from the pages of../


Workers Air Boston's Dirty Laundry

by Margaret Kohn

 

Workers in Boston are talking about the second American revolution, but they are talking quietly. In a city which traditionally has been one of the strongholds of the union movement, a sustained assault by corporations, often in collusion with local and state governments repeating the mantra of privatization, has left workers struggling to change to prevent conditions from deteriorating back to the sweatshops of the turn of the century.

Perhaps you thought that sixty hour work weeks, poverty wages, and flagrant disregard for health and safety standards were a thing of the past. At Royal Institutional Services, an industrial laundry with plants in Dorchester and Somerville, Massachusetts, they are sound business practices which have allowed the company to underbid its competitors and dominate the market. Ever since an organizing drive began over a year ago, management has kept its employees in terror by illegally firing union supporters. Royal's tactics have been rewarded. They currently provide laundry service for thirty-six major health care providers in the Boston area including Boston City Hospital, Massachusetts General, and Children's Hospital.

Although Royal's largely female, immigrant workforce washes the hospital's dirty laundry, until recently they had no health insurance for themselves or their families. The starting wage at Royal is $5.25 per hour. Even though many workers have been with the company for years, the average wage is about $6. Until September 1995 when Royal purchased K-Bro, another industrial laundry offering higher wages and benefits, Royal workers received no sick days, holidays, vacation, or benefits of any kind. In order to achieve some parity between the workers of the two facilities, Royal worker received a small wage increase and K-Bro employees' salaries were, cut. Royal began to offer workers a health insurance plan at a cost of over $50 per week, which is prohibitive to the low paid workforce. Royal workers still receive no sick days, vacation, or pension benefits.

 

Health and Safety

What concerns the employees most, however, is the dangerous working conditions. Maria Elena Perez, a Royal worker for three years, explained that many of the workers are women and mothers. When they are pregnant, they are not allowed to take less strenuous tasks. Since they have no health insurance and no sick leave, they receive inadequate care and some workers have fainted on the shop floor. If they complain of pain or injury, they are ordered to return to work. During the summer there is no cooling system and the temperature often soars above 120 degrees. According to Perez, these conditions have caused women to loose babies. Because the plant isn't heated in the winter, workers must wear coats and wrap their legs in towels. Although this winter the management agreed to install a heater for the cold season, a supervisor threatened that the heating wouldn't be turned off in the summer.

Pedro Agular, a former Royal employee fired for his union sympathies, expressed concern about management's disregard for the health risks involved in handling potentially infected hospital laundry. He explained-that when workers insisted on following OSHA safety regulations and requested sanitary gloves they were told that it wasn't necessary since inspectors weren't expected to come to the plant.

Royal's management has a long record of noncompliance with safety and health regulations. Before taking over as president of Royal Mark Johnson was the owner and operator of Institutional Linen in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1991 when inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) tried to conduct an inspection of the plant, they were denied access. When OSHA inspectors returned with a warrant they found that the plant had violated 19 health and safety regulations. OSHA issued 32 citations and levied $44,800 of fines. OSHA concluded that the company failed to educate and protect workers from the inherent dangers of handling potentially infected hospital laundry such as infection with Hepatitis B. They also found unsafe equipment and operating procedures and an unsanitary workplace.

These serious violations, however, were not only limited to Institutional Linens. In 1994 the Massachusetts Department of Labor and Industry inspected the Royal plant in Somerville and found similar violations to those cited by OSHA. One inspector was even burned on an exposed steam pipe while touring the plant. In November of 1995 OSHA conducted another inspection and cited Royal for four violations of federal workplace safety regulations, including serious violations such as failure to provide adequate machine guards and lack of sufficient training about exposure to bloodborne pathogens.

Employees claim that these violations are sym ptomatic of the management's disregard for employees health and safety. Perez explained that occasionally workers are injured by needles and syringes found in the laundry. Although workers are concerned about the HIV virus, the supervisor dabs a bit of disinfectant over the wound. He tells them testing isn't necessary and orders them to go back to work.

 

Union Busting

When employees express their concerns Johnson's response is if anyone doesn't like the work, they can quit. More accurate would be that if anyone tries to change conditions, they will be fired. In November 1994 Pedro Agular organized a group of ten workers to request a raise for everyone worldng in the plant. Supervisor Brian Leibovitz responded by attempting to divide the workers. He told Agular, if you feel like you deserve a raise, then ask for one for yourself and we will consider it. Agular responded that he wanted a raise for everyone, since several new laundry contracts had come in employees were doing significantly more work for the same pay. The following day at 5:00 PM, at the end of a 13 hour shift, Agular was called into the manager's office and fired without explanation.

Nor is Agular's experience unique. On June 4, 1996 another active union supporter, Alicja Grochowska, a two year veteran at Royal, was told that there was no more work. Perez, who has been vocal in her support for a union, fears she will be next. The consequences would be devastating; in addition to living in Boston on poverty level wages, she also supports her family in El Salvador. But she is one of the courageous ones who refuses to give in to the intimidation.

