Labor, management and faith - Catholic Courier

Labor, management and faith

Two coalitions in diocese
promote rights of workers


The voice of a Cintas Corp. employee rose slightly as she berated the handful of clergy and labor activists standing around her Aug. 19 at the gates to the company’s Rochester facility. The activists — mostly members of the Rochester Labor-Religion Coalition — were giving workers entering and leaving Cintas copies of a coalition statement in support of the workers’ right to join a union.

The Cintas employee — who declined to give her name — told activists that she and other employees were tired of activists criticizing her company, which is engaged in a dispute with a union attempting to organize its workers.

“Each day we have to defend ourselves to our customers, to our family, to our friends,” she said. “Over and over and over, we say we don’t want a union.”

Cintas, headquartered in Cincinnati, is currently the target of a nationwide organizing effort by UNITE HERE, a union created through the merger of the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. Cintas’ primary business is selling, renting and cleaning uniforms.

The local Cintas employee arguing with activists said she had started as a line worker at the company and had been promoted to an office job. She said Cintas treated her and other employees fairly, but another worker leaving the plant by car said the unidentified woman did not represent the views of all workers.

“I want a union so we can be treated fair and respected,” said Carolina Richardson, a folder at Cintas. She added that she felt the woman criticizing the activists was simply talking the management line. “She’s not speaking for everybody. She’s one of them.”

The clergy gathered at Cintas Aug. 19 represented area Jewish and Christian congregations and included Father Larry Tracy, a priest of the Diocese of Rochester who resides at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in the city. The priest noted that he was upholding a long-standing tradition in the Catholic Church, one endorsed by Pope John Paul II as well as several popes before him. That tradition supports workers’ right to organize, Father Tracy said, noting that Catholic social teaching says all companies, no matter how well they treat their employees, are obliged to respect that right.

“It doesn’t always mean that labor is always right and management is always wrong,” he said. “But you can’t have justice with one side dictating the terms.”

Terms of vote

Wade Gates, a national spokesman for Cintas, said the company would welcome a vote by employees to join a union as long as the vote is conducted by secret ballot and monitored by the National Labor Relations Board. UNITE HERE, on the other hand, wants the company to recognize the union if a majority of workers sign cards indicating that is their wish.

In Rochester, Mike Roberts, a UNITE HERE organizer and co-chairman of the Rochester Labor-Religion Coalition, said the union would agree to an NLRB election if it believed Cintas would forego actions he perceives as “intimidating” pro-union employees. He noted that Cintas recently fired six Rochester employees, who the union believes were targeted for their pro-union activity. Keith Crawford, one of the fired employees, said he had talked up the union and distributed pro-union literature to co-workers.

“We were gaining headway in support with other workers in the plant, and (management) saw that,” he said.

However, Gates said the workers were fired for violations of the company’s time-clock policy, such as leaving their shifts earlier than they were supposed to do. According to an NLRB document UNITE HERE provided to the Catholic Courier, the NLRB has scheduled an Oct. 4 hearing in Buffalo on alleged unfair labor practices by Cintas in Rochester. Crawford said he planned to be at the hearing.

In late August, meanwhile, the labor-religion coalition planned to eventually submit a “Pledge of Support for Sweat-Free Uniforms and Laundry Services” to the Rochester Diocese’s Public Policy Committee, according to Marvin Mich, coalition co-chairman and director of social policy and research at Rochester’s Catholic Family Center. The coalition wants the diocese to consider not initiating or renewing any contracts with Cintas until the company honors such principles as recognizing its workers’ right to organize, Mich said. According to diocesan spokesman Doug Mandelaro, the Public Policy Committee can make recommendations to the diocese, but does not have final say over any contracts.

Crawford said pro-union Cintas employees welcomed the work of the labor-religion coalition.

“They were very beneficial in showing their support,” he said.

Church and labor

Like Father Tracy, Mich noted that the church is not anti-management; it simply believes that its role is to uphold the rights of workers, who are often placed in situations that compromise their dignity. A national expert on the church’s social-justice teachings, Mich said that papal encyclicals over the last 113 years have emphasized the church’s support for workers’ rights.

Roberts, an American Baptist minister-in-formation, noted that the Catholic Church has a much more extensive tradition of support for workers than do other Christian denominations.

“Workers have less power,” Mich said, adding that the coalition seeks to be a voice for workers. “The coalition can be the conscience of the community,” he said.

The Rochester coalition is affiliated with the Albany-based New York State Labor-Religion Coalition and is one of two such local coalitions in the Diocese of Rochester. The other one, based in Elmira, is called the Southern Tier Labor-Religion Coalition and is co-chaired by Kathleen Dubel, justice-and-peace coordinator of Catholic Charities of the Southern Tier.

Both the Rochester and Southern Tier coalitions have been active on a number of labor issues in recent years. Both groups have supported living-wage campaigns in their areas, calling on local governments to contract only with employers that pay wages sufficient for employees to support their families. Both coalitions have supported the rights of migrant farm workers and have educated people on conditions faced by workers in other nations. And, like the state coalition, both diocesan coalitions have supported anti-sweatshop campaigns.

The Southern Tier coalition has slated a “Solidarity Supper” for Saturday, Sept. 11, at St. Mary’s Church in Elmira. The event will feature music, speakers and information tables, and will bring together members of area faith communities and local labor unions.

Explaining church involvement in labor issues, Father Tracy said the church must be concerned about labor because workers are vulnerable throughout the world, not just in the United States. In China, for example, where many American jobs have gone, citizens don’t have the right to organize unions, he noted.

“The problem is partial globalization,” he said. “We have an imbalance because capital has been globalized and labor has not.

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