US: Cleaning Up The Laundry Industry

Publisher Name: 
TomPaine.com

Earlier this month, hundreds of hospitals and the patients they serve
came close to working without clean linens. A strike was threatened and
postponed but still looms because of ongoing contract negotiations and
labor disputes between the nation's largest hospital laundry supplier,
Angelica Textile Services, and its employees represented by the union
UNITE HERE.

Maybe
you didn't hear the news. Let's face it, most of us don't think about
the linens used during our hospital stays or visits with loved ones in
nursing homes. But we do know what it's like to do our laundry. It's a
bore, and it's a chore. End of story.

For the workers employed
by industrial launderer Angelica, doing laundry is much more than a
chore. They're not only performing our dirty work. They're doing so in
dangerous, sweatshop conditions for only $9 or $10 an hour.

Here's
a typical Angelica employee experience. At a Jobs with Justice National
Workers' Rights Board hearing, Yvonne Wolcott of Batavia, N.Y.,
reported that she struggles to meet the company's demands to speed up
production. Daily, she handles large volumes of soiled linens
containing blood, feces, urine, discarded needles, and other sharp
surgical instruments. The automated dumping machine that delivers dirty
laundry to her area runs so fast that "piles sometimes become so high
that they are above workers' heads," Yvonne said.

At an Angelica
facility in Vallejo, Calif., Mario Jarmillo witnessed the severing of a
coworker's finger by a defective machine that had been broken for
months. "I can't feel safe in my workspace when I know the company is
capable of being that careless," he said.

Yvonne and Mario's
experiences aren't unique. Jobs with Justice reports that since the
start of 2004, federal and state regulators have conducted more than 15
investigations of Angelica facilities and cited the company for
violating U.S. OSHA laws designed to protect workers from unnecessary
risks to their safety and health. Yet Angelica workers remain
vulnerable.

Adding insult to injury, when Angelica
workers who don't have unions attempt to form them, they have been
harassed, demoted and fired. To date, the National Labor Relations
Board has found merit in 47 unfair labor charges filed by Angelica
workers against their employer.

When it comes to our schools,
our communities and our country, we expect to have a voice. The
workplace should be no different. Unfortunately, because of weak labor
laws and employers who routinely skirt the law, workers are routinely
denied the opportunity to form a union and are often retaliated against
for exercising their rights. In fact, every 23 minutes in the United
States, a worker is fired or discriminated against for union activity.

It
doesn't have to be this way. In the past, the right to pursue the
American dream inspired low-income workers to form unions and demand
better working conditions. They were successful in part because we, as
a society, decided to place a premium on workplace standards. As a
result of these choices and the efforts of workers of previous
generations, every one of us benefits from weekends, basic health and
safety protections, and family and medical leave-workplace standards
modeled after terms first set by union members and their employers.

Angelica's
employees and countless others who attempt to form unions simply want
what we all desire and deserve: The dignity of a clean and safe
working environment. Fair wages and benefits that allow them to meet
the needs of their families. The opportunity to participate in the
decisions that dictate how they perform their jobs and produce quality
products.

Their work isn't supposed to be clean, but it needs to
be safe. Their work may have been invisible, but their problems at work
are real. What's happening to laundry workers like Yvonne and Mario
should matter to all of us. Not just because their working conditions
are connected to the care we receive when we're sick, but because of
the decline in working conditions affecting every one of us on the job.

Angelica's
employees see a work stoppage as the very last resort. No one should
have to walk off the job just to have dignity, safety and respect. And
if workers do strike, the company should bear the burden for the
inconvenience.

Isn't it time for us to support Angelica workers
and others who are struggling to achieve the American dream, rather
than tacitly watch those trying to muddy it? We should all demand
Angelica to clean up its act and respect workers' rights.


Mary Beth Maxwell is executive director of American Rights at Work, a national workers' rights advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

AMP Section Name:Labor
  • 183 Environment