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Mobtown Beat

Clean-Up Time

Workers Walk at City's Biggest Industrial Laundry

By Tom Scocca | Posted 5/2/2001

In this age of protest as street theater, it's hard to picture a worse street for staging a protest than the 1200 block of DeSoto Road. The stretch in question, south of Wilkens Avenue in Morrell Park, houses a modern industrial park, low-lying, spread out, and desolate. There are no dramatic backdrops, no passers-by. The sidewalk is intermittent. The only amenity is free and plentiful on-street parking, because nobody has any reason to park here.

Yet there are some 30 people out picketing on a Thursday afternoon, on the grassy strip where the sidewalk ought to be. They are here because this is where they work--or rather, where they worked. Three days earlier, on April 23, they walked off their jobs at Up-To-Date Laundry Inc. In all, 170 of the plant's 240 workers are on strike; they are picketing in shifts, 24 hours a day.

Most of the strikers are Latino immigrants or African-Americans; many of them are female. Some have brought children. There are no giant puppets or ski-masked anarchists in sight. Instead, there are the remains of an extended camp out: water jugs, coffee containers, the remains of a bonfire in a trash barrel. The strikers have spread blue tarps on the ground, in the shade of small trees. A few of them nap there. A dozen others are marching in a circle in the laundry plant's driveway, chanting along with a bullhorn in English and Spanish.

Industrial laundering is high-volume, arduous, low-paying work, and the privately owned Up-To-Date is the city's biggest laundry company. The firm collects and cleans soiled linens and other washing from hospitals and hotels throughout Maryland and Washington. Workers tell of sorting through hospital bedding that's wet with blood and excrement, of wrestling laundered sheets into massive pressing machines in stifling heat.

"Plenty of time, needles come down the line," says Steve Fleary, who sorts the dirty laundry. "Scalpels come down the line. All types of bloody material, human waste. . . . I can't even describe some of the parts I've seen."

"People just can't believe the conditions," says Wilma Neal, an organizer with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). "It is a modern-day sweatshop."

In June 1999, UNITE held an election to organize the plant's workers but lost the vote. The union appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), saying that the company had used firings, harassment, threats, and bribery to get employees to oppose the union. It also filed complaints with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging Up-To-Date executives with widespread and flagrant sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

In March of this year, the NLRB, having found merit to the charges, responded with a sweeping settlement agreement in the case. Up-To-Date was required to give back pay to more than three dozen fired workers and to offer to rehire them. The company also had to take the unusual step of permitting UNITE organizers into the plant to campaign for another election.

The agreement included a clause stipulating that Up-To-Date does not admit guilt to any of the charges. Union officials, however, say the scope of the company's concessions speaks for itself, a view the NLRB does not dispute. The allegations against Up-To-Date in this single election were so "massive"--more than 100 different charges--and "egregious" that they qualified UNITE for "extraordinary remedies," NLRB regional director Wayne Gold says.

Even those remedies, the picketers say, were not enough. Joseph Lloyd, who was among the workers reinstated in the settlement, says management continued to harass him after his return. "When I came back, they used to follow me around the building," even into the cafeteria and the rest room, he says. And workers claim that shortly after the new UNITE drive began 10 more union-friendly employees were fired. "It was clear this was not going to be a fair election," UNITE organizer Jim Grogan says. "They broke the law." The workers won't go back, he says, until the company agrees to recognize the union.

Up-To-Date's lawyer, Joseph Prokempner, who fields all questions about the company, counters that nobody was fired: The company terminated eight part-time positions, he says, and offered to hire those workers as full timers. UNITE called the walkout, Prokempner says, because "they're afraid they're going to lose the vote like they lost the last vote."

With its regular employees out, Up-To-Date is turning to temps and managers to help meet its workload. The union is hoping that, as word of the strike spreads, that workload will shrink. Labor law forbids unions from pressuring third parties, such as a targeted company's customers, but others are allowed to pressure on the union's behalf. The Johns Hopkins Student-Labor Action Committee (SLAC) has been leafleting outside Hopkins and other hospitals and has been lobbying the Hopkins administration to pull its business from Up-To-Date.

A year ago, Hopkins' relationship with Up-To-Date was one of the reasons SLAC protesters staged a 17-day sit-in at the campus' Garland Hall. Hopkins maintained its hands-off approach to the laundry's labor troubles, but SLAC member David Snyder says officials are more receptive this time around. Hopkins hospital spokesperson Gary Stephenson says only that the institution is working behind the scenes to resolve the situation at the laundry. (On April 30, Snyder and Hopkins officials showed up for a surprise tour of the Up-To-Date plant.)

And some things have changed on the picket line this time too. Maria Esperanza is a longtime supervisor at the plant who hired many of the Latino workers. Back in 1999, she cooperated with plant management to discourage the union. On the third day of this strike, though, she walked out the door and onto the picket line. As a supervisor, she can't get her job back, even if UNITE wins.

"I can't work with someone who doesn't have feelings," she says. "Now I'm just coming to support my people."

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