CHICAGO – The giant Cintas Corp., which provides and launders industrial uniforms for some of the largest enterprises in the United States, is becoming to industrial laundries and uniform services what Wal-Mart is to retail trade.

Cintas has been expanding like a cancerous tumor by squeezing every last drop of profit out of its mostly nonunion employees, and then buying up competitors, decertifying unions where these previously existed. Cintas workers complain of brutal, sweatshop working conditions, and the labor movement sees the company as dragging down wages, benefits and working conditions in the entire industry. Cintas and its subcontractors are credibly accused of discriminating against women and minority workers, and of exploiting the vulnerability of immigrant workers.

Last year Cintas racked up total business of more than $2.3 billion, with net profits of $234 million. Yet many of Cintas’ 27,000 employees are paid less that $8 an hour without adequate health insurance. In Chicago, many Cintas employees are paid as little as $6.15 an hour for dangerous, exhausting work.

For a year, UNITE, jointly with the Teamsters, has been conducting a many-faceted “Uniform Justice” campaign to organize the more than 300 Cintas operations nationwide. Initially, UNITE proposed that instead of going for an National Labor Relations Board election, Cintas agree to neutrality on a card check campaign, a much simpler and quicker operation. Cintas contemptuously brushed that offer aside, bringing in anti-labor consultants and throwing every union-busting mechanism into the fray.

UNITE knows that the organization of Cintas at a national level will require massive public support. It is therefore reaching out to other unions, and to churches, community groups and the general public, to ask them to help put pressure on Cintas to agree to good faith bargaining.

For example, UNITE and its allies are reaching out to the Chicago area commuters for solidarity with the Cintas workers – a campaign they call “No Fares for Sweatshop Wear.” Metra is the Chicago area’s commuter railway, transporting tens of thousands of suburbanites to their jobs and back every day. Metra is also one of Cintas’ largest customers for the provision of industrial uniforms.

At a Jan. 14 Metra board meeting, UNITE and its allies, including Chicago Jobs with Justice, plus Cintas employees, showed up in force to ask the board to cancel its contract with Cintas, which is up for renewal this spring. A partial victory was won: Though the contract was not dropped, the Metra board did agree to open up bidding, i.e., not to automatically renew.

Now Metra commuters are being asked to sign petitions in support of the unionization drive. The petition reads, “I urge Metra to sever its relationship with Cintas. Ticket fares and taxpayer dollars should not support companies that violate federal health and safety law, discriminate against women and minority employees, subcontract with sweatshop labor, and deny employees their rights under federal labor law.”

To help build solidarity for the UNITE organizing campaign visit UNITE’s web site: www.uniteunion.org/cintas.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.

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