CHICAGO – A sea of yellow signs demanding “No fares for sweatshop wear” confronted directors for Metra, Northeast Illinois’ commuter rail line, as they conducted business Jan. 16. Cintas workers and their supporters were at the meeting to demand Metra not renew its uniform contract with Cintas.

The workers say Cintas, the nation’s largest industrial uniform provider, is subcontracting out the work to sweatshops across Chicago. The previous six-year contract was $6.6 million. Cintas, headquartered in Cincinnati, made $249 million in profits on $2.7 billion in revenues last year.

Before the meeting a number of workers recounted their experiences with Cintas. “Everyone works in fear. We were constantly yelled at like we were animals,” said Teresa Williams, who made uniforms at one sweatshop on the city’s North Side. Williams said working conditions were often dangerous. Boxes blocked aisles and windows were barred. Supervisors harassed employees and threatened immigrant workers. “They would say, ‘If you make a complaint, you and your family will be sent back home,’” said Williams, who quit after a week and had to fight the company to get her full wages.

OSHA has cited Cintas’ Schaumburg, Ill., plant several times for violating health and safety laws and fined the company thousands of dollars. Maria Reyes has worked there for seven years. Twice she was severely shocked by machines she was working on. After the accidents her supervisors began to harass her and look for an excuse to fire her. “They didn’t believe me. Today I’m not able to do daily chores such as prepare food for my children. My life will never be the same again,” she said.

Thera Jones worked at a Bedford Park, Ill., laundry along with several hundred other workers for 13 years. When Cintas bought the company two years ago, conditions in the plant began to deteriorate immediately with the implementation of a piece work system. Management pitted the African American and Latino workers against Polish immigrant workers by giving the Polish workers work that allowed a higher piece rate. Complaints were ignored and finally all the African American and Latino workers were laid off. “They said it was due to Sept. 11, but the layoffs had nothing to do with it. They didn’t even go by seniority,” said Jones, who is African American. The workers have since filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Joe Costigan, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago and Central States Joint Board of UNITE, said it is common for Cintas to subcontract out to sweatshops to increase profits. Denise Dixon, field organizer for Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, said, “We are concerned with Metra using taxpayer dollars and ticket fares to support a company that systematically discriminates against women and minorities.”

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