Royal has employed a variety of tactics to discourage unity. In early June, a group of five Polish-American workers, some of whom had over ten years of seniority, were fired. Robin Clark of UNITE, (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), suggested that this move may have been part of a strategy to divide the workers on ethnic lines in order to undermine the union. By firing the older Polish-American workers and giving raises to a group of Hispanic-Americans, the company may have been trying to win over the majority Hispanic workforce while undermining the cohesiveness of the group.

With the help of UNITE, workers at Royal have been trying to organize a union to represent employees in contract negotiations and implement a grievance procedure. Perez explained, "The company is defending its interests. They have all the power. So we have to defend our interests. That's why we want a union."

As community support for the Royal workers has grown, the company has made some minor concessions: a small wage increase, the $50 per week health policy, and a microwave in the break room. The struggle, however, is not only about wages and benefits. Agular stated, "What we wanted most was respect because they didn't treat us like humans. They treated us like animals."

The difficulty in organizing the workers is partially a product of management's tactics. By firing active union supports, Royal has successfully intimidated potential supporters. In August 1995 the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint charging Royal with illegally firing workers for supporting a union and illegally intimidating and harassing workers who expressed grievances. Furthermore, management has refused to meet with workers to discuss ways of addressing health and safety concerns.

This has forced the Royal workers to turn to political strategies. Many of Royal’s clients are hospitals which receive extensive funding from Cambridge and Boston city governments. In effect, the public is indirectly supporting unjust labor practices. Perez pointed out that community members can put pressure of politicians to make sure their tax money isn't going to subsidize exploitative conditions. She explained, "the money they are getting is yours (taxpayer's money). They use money from the city to create injustice for us. " The Royal workers and their supporters at UNITE have been lobbying local government to support their campaign. On March 25, 1996 the Cambridge City Council passed an ordinance requiring that city funded subcontractors follow federal environmental, health, safety and labor standards. Councilor Roach will present a similar measure to the Boston City Council this month.

The workers are also beginning to target the private hospitals directly in order to educate them about Royal's labor practices. They wrote letters to Royal's customers in order to explain their grievances and request a meeting to discuss how hospital officials could support their campaign by stipulating that subcontractors pay a living wage, follow federal safety guidelines, and offer basic benefits. Although the original letter to Beth Israel Hospital President Mitchell T. Rabkin went unanswered, direct action proved more effective. A group of Royal workers supported by college students, workers, and activists from the Union Summer internship program tried to draw attention to the issue by handing out leaflets at the hospital. After calling security to expel the activists, hospital officials met with UNITE representatives. Laura Auakian, Beth Israel's Vice-President of Human Resources stated, "While I can express sympathy there is very little I can do. Although we will certainly look into it. I'd rather not promise any course of action."

Meeting with city officials, however, has proven more effective. On June 6, 1996 Boston Mayor Thomas Menino held a press conference in front of the Dorchester facility. He called Royal a sweatshop and threatened to cancel the city's $1.5 million contract if conditions did not improve.

Addressing reporters and a dozen workers Menino stated, "We have to stand up for the workers of this city. I am sending a message loud and clear ... workers should get a fair wage." When asked whether he supported an ordinance mandating that all city-funded contractors pay wages sufficient to support a family of four above the poverty line ($15,600 or $7.50 per hour), however, Menino insisted "each situation must be handled on a case by case basis."

Clark pointed out that the government pays twice to subsidize exploitative employers. In addition to the amount agreed to in the contract, the city also pays the hospital bills of uninsured workers who must rely on publicly financed care. The only way to remedy this situation is to insist that city contractors offer their workers affordable health insurance rather than always increasing management's profits. This strategy would benefit both the city and the workers.

 

Media Coverage

Despite support from the mayor, community organizations, and the city councilors in both Cambridge and Boston, the mainstream press has largely ignored the Royal workers' struggle. Although there was coverage of the Menino's press conference, the mainstream press chose to present it as a political maneuver to placate union interests. The Boston Globe cited Johnson who "accused the mayor of scapegoating the laundry industry to buttress his image..." and implied that the reason for his statement was that "..the mayor has come under attack in. Union disputes

Boston's Channel Seven interviewed a worker at the plant who stated that the facility wasn't a sweatshop because laundries are inevitably very hot in the summer. They didn't consider whether the presence of supervisors and the wave of recent fires could bias the worker's comments.

The Globe also reported Johnson's assertion that. workers earn an average wage of $6.72 an hour without investigating possible reasons for the discrepancy between management and worker's claims. Urzula Masny-Sokolowsky, another organizer with UNITE, challenged his figures. She suggested that workers may have earned a weekly pay check of $270 but this included overtime and therefore represented an actual hourly wage of less than six dollars.

In recent months there has been much press attention devoted to the new labor movement inaugurated with the election of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Listing his new priorities Sweeney stated that organizing more women and minority workers was absolutely crucial to reviving the labor movement. Royal @tutional Services is a litmus test of the viability of this strategy. In order to bring together a group of Latino, Polish, and Haitian-American workers and to gain concessions from a ruthless employer, organizers have extended the campaign beyond the shop floor to the political and corporate environment in which decisions are made.

An onlooker at the press conference in Dorchester said, "I'm with you, but you are never going to win this. Not in the 1990's." Perhaps. But we are just around the comer from the year 2000.