Duke faces union dilemma with Angelica

Darlene Thompson is tired. She has just gotten off her second job as a janitor at a nearby mall. Six years away from retirement age, Thompson is barely able to make ends meet between this and her primary job with Angelica Corp., an industrial laundry service that pays her $8.25 per hour without health benefits or a workers' union.

She was hired by Angelica just after Duke University Health System sold its Durham facility and outsourced its laundry needs to Angelica in order to cut down on overhead costs, despite warnings from student anti-sweatshop groups and union activists. The University announced its eight-year, $4.5 million per year contract with Angelica in March.

At the time, DUHS administrators said regulatory agencies had not found Angelica to be in serious violation of health and safety standards, but now, three months after Angelica took over the laundry operations for DUHS, the corporation is facing violation charges upwards of $120,000 from the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational and Safety Health Administration.

These recent OSHA violations are now fueling the Duke chapter of Students Against Sweatshops as well as UNITE HERE, the labor union that represents 60 percent of Angelica workers nationwide. Although the University by policy does not pressure companies to unionize, members of SAS and UNITE HERE hope to use the recent fines to galvanize the University into action against Angelica.

A Window of Opportunity

Over the years, Duke has become a leader in progressive action against sweatshops. During former President Nan Keohane's tenure, the University spoke out against sweatshop labor on a national stage and developed policies that mandated satisfactory working conditions at companies with which it had contracts.

One such important policy has been the DUHS compliance plan, which states that a company working for Duke may not be "under sanction, exclusion, or investigation (civil or criminal) by a federal or state enforcement, regulatory, administrative, or licensing agency" such as OSHA, the National Labor Relations Board or the Department of Labor.

The contract that binds DUHS to use Angelica as its laundry service provider includes this compliance plan and lists the right to terminate relations with Angelica as a consequence of violating the agreement.

It is this clause in the contract on which SAS and UNITE HERE are focusing their attention, hoping Duke will make good on its word, especially in light of OSHA's most recent citations against the company.

"I think Duke has a lot of clout and leeway as a major provider," said Amy Kaufman, director of the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Project. "In the same way they pressured sweatshops, they can help pressure companies to be accountable for employee health and safety."

When DUHS announced its decision to sell the laundry facility to Angelica, Duke delegations from SAS, in conjunction with UNITE! activists, immediately sent a barrage of letters to prominent administrators, including then-President-elect Richard Brodhead and then-Chancellor-elect Dr. Victor Dzau.

In a May 6 letter to Brodhead and Dzau, Christopher Chafe, national political director of UNITE! and son of then-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William Chafe, wrote that "workers at Angelica's non-union facilities... report sweatshop conditions in their workplaces, including low wages, unaffordable health insurance, hazardous health and safety conditions, and harassment and intimidation from management."

Health system administrators--including William Donelan, executive vice president of DUHS, and Dr. Pascal Goldschmidt, chair of medicine and member of the DUHS board--met with SAS delegations soon after the Angelica contract was announced. Still, the University maintained that the evidence the students revealed was not conclusive enough to declare a breach of contract, said sophomore Mary Grant, who has been working with SAS since her freshman year.

After OSHA's most recent investigations, however, representatives from SAS and UNITE HERE said Duke can no longer ignore the problem. OSHA fined a Rockmart, Ga., plant a total of $50,000 for violations identified under the category of "serious." Less than a week later, a plant in Orange, Calif., was fined for $3,675 worth of health and safety violations. Most significantly, an Edison, N.J., plant was fined $67,500 for "serious" violations and was issued one $50,000 "willful" citation, which means that the management knowingly put the workers' lives in danger.

"Over $120,000--that's pretty significant," Grant said. "It's important for Duke to stand up for not allowing discrimination on the job. In the past, Duke has been setting a good example, but on this issue, they seem to be straying."

Jeff Molter, director of the Medical Center News Service, said he was unable to comment on the July violations incurred by Angelica. "We continue to stick to the view here that any kind of service contract we have, we depend on regulatory agencies to deal with these findings," he said.

The Durham Facility

Unlike the Angelica facilities that OSHA has found to be in violation of worker health and safety standards, the Durham facility, just five minutes away from campus, is not in disrepair. Built in 2001 by DUHS, it offers a number of amenities that most laundry facilities lack.

Jeff Hoffman, the Durham general manager for the Angelica plant, is proud of the facility. "I wouldn't call this a sweatshop by any means. It's hard work we're doing here, but it's a good environment," he said, noting that the facility has temperature-controlled central air conditioning, an unusual feature for laundry facilities.

Even activists from UNITE HERE, such as Fernando Bribiezca, admit that the Durham facility is in much better condition than other facilities, but they point out that there remains room for improvement.

"This one is not a sweatshop," Bribiezca said. "Well, if the definition of a sweatshop is lack of respect, not listening to employees and total control of employees, then yeah, this is a sweatshop."

