federal labor laws in Branford and 15 other cities. “Cintas bullies, harasses, intimidates and terminates workers who want to join unions and we will not stop until we bring those workers the improvements and protections that come only with a union contract,” Curtis said.

At the rally the union released a national report, “The Dirty Truth Behind the Uniforms,” exposing “deplorable” working conditions at the plants. The report says that the company recently agreed to pay a $10 million settlement in a class action lawsuit filed by workers denied overtime pay.

Over 40 additional lawsuits are pending against the company for racial, sexual, age and disability discrimination. Women comprise most of the production workforce. The workers are largely Latino, African American, Indonesian, Indian, Vietnamese and Korean.

While Cintas CEO Robert Kohlhepp receives $490,000 a year, production workers make as little as $6.50 an hour. The report charges that company drivers, a large part of the workforce, are “incredibly overworked and abused,” and often denied overtime.

Health and safety on the job and medical insurance are also major issues. Despite a 22 percent increase in revenue the company “turned around and increased the cost of its pathetic health insurance coverage for its underpaid, overworked and abused workforce,” charged Curtis.

According to the report, the National Labor Relations Board has cited Cintas 25 times for violations of federal labor law. To back up his anti-union stance, Cintas founder and chairman Richard T. Farmer is a top contributor to the Republican Party.

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