When attorney G. Robert Blakey drafted the federal RICO Act in 1970, it was designed as a new legal tactic to bring down the Mafia by making it easier to confiscate money and other assets like casinos, mansions and cars.
Under RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), any member of a group that’s committed any two of 35 specific crimes within a 10-year period can be charged with racketeering. Besides facing prison time and fines, those found guilty can be forced to forfeit all assets and interest in any business gained through a pattern of “racketeering activity.” RICO also allows any individual harmed by the actions of such a group to file a civil lawsuit and collect damages.
Frustrated with the mob’s staying power in major U.S. cities, President Nixon enthusiastically signed the bill into law in October of that year.
It’s a safe bet, however, that neither Nixon nor Blakey ever contemplated that a multimillion-dollar corporation would try to use RICO to seek damages from labor unions that were attempting to organize its workers.
But that’s exactly what Mason-based Cintas Corp. tried to do in March 2008 when it filed a RICO lawsuit against the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and two other labor groups, the Teamsters and the Change to Win coalition. In the suit, Cintas alleged the groups defamed the company’s character and damaged its reputation by portraying it as anti-union and distributing negative information about the company.
In a ruling issued this week, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit and criticized Cintas for filing it in the first place.
U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley of New York dismissed all claims, federal and state, arising from Cintas’ lawsuit. Further, he called the company’s 334-paragraph complaint “sprawling” and “larded,” adding “it is a manifesto by a Fortune 500 company that is more a public relations piece than a (court) pleading.”
Cintas had sought damages from the three unions due to UNITE’s “Cintas Exposed” Web site (www.cintas exposed.org), which it said falsely portrayed the firm as having “a long history of antiunionism” and depicted Cintas as “bent on racist, sexist and illegal acts.” As part of the campaign, UNITE “reached out to Cintas’ customers, especially small, minority-owned businesses, to pressure Cintas,” the lawsuit alleged.
Additionally, UNITE’s campaign urged Cintas’ customers to check their weekly invoices in order to object to unauthorized products and services and demand notification of any changes so Cintas couldn’t slip in new fees unnoticed.
Cintas had alleged the Web site amounted to unfair competition and generated profits for the union by diverting sales and profits away from the company.
Judge Pauley, though, ruled that the union’s activities were constitutionally protected free speech.
“Cintas does not have the right to operate free from any criticism, organized or not,” he wrote.
Also, Cintas had alleged UNITE engaged in attempted extortion through its attempts to unionize the company’s workers through a card-check campaign. Pauley cited previous court rulings that held such card-check agreements benefit both the union and the company because both parties give up certain rights under the process.
“We see this as a real victory for Cintas workers and for the right of workers to organize,” says Katie Unger, a UNITE spokeswoman. “What Cintas tried to do here is make spreading the facts about their misdeeds the crime rather than their own offenses in the workplace.”
Pauley dismissed Cintas’ claims under the federal RICO law and a related state law. The judge added that the latter was done because he didn’t see any reason why New York courts would have jurisdiction. If Cintas wants to pursue state RICO claims, it should do so in Ohio, where the firm is based, he wrote.
That’s exactly what Cintas will do, company officials say.
“While the company is disappointed in and disagrees with the judge’s decision on the federal claim, the state law RICO and defamation claims were not dismissed by the court,” says Pamela Lowe, a Cintas vice president. “Cintas plans to vigorously pursue those claims and is also considering whether to appeal the judge’s dismissal of the federal claim.”
UNITE counters that Cintas has tried before to pursue the claims in other jurisdictions, to no avail.
“They’ve been forum-shopping portions of this case for years now,” Unger says. “They’re trying to find a place where they can file what is clearly a baseless and harassing lawsuit and try to make it stick.”
Cintas is the largest uniform supplier in North America and employs more than 34,000 people in the United States and Canada. UNITE has been trying to organize company employees for the past few years, basing its efforts on the company’s abysmal safety record.
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.”