Textile Tiff 

Union organizers--without evidence--claim a laundry is cutting potentially dangerous corners

Union organizers with UNITE HERE kicked off a staged media event last week by airing some dirty laundry.

Four current and former employees at Milum Textile Services told a panel of union supporters on Thursday evening, July 6, that unsafe practices at the industrial-laundry facility based in Phoenix were putting workers and consumers at risk.

The panel included Richard Elias, chairman of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, and Ruben Reyes, a representative for Congressman Raúl Grijalva.

UNITE HERE, which represents about 1,200 Arizona laundry workers, said in a statement that Milum employees had uncovered a number of alleged abuses--that were jeopardizing health--during their "struggle" to join with the union.

One of the primary accusations was that restaurant linens and hospital linens--contaminated with blood, feces, urine and other body fluids--were being improperly laundered together in the same machine in order to cut corners, according to employee Brande Ybarra. Numerous Tucson restaurants are Milum customers.

"The linen is still sometimes stained and smelly, and I worry about touching it with my bare hand," said Ybarra, who has been ironing and folding in Milum's production area for six months. She said she's been visiting restaurants to tell them about conditions at the plant.

Daisy Pitkin, Arizona coordinator for UNITE HERE, admitted that the union has no concrete evidence that anyone has fallen ill or that consumers have come into contact with dirty linens, but she said that's a function of the fact that the outsourced laundry industry is largely unregulated. As such, "stuff doesn't get studied," she said.

Craig Milum, whose family has been in the laundry business in Arizona for about 50 years, was adamant that linens from restaurants and hospitals aren't cleaned together.

"They come in from different customers; they get washed differently; then they go through an automated finishing process where the production lines don't have the kind of flexibility that they can do any type of linen," he said. "And then they go to the same customers that they came from, so why in the world would anybody mix them together to process them? You'd go out of business in a few days if you started doing that."

Milum also said there was no risk of recontamination from washing a hospital load before laundering linens from a restaurant in the same machine--a viewpoint that was largely echoed by Don Herrington, Office of Environmental Health chief in the Arizona Department of Health Services, as well as experts in the health profession.

"The linens are clean--clean like your washer at home," Milum said. "By the time you finish washing, the machine is clean just like the linens are clean inside. So if you put soiled linens in the machine, they're not contaminated by soil left in the last washer load. That's the beauty of water and soap and detergent: It cleans the linens, and it cleans the machine at the same time."

At least one Tucson restaurant owner fully vouched for the cleanliness of the company's linens. Pat Connors, who co-owns Pastiche with his wife, said he found everything was "perfectly acceptable" when he toured Milum's facility.

"It was clean; everything was sorted," he said. "We never saw any issue. The problem is this union is calling restaurants out that use Milum, saying that, you know, we're offering potentially hazardous linens to our customers. I find that offensive, because why would we do that? You know, we spend a lot of time and money on food and everything else, so you don't think we'd do our homework on our linen company?"

Nonetheless, Milum Textile Services has been cited for violating federal standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Complaints made to the Industrial Commission of Arizona, an arm of the state division of OSHA, led to a total of 10 citations in March and April. These included six serious violations for such offenses as inadequate hand-washing facilities, failure to provide gloves in the proper sizes for workers and insufficient decontamination procedures on conveyor belts and floors where soiled hospital linens were being sorted.

Milum said some of those serious violations were thrown out and that the case had since been settled and closed, but that couldn't be verified through the OSHA Web site, which still listed the case as open. The 10 violations in 2006 are a significant drop from the 23--including 11 labeled serious--found in 2002. Milum claimed the planned inspection that year was unusually thorough.

But it's also not uncommon for other Arizona laundry services to be cited for OSHA violations--even serious ones. Mission Linen Supply Inc. had eight violations in 2003, including four deemed serious. Cintas Corporation had six non-serious citations in the same year. Angelica Textile Services Inc. was cited for two serious violations in 2004 and one in 2001.

Milum said the timing of the complaints against his company earlier this year led him to believe that UNITE HERE is employing a "corporate campaign" strategy. Jarol Manheim is a professor at George Washington University who studies corporate campaigns. He said UNITE HERE commonly employs this strategy, which involves aggressively attacking the business relationships and reputation upon which a company depends for survival.

"The idea is to generate enough pressure on management from a whole variety of important places that a company will be more likely to give in on whatever the issue is," Manheim said. "Sometimes it's about a contract; more often these days, it's about the question of facilitating union organizing."

Milum said organizing workers at his company is exactly what UNITE HERE wants. According to him, union officials have hounded employees to sign authorization cards. If a union collects the signatures of more than half a company's workers in one of these "card-check drives," it can petition management to recognize the union without a secret ballot among employees administered by the National Labor Relations Board. Public pressure through corporate campaigns is meant to force that recognition, Milum said.

UNITE HERE'S Pitkin countered that the card-check drive is the fastest and fairest way to get around a secret ballot that can often be manipulated by employers.

"In our experience, companies have used that process in a way that's intimidating to workers, and we don't think that's fair to workers," she said, citing threats and terminations designed to scare employees into voting no. "We think if people sign a union card, it should be their vote for the union."

In the future, Milum said he knows the decision on forming a union is out of his hands. Business hasn't been hurt, he said, and he knows he runs a tight ship.

"This thing about telling our customers our linens aren't safe--I'm absolutely against that. I know they're safe, and I know the quality of the work that we do. I know what other plants do, and I'm absolutely convinced we provide the best-quality, most hygienic, most stain-free linens that any of the plants do."

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