At the Cornell Career Fair in Barton Hall last week, North America’s largest clothing uniform supplier, Cintas, encountered protest regarding their labor and health policies from the Cornell Organization for Labor Action and Students Against Sweatshops (SAS), mainstays in the Ithaca area for labor rights and activity.
In addition to their participation at the fair, the Cintas Corporation also supplies and launders uniforms at the School of Hotel Administration.
COLA members, who wished to remain anonymous, entered Barton Hall and staged protest at the Cintas information booth. The demonstrators dumped muddy clothing at the feet of two Cintas representatives and said, “As students we don’t want you on our campus. We want you and your dirty laundry out of here.”
In addition to direct protest, COLA members also leafleted and spoke to students outside of Barton.
COLA and SAS object to Cintas’ presence on campus as part of a unionization drive held by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) to organize 17,000 Cintas employees.
“This is part of a larger campaign and they’re asking students to get active on campuses, so this is going on at a lot of schools,” said COLA President David Ratner ’04.
According to UNITE literature, Cintas has been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over 100 times for violation of federal health and safety laws since 1980. The company has also been named in 40 discrimination lawsuits.
However, Wade Gates, spokesperson for Cintas, disputed these claims.
“Their allegations that we are unsafe are absolutely false, our safety record is on par with our industry,” he said.
According to Gates, Cintas’ main concern is not with the safety and discrimination allegations against them but rather with a practice known as “cardcheck” that UNITE and IBT have actively pursued in their Cintas campaign.
“All these allegations come down to is that the union is trying to do everything to pressure us into this [cardcheck] agreement with the union that would take away the individual’s right to a democratic election,” Gates said.
The cardcheck process allows union certification based solely upon presentation of a majority of signed union support cards. A third party inspects the signed cards for validity before the union is certified. Major companies including Cingular Wireless have embraced cardcheck in recent years in an effort to harbor more cooperative union-management relations.
Cintas has been vehement in their resistance to cardcheck and insist upon using a traditional approach to union recognition. “Secret ballot elections are a fair and workable process, so let’s use it,” Gates said.
However, according to Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, collective bargaining, labor law and labor history, cardcheck can help avoid the protracted and sometimes unfair National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election process.
“What you end up with is a longer campaign where the employees are at work and they may be subject to an anti-union campaign. The longer this campaign goes on, the more the opportunity for the employees to be coerced,” Lieberwitz said.
The aggressive protests against Cintas are atypical of COLA activity. The group usually engages in leafleting, demonstrations and discussion with the Cornell and Ithaca communities.
“In terms of [the Cintas] campaign, the next step is we’re going to go talk to the management of Statler. Our goal is to get them not to renew [Cintas’] contract,” said COLA Treasurer Iris Packman ’06.
In addition to addressing labor issues, COLA’s scope often stretches into the political realm.
This week there will be COLA members at the Straight distributing information about presidential candidates and their respective histories concerning labor issues. The informational drive is the beginning of a voter registration campaign that will lead up to the elections in 2004.
COLA will also be involved in a campaign to help hotel workers in Ithaca achieve living wages. According to www.livingwagecampaign.org, which is not affiliated with COLA, “Many campaigns have defined the living wage as equivalent to the poverty line for a family of four, currently $8.20 an hour, though ordinances that have passed range from $6.25 to $12.00 an hour.”
“Currently Statler is the only hotel that pays a living wage and has a union,” Packman said.
The drive will focus primarily on achieving a living wage for hotel workers, not unionization.
On Nov. 21, COLA will co-sponsor a labor leaders roundtable, an event in which 12 speakers from prominent unions and not-for-profit organizations, including Paul Whitehead, general counsel of the United Steelworkers of America, will discuss their careers and experiences in the labor movement and engage in roundtable discussion.
Archived article by Clark Merrefield