By Mike Boyer
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MASON - The campaign to organize thousands of U.S. laundry workers and drivers comes to Cincinnati's Coney Island Monday, as the heads of three powerful unions rally against home-grown uniform provider Cintas Corp.
The stakes are high for both sides.
An extended organizing campaign could jeopardize the Mason company's 34-year string of higher revenues and profits. There also are fears that the issue could distract leaders at the nation's largest uniform maker and supplier who already are coping with a slow economy.
Labor also has much on the line. The effort, led by UNITE - formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees - is a test of organized labor's ability to organize and recruit new members at a time when unions are losing enrollment.
Organized labor already has lost much of its prominence in the past three decades.
Three of the biggest names in labor are appearing at the Cincinnati Labor Council's annual Coney Island picnic, typically unions' largest U.S. holiday event. They are:
UNITE president Bruce Raynor, who wants Cintas' 10,000 laundry workers to join his union.
AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney, who is rallying his membership to support the organizing drive.
Teamsters president James P. Hoffa, whose union has joined UNITE in an attempt to unionize Cintas' 7,000 route drivers.
It will be the first time that the unions have brought their organizing effort to Cintas' back yard, having already spent six months staging protests in some of the almost 400 cities where Cintas operates.
The campaign "is the most significant organizing campaign in the United States," said Kate Brofenbrenner, director of labor education research at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
"It's a priority for the entire labor movement," she said. "Cintas is big, and this is a multisite and multiunion" campaign. "If these unions succeed, it sets the model for other companies."
UNITE leader Raynor promises an even tougher fight.
"The next 12 months will be much more aggressive than the previous months," he said recently from UNITE's New York offices.
Big differences between sides
At the heart of the battle is UNITE's demand that Cintas, with 365 facilities in North America, sign a so-called "neutrality agreement." That would allow the union to organize Cintas' workers without company interference.
Of Cintas' 17,000 laundry and route drivers, about 700 - or 4 percent - are represented by unions.
These "neutrality agreements" have become increasingly common in the past few years. It allows the union to bypass a time-consuming and costly election process sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board.
Under what's typically called "card count neutrality'' or "card check neutrality'' agreements, the employer agrees to recognize the union as the official bargaining agent for employees. But that happens only after a third party verifies that a majority of the workers have signed union membership cards.
In the National Labor Relations Board-supervised process, the union petitions the agency to hold an election after securing support from at least 30 percent, but more typically 50 percent or 60 percent, of the employees.
Cintas says it will never agree to a neutrality pact.
The company, which clothes 5 million workers daily, says UNITE is engaging in a smear campaign to soil its reputation and steal the right of its employees to decide whether they want to belong to a union.
"This issue isn't about unionization. It's about how people go about becoming unionized," said Robert Kohlhepp, Cintas' vice chairman and former chief executive officer.
He said that a growing number of employees resent the UNITE campaign, citing groups at a dozen Cintas plants that have signed petitions asking the union to stop its campaign.
The company also is finding support among critics of neutrality pacts.
Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation, says such agreements can amount to little more than "sweetheart" contracts between companies and unions, giving workers no say in whether they're represented by unions.
Gleason's non-profit group, which challenges compulsory unionism, says such top-down labor negotiations "are an extremely cutting-edge issue in law, which hasn't been challenged by employers."
Said Kohlhepp: "The unions are in trouble. They're losing members at a rapid pace. Union membership of the non-government work force has dropped from 35 percent 30 years ago to 8.5 percent today."
Applying nationwide pressure
While Monday will mark organized labor's first close-to-home rally against Cintas, for months it has conducted a national campaign to pressure the company.
UNITE officials have:
Staged protests from Las Vegas to New York targeting some of Cintas' best-known customers such as Starbucks to seek another supplier for its mats, towels and employee aprons.
Filed several legal challenges, including a multimillion-dollar class action suit in California, to collect unpaid overtime for Cintas service-sales representatives.
At the start of its campaign, the union filed more than 100 unfair labor practice complaints against the company. Cintas says more than half have been dismissed.
Garnered support of congressional Democrats, more than 90 of whom last month signed a letter saying they were "troubled'' by the company's response to the campaign. The list included Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind. Hill, of Seymour, Ind., is the only regional legislator among the group.
Stewart Acuff, organizing director for the AFL-CIO, says, "There's more support, and deeper support, than for any other organizing effort in the labor movement." Cintas says the campaign is having only a minor impact on its operations.
The company has retained outside public relations consultants and a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, but Kohlhepp said it's not solely because of the UNITE campaign.
The company has lost "a few" customers with large union work forces, but not Starbucks, Kohlhepp said.
"I've personally talked with the top people at Starbucks. They've been targeted for other things like this. They're used to this. They've been very understanding."
Some observers say the Cintas organizing drive by two of labor's most aggressive unions is a key test of labor's ability to remain relevant in the face of declining union membership.
The number of private non-farm workers who belong to a union slipped to 8.7 percent last year. That is down from 11.5 percent a decade ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Raynor, mentioned as a possible successor to Sweeney, disagrees that this is a defining moment.
The Cintas campaign "is not so much a make-or-break struggle for the labor movement," he said. "(But) the kind of fight labor unions ought to be making - to take the most anti-union companies ... and confront them with our full resources and power."
Employees as partners
Cintas, which calls employees "partners,'' says it has a corporate culture that sets it apart from other companies. It is that culture that has earned it such monikers as one of "America's Most Admired Companies" by Fortune magazine.
Officials say it also is why a union is unnecessary.
The company expects employees to look and act professional at all times, Kohlhepp said. Cintas workers should be "positive ... with a can-do attitude,'' he said.
That demeanor and expectation cannot be achieved with union-represented employees, Kohlhepp said.
"Our feeling is that our people are better off without a labor union," he said. "We think unions typically try to create a we/they attitude."
Not surprisingly, Raynor disagrees.
"There's no way a company as big and profitable as this company ought to treat its workers the way it does," he says, citing what he calls its "poverty-level" wages of $8 and $9 an hour and lack of health care and pension plans.
Kohlhepp says Cintas wages and benefits "are as least as high, and in the majority of cases, higher than our competitors."
He wouldn't discuss average wages because Cintas pays different wages in different cities, he said.
The company offers health care to all employees, and its "Partners Plan," a combination of profit-sharing, matching 401(k) and employee stock ownership, is "far superior" to a union pension plan, Kohlhepp said. In the last decade, the company said the Partners Plan has paid out $110 million to employees.
Last month, UNITE joined forces with the much larger and better-financed Teamsters to organize Cintas. The Teamsters represent 1.4 million workers, about six times more than UNITE.
Under the agreement, practically unheard of in union circles, UNITE would represent Cintas' laundry workers while the Teamsters focus on route drivers.
Brofenbrenner said the Teamsters-UNITE alliance gives the unions more resources and leverage in their organizing battle.
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