Nery Jimenez, a current Angelica employee who also worked as a temporary worker at the facility under DUHS management, said the working conditions at Angelica are significantly worse than what they were when DUHS owned the plant.

"We're working with a lot problem. When Angelica come, they change everything," the Hispanic worker said in broken English. She continued in Spanish: "With Duke, we had the time to check our work. But now we don't have time to check the quality. It goes as it comes. Linen will come out with blood and feces on it and you're supposed to send it back to the dirty side, but with the amount of work, of course it slips by."

Jimenez particularly highlighted the dangers of working at the laundry facility as a "dumper," who handles and sorts the dirty laundry coming from the hospitals.

Thompson, one of six dumpers currently working for Angelica, complained that the pressure to sort items quickly under the new management is overwhelming. "I see sheets and towels with feces and blood, needles with no caps, loose, and scissors--all kinds of hospital stuff," Thompson said. "They took two people off the line when we really needed them. It's a mess now. We can't get it done in time, but the conveyor belt keeps on running."

In spite of the dangers of handling dirty hospital laundry, Hoffman said such dangers are not specific to this facility. "In any type of industrial environment, there is always a great chance of accident--moving carts, back strain, for example," the manager said.

Hoffman said Angelica has safety committee meetings once a month, discusses safety issues with the staff every month and hosts a game called "Safety Bingo" in order to help workers keep up with safely regulations.

"We've been open 89 days without an accident," Hoffman said. "And we've been open for business for 89 days."

The Union Factor

In addition to considering the implications of Angelica's health and safety violations at other plants and the hazards of working at the laundry facility in Durham in particular, the University's dealings with the laundry giant are complicated by union matters.

Hoffman said union pressure is behind the recent interest in safety and working conditions across Angelica's facilities--an interest that is manifested no less at the company's Durham site.

"There have been a lot of allegations in terms of workplace safety, which to me is serious," Hoffman said. "But it's not an Angelica trend. I know a lot of it has to do with the union organizing, which has instigated a lot of investigations [at the Durham facility]--by the fire marshal, OSHA, county health department--all of which have been false claims."

As of the beginning of July, the Durham facility has entered UNITE HERE's national campaign to unionize all Angelica facilities. A small team of UNITE HERE field workers has been sent to Durham to help the workers unionize. They stand outside the exit of the Angelica facility and catch workers at the end of the work day to get them to sign union cards and tell them about UNITE HERE.

"Through the UNITE! campaign, they have tried to cause a lot of frustration--going to the press, calling federal regulators, sending letters to customers and prospective customers," Hoffman said. "We've had more labor department charges in the past six months than we've had in years."

Union advocates, however, point to the fact that Durham Angelica workers clearly seem to want to form a union. In early July, 80 percent of the workers signed a petition directed toward Hoffman, stating their desire to unionize.

Thompson said Hoffman immediately returned the petition to the workers, frustrated by their efforts to organize a union.

"Jeff [Hoffman] told us that he was 'tired of all this union stuff' and wished it would all go away, and if he heard any more about it, he was going to fire everyone," Thompson said. "But Jeff is a real nice guy. I guess he just don't want us doing this."

As a result of this alleged comment by Hoffman, Angelica workers are getting UNITE HERE to help press charges against Hoffman through the NLRB.

Since UNITE HERE arrived in Durham, workers said there have been increased levels of favoritism by the managers, depending on whether the workers are pro-union. Jimenez said she has heard anti-union workers insult union workers in front of their supervisors, which is a punishable offense, but the supervisors do nothing about it.

Jimenez added that anti-union workers are allowed to take days off without their superiors complaining. "Delma, who is a union supporter, missed last Saturday because she couldn't find anyone to take care of her baby. She asks one of the supervisors, Keith, for permission and he says it's okay. But when Delma comes back to work on Monday, another supervisor reprimands her. When [an] anti-union worker doesn't show up, nobody reprimands her."

Thompson said the managers are trying to convince pro-union workers to change their minds by improving the work conditions. Since UNITE HERE has come to Durham, the conditions have gotten better at Angelica, Thompson noted. "The coffee service has restarted, and we've got three new microwaves in the break room. For the Fourth of July, they gave us free lunch--hot dogs."

Bribiezca said managers may take two different approaches to discourage workers from unionizing. "With the 'nice guy' approach, they sweet-talk you and give you perks, and with the 'bad guy' approach they intimidate you and try to scare you into not joining," he said.

The pro-union workers remain nonetheless unfazed, pushing forward with calling Angelica out on more safety and labor violation charges and getting more workers on board to sign the union cards.

"I want this union cause I can get raises. I think I can benefit more," Thompson said. "But I would stay [even without a union] if they don't fire me. At least I can say I tried. If I don't try, I'll always wonder: What if?"


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