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US: Cleaning Up The Laundry Industry

by Mary Beth
May 17th, 2005

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 nationís largest hospital laundry supplier, Angelica Textile Services, and its employees represented by the union UNITE HERE.

Maybe you didnít hear the news. Letís face it, most of us donít think about the linens used during our hospital stays or visits with loved ones in nursing homes. But we do know what itís like to do our laundry. Itís a bore, and itís 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.

Hereís 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 companyís 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 coworkerís 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 Marioís experiences arenít 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 donít 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 leaveóworkplace standards modeled after terms first set by union members and their employers.

Angelicaís 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 isnít supposed to be clean, but it needs to be safe. Their work may have been invisible, but their problems at work are real. Whatís 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 weíre sick, but because of the decline in working conditions affecting every one of us on the job.

Angelicaís 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.

Isnít 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 workersí rights.

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

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