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On the picket line

January 23, 2004 | Pages 10 and 11

OTHER STORIES BELOW:
H&M
Cité

Cintas
By Lee Sustar

CHICAGO--More of Cintas' sweatshop practices came to light January 16 when workers and allies challenged a transit agency to stop using the uniform services. UNITE, which is organizing the nation's biggest industrial laundry, is pressuring the Metra commuter rail service to bar Cintas from bidding to renew its $6.6 billion contract with the agency.

UNITE has exposed the Cintas subcontractors who sew Metra uniforms. Before a Metra board meeting, Teresa Williams, who worked at a Cintas subcontractor, described abusive management and filthy and unsafe working conditions. There was just one bathroom for 40, and there was no soap or toilet paper.

Also speaking at the press conference were Willie Mae Jones and Thera Jones, who were laid off by Cintas in September 2001 supposedly because of the September 11 attacks--while other workers with less seniority, mostly Polish immigrants, remained on the job.

After a morning press conference, about 40 representatives of UNITE, Teamsters Local 731, Chicago Jobs with Justice and the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice went to the Metra board of directors' meeting and held up signs that read, "No fares for sweatshop wear."

Metra board chair Jeffrey Ladd claims that the agency has to give its contracts to the lowest bidder--in other words, that taxpayers should support Cintas' sweatshop conditions. UNITE plans to step up the pressure on Metra board members in the weeks ahead--and turn up the heat on Cintas to stop its union-busting tactics.

To find out how you can support the UNITE organizing drive at Cintas, go to http://www.uniteunion.org/cintas/.

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H&M
By Paul Grohman

NEW YORK--Workers at H&M stores and distribution centers throughout the country have been involved in an active fight to win the ability to join a union and for their basic rights as workers. They have been aided in their fight by UNITE, the union to which they would belong, along with a growing number of allies. This includes activists, prominent community leaders, politicians, the AFL-CIO and unions representing H&M workers in their home country of Sweden.

H&M is a $5.3 billion multinational retailer of "cheap chic" fashion. Its 2002 net profit margin was 12.5 percent, earning owners $655 million in annual profits. By comparison, H&M's American competitor, the Gap, had a 2.3 percent profit margin in 2002.

H&M promotes itself as a socially responsible multinational corporation. Yet while trade unions and labor rights activists in its core markets of Sweden and Germany report that H&M treats its workers with respect, workers who sew H&M clothes in Southeast Asia and workers who ship and sell H&M clothes in stores describe a starkly different reality.

As H&M expands, the stories of exploitation and abuse directly multiply. H&M opened its first U.S. store in New York in 2000 and quickly expanded.

In New Jersey, 200 workers — mostly Latina immigrants from the Caribbean and Central and South America — work at the main U.S. distribution center for H&M. Since H&M first opened, workers at the distribution center report that some production rates have more than doubled.

Immediately after beginning operations in the U.S. in 2000, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited H&M for failing to provide a safe workplace and fined the company for what it described as a "serious violation" of OSHA regulations.

The starting wage at the distribution center is $8.50 per hour, with most earning about approximately $9.25 per hour. Raises are based on merit, which means that management can pick favorites and some workers don't get raises at all. H&M's expensive medical insurance plan remains out of reach for many H&M employees--$163 every two weeks for a worker and family, roughly a quarter of take-home pay.

In July 2003, employees at H&M's distribution center began to organize a union with UNITE to fight for safer working conditions, affordable health care and an end to management's mistreatment and harassment. Despite H&M's public commitment to a worker's right to join a union, H&M is aggressively fighting its workers' efforts.

Working conditions at H&M are, unfortunately, not that different from many other workplaces. We must support these fights for better working conditions and spread the word that we don't just have to take it--we can and will fight back.

For more information, go to www.behindthelabel.org and www.uniteunion.org.

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Cité
By Suzie Schwartz

NEW YORK--About 25 workers and supporters came out in the snow on January 14 to protest the upscale restaurant Cité's longstanding abuse of their employees. Worker Roberto Hernandez explained, "We are here because we disagree... we want benefits, a lunch break and our back wages. It's ridiculous! When we complained to the Department of Labor they (Cité's management) cut our wages by two dollars. It even took us 12 years to get a time clock...they are afraid to give us a union. We can fight against them. We will stay to the end."

Several workers are owed more than $300,000 in back wages--and while most employees worked more than 50 hours per week, they didn't receive overtime pay. The action was organized by Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), a nonprofit organization formed to assist restaurant workers laid off after the September 11 attacks. The group also works with Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100.

ROC-NY and Cité workers plan to keep demonstrating until management agrees to negotiate. "The last 10 years all these fancy restaurants have become major corporations with too much power," ROC-NY organizer Saru Jayaraman said. "Most workers are immigrants and they take advantage of them. Bush's new immigration proposal is B.S. It will take advantage of hundreds of thousands of workers, take workers and just use them, abuse them and spit them out and deport them."

Cité's is just a small example of how immigrant workers are criminally exploited. As Jayaraman said, "We have to organize, get out there in the streets. That's why we are out here in the cold and the snow. We will show them that they can't get away with this."

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