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Airing Dirty Laundry

Tony Pecinovsky Oct 6, 2004

Miguel Flores, a soft-spoken Mexican American from Houston, Texas, sits across the table at a local union office. He was flown into St. Louis, Missouri, to speak at a rally outside the headquarters of Angelica Corporation, the largest health care laundry services company in the United States.

Flores was fired from Angelica last spring for affiliating UNITE-HERE, North America’s laundry, apparel, and hospitality workers’ union, and actively participating in the organizing campaign.

“The campaign started on a Friday. The following Monday, Angelica suspended me. And by that Friday I was fired,” Flores said.

NLRB FAILS WORKERS

Flores’ story highlights the almost insurmountable challenges faced by workers, especially workers of color, when forming or joining a union. “When we started organizing a union, management responded with forced meetings, intimidation, and more pressure,” said Nery Jimenez, an Angelica worker from Durham, North Carolina. Workers who speak up have been harassed, fired, bullied into quitting and, in many cases, blacklisted.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), founded in 1935 as part of the National Labor Relations Act, is the federal body designated to protect workers rights and ensure impartiality between employer and employee.

But, according to Fred Feinstein, general counsel to the NLRB and its chief prosecutor during the Clinton administration, the NLRB “simply is not working. It is simply broken in fundamental ways.”

According to Feinstein, the current system of secret ballot elections supervised by the NLRB is “framed as a contest between the union and the employer … placed in the context of a political election,” where both sides have equal access. But the current process “distorts the fact that they are not equal entities.” Secret ballot elections don’t work because “employers have complete control of the process and the workplace, where the company exerts economic control over the work force.”

“The employer can campaign everywhere, wherever, whenever it wants. The employer can compel the employee to listen” to anti-union propaganda. And it is “perfectly legal for the employer to ‘predict’ all forms of dire economic consequences if a union is voted in,” said Feinstein.

On the other hand, “Employees are restricted. The union can’t get on the work site. The union can compel nothing.” Angelica employees are familiar with these conditions. “When the campaign started, the company was in a frenzy,” said Miguel Flores. “They began holding captive audience meetings and speaking out against the union. Then they began promising better benefits. They said ‘we can resolve our problems together. We don’t need a union’.”

For Angelica workers, wages and benefits are a major concern, but safe working conditions are probably the most important. “We handle extremely dirty linens,” Flores said. “We handle diaper cloths, linen with blood clots and needles.” Flores said he had to quickly sort through numerous 200-pound bags “straight from hospitals. Many bags still had blood, guts, body fluids, and different blood-borne diseases. We could get hepatitis or HIV.”

This process is called “soil sort.” “It used to take ten to twelve people to handle all the bags of linen. Now Angelica expects five to six people to do the job of twelve.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has found Angelica guilty of numerous health and safety violations. On August 31, OSHA issued citations to Angelica’s Batavia, New York plant for dozens of job safety and health standard violations and proposed penalties exceeding $140,000 against the company.

Nationally, UNITE-HERE has filed over 70 unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB, charging Angelica with threatening plant closures, withholding information, spying on workers, and suspending or terminating pro-union workers. While unfair labor practice charges have had some impact, the NLRB doesn’t actively campaign for workers’ rights. And since the Bush Administration’s appointment of three members to the NLRB’s five-member board, the situation has worsened.

But workers are beginning to construct an alternative vision of labor and community power that challenges the NLRB to live up to its mandate of protecting workers’ rights. The current UNITE-HERE campaign to organize Angelica Corporation provides an example of how workers’ grievances can be articulated and acted upon in a way that enhances the role of direct moral and political community persuasion, making corporate accountability a local issue of democracy and workers’ rights, rather than a bureaucratic issue based on dependence of antiquated laws.

WORKER RIGHTS BOARDS AS AN ALTERNATIVE

On May 27, 1993, in an attempt to draw national attention to the NLRB’s failure, Jobs with Justice (JwJ), a network of grassroots workers’ rights organizations, coordinated a National Day of Action against the NLRB. Sit-ins and protests shut down NLRB offices in 26 cities across the country. More than 10,000 people participated.

After the protests, JwJ and unions involved in the NLRB actions decided to establish an alternative structure to advocate for workers’ rights, especially the right to organize. Determined that workers needed a formal body able to not only hear workers complaints, but to promptly and strategically act on those complaints as well, they formed the Workers Rights Boards (WRB).

WRBs can’t take cases directly to the NLRB. But by utilizing moral and political persuasion and threatening widespread public exposure against recalcitrant employers, which the NLRB isn’t designed to do, WRBs create labor and community-powered employer accountability, rather than bureaucratic dependence on antiquated laws. WRB members are able to use personal authority and community status to mobilize support for and intervene on behalf of workers.

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