Thousands of laundry workers who process hospital and nursing home linens voted to strike May 5 if necessary to win living wages and safe working conditions. Working under expired contracts, employees at seven facilities of Angelica, the nation’s largest health care laundry company, threatened to hit the picket lines if their demands for living wages and safe working conditions are not met. And their colleagues at eight other facilities have already pledged to honor their co-workers’ picket lines. The affected facilities are in California, New York, Texas and Illinois.

“Workers in the ‘soil sort’ room are the front line of the laundry,” said Bruce Raynor, president of Unite Here, the laundry workers’ union. There, unprotected workers receive truckloads of linens often stained with blood and excrement and harboring contaminated hypodermic needles and surgical instruments. But, says Raynor, Angelica does not even consistently provide employees with vaccinations for hepatitis B, a blood-borne disease, nor training, nor safety equipment.

Speaking at a telephone press conference May 2, Raynor said that the Teamsters Union, whose members pick up and deliver most of the hospital linens, have pledged not to cross the picket lines. In addition, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees Union, which represents many hospital and nursing home workers, stated that SEIU’s members will “refuse to cross picket lines to load or unload Angelica trucks.”

Angelica workers average less than $10 an hour, Raynor noted, “not a living wage.” The workers also are seeking affordable health care, especially for their children. Most health care laundry workers are women, Raynor explained, many single mothers.

Unite Here has been conducting vigorous organizing activities at health care laundries across the country and Raynor predicted actions of support at every one of Angelica’s 33 facilities, including those not yet organized. In Durham, N.C., a nonunion plant, the majority of workers have already voted to strike if picketers from struck Angelica facilities come to their plant.

The strike could paralyze hospitals especially in the Los Angeles area, where over 50 percent of hospital linen is supplied by Angelica’s six laundry facilities.

Providing linens to health care facilities is a rapidly expanding industry since a trend in the last decade for hospitals to outsource their laundry services to freestanding industrial laundries. Raynor said the union aims to set national standards for health care laundry workers. Right now, he emphasized they “have few of the protections available to other health care workers.”

The strikers will receive strike benefits from the first day of any walkout, Raynor said. “Our union is blessed with ample reserves to pay strike benefits as long as it takes.”