OAKLAND, Calif. — If the labor movement is to have a future, if it is not to shrink to insignificance, it must unionize workers like Cristina Gomez.
After 13 years as a clothing sorter for the Cintas Corporation, the nation's largest uniform rental company, Ms. Gomez earns $17,000. It is too little, she says, to buy coverage for her two daughters under the company's health insurance plan, and too little to afford anything better than her small home 40 yards from railroad tracks.
With only 13 percent of American workers now represented by unions — the lowest level in six decades — organized labor is looking to a new effort to unionize 17,000 Cintas employees as a way of demonstrating that the movement can regain its old strength.
"We need a union to help us get a good salary and good insurance," said Cristina Gomez, right, shown with a Cintas co-worker, Adilene Sandoval. (NYT Photo/Peter DaSilva)
But that new drive, by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, known as Unite, will not be easy: like many other companies, Cintas is aggressively battling unionization. Its executives maintain that a union will bring antagonism to the ranks and undermine profits, growth and a spirit of cooperation.
At first glance, Cintas, based in Cincinnati but with 365 plants across the country, would seem tailor-made for organizing. Ms. Gomez and many co-workers fume because they earn less than $9 an hour while Cintas boasts that its revenue has grown for 33 consecutive years. In addition, large numbers of employees are immigrants from Mexico and other countries where unions are popular. And Cintas workers, unlike many, need not worry that their plants, which also do industrial laundry, will move overseas if they unionize.
"The company's managers told us, `You should be proud to work for Cintas,' but I'm embarrassed to work there," said the 40-year-old Ms. Gomez, employed at a plant in nearby San Leandro. "I'm ashamed to admit I earn just $8.20 an hour. We need a union to help us get a good salary and good insurance."
Carmen Moreno, who earns $8.50 an hour altering uniforms at a Cintas plant in South San Francisco, said a supervisor had told workers that they should be careful not to become pregnant or they could be fired. Estela Regalado, who folds uniforms at a plant in San Jose, grumbled about earning $7.97 an hour and about rats and roaches in the lunchroom.
"Cintas tells us it's the best company and it's growing fast," Ms. Regalado said, "but when we ask for raises, they say the company's not doing so well."
In its employee handbooks, the company says it strongly opposes unions. Executives note proudly that workers at 49 plants, most acquired from other companies, voted to oust their unions. Cintas, which had revenue of $2.3 billion last year, spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on labor consultants who often tell employees that unions will sow discord and only want their dues money.
"We believe we have a special culture here that would be jeopardized by the kind of hostile actions that characterize the union's approach to dealing with the company," said Karen L. Carnahan, Cintas's treasurer.
Ms. Carnahan said that Unite was fabricating complaints about Cintas, that the company would never discriminate against pregnant workers and that it maintained spotless facilities that did not have rats.
The organizing drive is viewed as a pivotal confrontation. Failure by labor could put yet another nail in its coffin, a risk underscored by Unite's plans to use 150 organizers and spend at least $3 million.
"This is a huge experiment for labor," said Kent Wong, director of the U.C.L.A. Center for Labor Research and Education. "This is an anti-union company, and this is not going to be an easy fight."
The drive is also a highly visible test for Unite's president, Bruce Raynor, who many labor officials say hopes to succeed John J. Sweeney as president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
The union has had success before in taking on anti-union companies, even in the anti-union South. After a 25-year battle, it organized 5,200 textile workers at Fieldcrest Cannon plants in North Carolina four years ago, and after a 17-year fight, it unionized 3,400 workers at J. P. Stevens, a landmark task depicted in the 1979 movie "Norma Rae."
In the current battle, Unite is applying pressure of various kinds. It has financed litigation accusing Cintas of not paying overtime to its drivers and of illegally firing workers for supporting a union, accusations that the company denies.
In addition, Mr. Raynor has asked James P. Hoffa, the Teamsters' president, to pressure the United Parcel Service to stop using Cintas uniforms until Cintas stops fighting unionization. Unite has also staged demonstrations outside Starbucks shops to press that company to stop using Cintas to clean its mats and towels.
Unite hopes to avoid unionization elections, which often turn into expensive battles. Instead, it is seeking to persuade management to grant union recognition through a streamlined process known as card check neutrality. Under this procedure, management agrees not to campaign against the union and to grant recognition once a majority of workers at a plant sign cards saying they favor unionization.
Ms. Carnahan, the company's treasurer, said Cintas would not agree to a card check, because, she said, a secret-ballot election would be fairer. She said union organizers manipulated workers into signing unionization cards by telling them that, for instance, they needed to sign cards to continue their health benefits. She rejected calls for employer neutrality, likening it to a gag order that prevented management from telling workers what is wrong with unions.
Though emphasizing that the decision on union representation was up to the workers, Ms. Carnahan voiced confidence that they would reject it. "We provide a great place to work, and competitive wages and benefits," she said, noting that the company offered profit sharing and contributed to employee 401(k) plans.
Mr. Raynor, on the other hand, declared that Cintas had undercut unionized competitors by offering lesser wages, pensions and health benefits. Cintas, he said, is "a competitive threat to the wages and benefits that we've negotiated with other companies."
Ernie de Roza, a driver at the South San Francisco plant, opposes unionization, saying the union has deceived some workers into backing it. "We have a very good management," he said. "If I have any type of issue, I can walk right into my managers. I can even call the C.E.O. It's all openness. Everybody works together for a common goal."
Many other workers say management has called them into meetings to watch anti-union videos and listen to anti-union speakers. "They showed us videos about how bad the union is," Ms. Gomez said. "They say all the union wants is our money."
With the company campaigning aggressively against the union, Mr. Raynor said a card check made all the more sense.
"There's no reason to subject the workers to an election," he said, adding that employees were often vulnerable to threats, intimidation and firing during election drives.
But Ms. Carnahan argued that an election was the best way. "Given the abuses that can occur in the card-check process," she said, "we share the common belief that people deserve a secret-ballot election."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company