“Se puede?”

“Se puede!”

“Sí se puede!”

The old United Farm Workers call-and-response rang off the cinder-block walls of the headquarters of UNITE HERE Local 52 near MacArthur Park Saturday morning. Behind the stage hung one of those mosaic-tile, dignity-of-labor murals that make manual work seem like heavenly recreation, but it wasn’t offering much in the way of advice to this roomful of union activists preparing for the fight of their lives against Angelica Textile Services.

Workers at the nation’s largest health-care-linen laundry business and three Northern California locals of UNITE HERE are preparing to walk out Thursday at plants in Fresno, Stockton and Antioch, affecting linen service for hospitals and nursing homes from San Jose to Chico; when their members set up picket lines in our part of the state, workers at six non-striking Southern California plants will stay out too. Angelica’s 14 California plants control more than 50 percent of the state market, and the stoppages could ultimately affect laundry service to 250 health-care facilities statewide. Nationally, four other locals also plan to strike the Missouri-based company, and the combined strikes and support walkouts could affect 3,500 workers at 35 plants. Contract negotiations continue, and there’s a chance the walkout will be averted.

International organizer Hugo Camacho, a solid-looking man in a baseball cap, stalked back and forth at the front of the meeting hall, asking, in Spanish, for Local 52 members to repeat what they’ve been told by their Angelica bosses.

“That the strike is illegal and we’ll lose all our benefits!” a woman called out.

“ ‘This fight is not for you,’ ” a man quoted. “ ‘Strikes are violent and the union spends all your money on T-shirts!’ ”

“They’re asking about our families,” a woman shouted. “They say that they’re worried about us — but they never cared about us before!”

Several called out one identical Angelica line, causing an outburst of laughter: “The company will have free lunch and mariachis on May 5, and has hired security guards to protect us!”

What’s remarkable about the pending strike and support walkouts is that, while they concern such bread-and-butter issues as wages and health care, their chief focus is on safety conditions in an industry that UNITE HERE says is rife with speedups, accidents, and the spread of infectious disease through soiled sheets and errant needles that often get stuck in workers’ hands. According to the union, Angelica is potentially facing $435,000 in state and federal fines over safety issues. In a telephone news conference held in New York Monday, UNITE HERE national president Bruce Raynor repeated his union’s claims about Angelica’s record.

“The National Labor Relations Board found more than three dozen cases against Angelica in California,” Raynor said. “We see a clear pattern [in] this company: 150 separate OSHA violations and 300 NLRB decisions ruled against them — by a pro-business administration.”

It didn’t take long Saturday to find someone in the hall who has suffered on the job.

Maria Gomez, a shop steward who has worked 30 years at Angelica’s Long Beach plant, told her own story through an interpreter.

“I fold and package the linen, sheets and towels,” she said. “It goes very quickly because the machine is pushing out things, and sometimes the packages I lift can be very heavy. One time I felt I’d pulled a muscle in my shoulder — my supervisor [just] put me on another machine for a while. Then he put me back on the same machine and I hurt my other shoulder. Sometimes at home it hurts so badly I can’t even lift a gallon of milk.”

Laundries have traditionally drawn unskilled immigrants — most of Angelica’s California workers are Latinos who speak little if any English — and have also historically been battlegrounds for labor organizing, from 19th-century washerwomen’s strikes to the 20-year Seattle laundry wars of the early 20th century and beyond. Angelica began as a uniform maker 125 years ago, and eventually, as hospitals moved away from on-site laundries to outsourcing the work to independent contractors, Angelica evolved into a major player in the cleaning of hospital linens. And in union busting — the company has a hard-earned reputation for fighting organizing drives while cultivating disgruntled members in its unionized plants who then call for the decertification of UNITE HERE locals.

Angelica denies that it fosters unsafe working environments, although its national office has not returned the Weekly’s request for comment about the pending strike, which would affect service to such local giants as Cedars-Sinai and St. Vincent. An Angelica manager at the Lincoln Heights plant said his company does not have contracts with L.A. County, although Los Angeles County–USC Medical Center spokeswoman Adelaida De La Cerda told the Weekly that while Angelica does not launder its linens, it does clean the hospital’s uniforms. When asked about the effects of the strike, she said the medical center would seek other laundry services. Angelica’s Lincoln Heights manager said that supervisors and standby hires would fill in for any union employees who walk out, a gamble that Angelica seems to be taking in its other plants in order to win the all-important war of corporate public relations.

The stakes are equally high for UNITE HERE, which represents workers in 24 of Angelica’s 35 national plants — and claims a membership of 30 percent of the national laundry work force as a whole. The union has been involved in a protracted organizing war against Cintas, another industrial laundry titan, as well as a bruising, yearlong struggle with 22 luxury hotels in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the number of the union’s garment-sector members continues to shrink in the face of Chinese imports. But just as the “new economy” has flooded America with cheap consumer goods while introducing outsourced factories and pension gutting to industrial relations, so too has a new militancy risen out of the wreckage of the old labor movement, a militancy mostly led by immigrant workers from Latin America and Asia, whose median wages, according to Raynor, range between $8.50 and $9 an hour.

California’s UNITE locals enjoy an advantage rare in contemporary American labor conflicts: Because of Angelica’s dominance in the state market, there are virtually no places hospitals can send their laundry, except to other UNITE-organized plants, which will refuse to handle the work. Also, the Teamsters union has pledged to honor the picket lines, and, much like its actions during the Southern California supermarket strike of 2003-04, its drivers will not drive trucks up to struck loading docks. Likewise, Andrew Stern, president of the powerful Service Employees Union International, pledged at the New York news conference that his hospital workers would respect any UNITE HERE picket lines.

“There’s never been, to our understanding,” Stern said, “a national strike of health-care laundry.”

Still, even Maria Gomez admitted that her plant was “a little bit divided” over the need to walk out in support “of the North,” but felt that “at the last hour the majority will come out.”

When asked how long the strike could last, she said, “It could be a week, it could be two weeks — it depends on the company.” She clearly did not see it dragging out as long as the hotel-workers talks, which so far have not resulted in a strike.

“The company will lose too much money,” Gomez said in response to the possibility of the strike lasting months.

On Cinco de Mayo, UNITE HERE will find out just how deep Angelica’s pockets are. At the Saturday meeting, though, the mood was jubilant defiance.

“Enough is enough!” shouted Cristina Vasquez, a UNITE vice president, about Angelica’s
owners. “May 5 is a day they’ll remember for the rest of their lives!”

LA Weekly