News analysis

Just hearing Cintas workers tell their stories about sorting out wormy, moldy and flammable shop towels without proper ventilation is nauseating. Area clergy took these concerns about intolerable and dangerous health hazards straight to the source last month, presenting themselves at the Cintas factory in Branford, Conn., and requesting a fact-finding tour. As moral leaders, they said, we cannot sit back when members of our congregations report such horror stories.

After the plant manager called on police to evict the clergy into the rain, the religious delegation formed a prayer circle and refused to leave until speaking via telephone with the company’s national headquarters in Cincinnati. The delegation, part of a fact-finding tour by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, eventually procured agreement for a meeting in Ohio to discuss workers’ rights issues.

When Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) met with her constituents who work in the Branford plant, she was shocked to hear of conditions that rival those of the sweatshop her mother labored in many decades ago. Soon, shop rags were being debated in the House of Representatives.

At issue is the attempt by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to exempt lease-and-laundered rags from hazardous waste status, rolling back regulations that protect workers and communities against toxic waste. Cintas, which prides itself on being George W. Bush’s largest contributor, is counting on government to look the other way, and even to change regulations in the company’s favor.

Workers explain that in the past, when Cintas has been found guilty of illegal practices, the company has simply paid the fines and then continued on with business as usual.

Residents of Branford, a shoreline community bordering the Long Island Sound, have expressed great concern about wastewater from the Cintas plant. In April 2001, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection sued Cintas for 250 violations of the Clean Water Act including excessive emissions of lead and perc (short for perchloroethylene, an organic solvent).

Also at issue is the right of workers to form a union when a majority have signed union cards, avoiding the NLRB election process which is weighted in favor of companies. In Branford, as elsewhere, workers who are subjected to captive audience meetings and anti-union propaganda, as well as firings, are learning what their rights are and how to fight for them.

The experiences of Cintas workers has helped to shape the debate in Congress that led to the introduction of the Employee Free Choice Act (HR 3619 and S 1925) by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The results of November’s election are critical for the low-wage workers, largely new immigrants from Latin America, at Cintas. Their courage in taking on this giant corporation shows that the right to organize and the right to a clean and healthy work environment can and must be fought for and won.

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

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