Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Labor rallies against Cintas

National leaders push for union

By Mike Boyer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

AFL-CIO National President John Sweeney speaks to a large crowd of supporters during a labor rally at Coney Island.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
Organized labor brought its high-profile effort to represent employees of Cintas Corp. to Cincinnati on Labor Day and vowed it won't go away.

"We're bigger than they are. Stronger than they are. And have more guts than they do," Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE, told a raucous union rally, the centerpiece of the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council's annual Coney Island picnic.

The event, which draws more than 20,000 people, is one of the biggest Labor Day gatherings in the country, and this year included John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president.

UNITE - which stands for Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees - and the Teamsters union have formed a rare alliance to win bargaining rights for about 17,000 Cintas laundry workers and route drivers.

The 6-month-old campaign against the Mason uniform supplier is one of the biggest organizing efforts by the labor movement, which has seen its share of the nongovernment workforce slip to less than 9 percent in the last decade.

Cintas, the nation's largest uniform supplier, has refused to sign a neutrality agreement sought by the unions to make the organizing easier.

While it doesn't favor unions for its employees, Cintas says it's up to employees to decide through a National Labor Relations Board-supervised election whether they want to be in a union.

Sweeney, 69, said labor laws don't adequately protect workers' right to organize.

"Forty million workers say they would join one of our unions if they could," he told the rally. "Why won't they join a union? The answer is fear. Fear of being denied raises, of being denied promotions, or fear of losing their job."

UNITE and the Teamsters have accused Cintas of paying workers poverty-level wages and offering little or no benefits.

The company says the unions are engaged in a smear campaign. It defends its wages and benefits as among the best in the industry.

UNITE brought a dozen Cintas workers from plants outside Greater Cincinnati to the rally.

One, Teresa Moreno, a uniform presser at Cintas' Branford, Conn., laundry, said she's worked for the company for about eight months and makes $8.01 an hour.

Speaking through an interpreter, Moreno, a single mother, said she couldn't afford the health insurance offered by the company to cover her two children.

And she said supervisors are always pushing employees to do more.

But other Cintas employees in Cincinnati, who didn't attend the rally, say they don't support the organizing effort.

"Cintas isn't a sweatshop," said Kay Koehler, a presser at Cintas' Ridge Road laundry.

"They treat us like family. If the union came in, we'd lose everything.''

Said Penny West, who works at the company's Mason plant: "I'm not underpaid. Each year I get a nice raise."

She declined to say what she is paid.

The company says its wages vary depending on the local job market.

West, who has worked at the company for eight years, says she's never been laid off.

"I don't think unions help," she said. "I think it's a threat."

Teamsters President James Hoffa was to speak at the rally, but was unable to attend when his flight was delayed, officials said.


E-mail mboyer@enquirer.com

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