There are good reasons that many U.S. manufacturing and service workers are urging President Obama and Congress to pass a new law that would make it easier for employees to join labor unions. One prime case in point is Mason-based Cintas Corp.
For the second time since September, Cintas is facing a legal decision in California that could force it to comply with living wage laws and potentially give workers there millions of dollars in back pay.
The California Court of Appeal last week removed restrictions that limited coverage under Los Angeles’ living wage ordinance, unanimously ruling to invalidate a regulation requiring employees spend 20 hours per month on contracted work with the city to be covered.
In 1997 Los Angeles City Council approved a law that stated it applied to all workers who spent “any time” working on municipal service contracts of more than $25,000 in value and lasted three months or longer. But the city official who administered contracts later adopted regulations that limited coverage to workers who spent more than 20 hours working on a covered contract and guaranteed the living wage only for hours worked on the contract itself, not the worker’s job.
Last week’s ruling likely will bolster the class-action lawsuit that 550 laundry workers in southern California have filed against Cintas seeking back wages.
Workers filed the suit in 2004 over a contract that Cintas held with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to wash city uniforms, worth about $1 million per year, from May 2000 until January 2004. The city terminated the contract in 2004 after Cintas refused to comply with the terms of the agreement.
Los Angeles officials later sued Cintas for breach of contract and recovered $350,000 in a settlement that allowed the workers’ back wages suit to continue. In 2006, the city of Los Angeles filed a legal brief supporting the workers’ case.
Living wage laws have been approved by more than 60 cities nationwide, including Cincinnati, Baltimore, New Orleans and San Francisco. The laws require companies that do business with the cities to pay their workers enough to lift their families out of poverty. The amount varies by locale. Under the Los Angeles law, firms must pay workers at least $9.08 per hour with health benefits or $10.33 per hour without them.
In September Cintas had to pay more than $1.65 million in back wages, interest and penalties for violating a living wage law in Hayward, Calif., after the California Supreme Court rejected the company’s appeal. More than 200 northern California laundry workers were affected by that decision.
The workers filed the lawsuit in 2003 in an attempt to enforce the law. Instead of paying the required wage, Cintas had cancelled Hayward’s contract.
A lower court granted the back pay, with interest, in 2005 but Cintas fought the ruling for more than three years. That earned the company a civil penalty that it must pay to the state of California.
Still, Cintas didn’t learn a lesson from that case and continues battling the Los Angeles suit.
As many Cincinnatians probably know, Cintas is the largest uniform supplier in the U.S. The firm reported $531 million in profits for 2008 and its chairman, Richard T. Farmer, is the richest man in Greater Cincinnati with an estimated net worth of $1.5 billion.
As we’ve reported in the past, Cintas has been cited for more than 170 safety violations in its facilities during the past six years, including more than 70 citations that regulators deemed could cause “death or serious physical harm.” Last month Cintas agreed to a settlement with the U.S. Labor Department to pay $2.76 million in penalties for six of those violations, including one involving the death of a worker in 2007.
At the same time, Cintas has vigorously fought efforts by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees to organize its workers into a bargaining unit. In one instance,the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a complaint against a Cintas facility in Vista,Calif.,after a supervisor threatened to kick pro-union workers “with steel-toed boots.”
Because of incidents like those,union leaders have been pushing Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. If approved, it would allow workers to join a union simply by collecting signatures from a majority of workers rather than the complicated, two-part process now in place.
Under the current procedure,a union organizer must solicit employees to sign cards asking the NLRB to conduct an election. If more than half the workers in a proposed bargaining unit sign cards,the NLRB sends officials to conduct an election using secret ballots; if more than half vote for the union,the workers can organize.
The problem,however,is that many companies threaten and intimidate workers during the first part of the process,to prevent reaching the threshold for an election. Often, pro-union workers are simply fired; Cintas itself has been accused of doing just that.
When he was a senator,Obama co-sponsored and voted for a version of the law that didn’t make it out of Congress. He vowed to sign a similar bill into law as president if the new Congress puts one on his desk.
As the Cintas cases in California make clear, workers need more leverage at the front end so they can avoid costly and protracted legal battles just to get what they’re entitled.
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