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Mobtown Beat

Clean Sweep

Laundry Workers Win Union Recognition, Contract

By Tom Scocca | Posted 6/27/2001

The end of the Up-To-Date industrial-laundry strike is oddly like a graduation ceremony. For starters, everyone is dressed alike, in big red T-shirts and black caps with the logo of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). Here, outside the plant fence, on a grassy bank trodden bare and hard in the middle by round-the-clock picketing, the strikers are being treated to a round of inspirational speeches--former City Council member Carl Stokes congratulates them on a "victory on behalf of all working people;" a representative of the AFL-CIO welcomes them to the ranks of organized labor. In lieu of diplomas, there are vivid green fliers, proclaiming victory on one side, victoria on the other. Everyone poses for snapshots.

It's the afternoon of June 25 and the laundry workers have reason to be festive. Nine weeks to the day after the employees of the city's biggest industrial laundry walked off their jobs, protesting low pay, harassment, and the company's interference with their bid to unionize, the afternoon shift is about to go back to work (Mobtown Beat, May 2). On June 19, Up-To-Date Laundry Inc.'s management agreed to recognize the union, and on June 21 the workers ratified a three-year contract. The production workers, who make up most of the Morrell Park plant staff and are the company's lowest paid--making between $5.50 and $6 per hour before the strike began--are to get a series of pay raises in rapid succession, lifting the base pay rate to $7 per hour by the end of the year. By the third year of the contract, the lowest-paid workers will be making $7.50. (Truck drivers, who were making as little as $9 before the strike, will be raised to a base of $10.75 for straight-truck drivers and $14 for tractor-trailer drivers.)

The workers also get free health coverage--including optical coverage and a prescription plan--and an employer-paid pension plan, starting immediately. The litany of sexual-harassment and racial-discrimination charges against plant management that had been brought before the National Labor Relations Board and the Maryland Human Relations Commission over the last two years are to be settled individually, and there will be a grievance procedure for any future claims. A health-and-safety committee of union members will address complaints about other working conditions.

The strikers are in high spirits with the deal. "It's wonderful," says Audra Murphy, who weighs clean laundry on the second shift. "I believe that we've settled on a very fair contract . . . . I came out on strike with the attitude that it just couldn't get any worse than it was."

What made the deal happen, UNITE organizers say, was that three of Up-To-Date's biggest customers--the Johns Hopkins Medical System, the University of Maryland Medical Center, and the Sheraton Inner Harbor--all notified the laundry that they would take their business elsewhere if the strike wasn't settled. "We certainly, as a business, want to cooperate with our customers," Up-To-Date's lawyer, Joseph Pokempner, says.

"We're happy that it's resolved and we're happy that the employees ratified the contract," Pokempner says. "We're not dwelling on the past." The company, he adds, has hired a new personnel manager and has trained managers to better deal with its work force.

Just before 2:30 p.m., the workers from the second shift line up and march through the gates, as the first-shift workers, who will return the next morning, wave and cheer outside. Of the plant's 240 workers, UNITE organizer Wilma Neal says, 170 walked out, and 126 of those drew strike pay while the rest found other jobs. In all, 90 strikers are going back to work at Up-To-Date this week.

Rodney Prater, a first-shift scale operator, expresses some regret at seeing the second shift report to work. At a plant where African-American workers like himself contend they and Latino immigrants were pitted against each other, with discriminatory pay and assignments, Prater says the strike provided harmony. "We have grown as close as a family on the outside," he says. "We're going to miss it. . . . They can't pull that race card on us anymore."

Other kinds of friction are still possible. Inside the fence, nonstriking workers look on warily as the red-T-shirted group makes its way toward the side entrance. But since the new contract is plantwide, for union and nonunion workers alike, Neal says she expects any polarization from the strike to dissipate. "How can you argue," she asks, "with going from $6 an hour to a base of $7 an hour?"

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