The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Baltimore:
Winning a union the old fashioned way
–with a strike!

Jun 25, 2001

On June 21, striking workers at the Up-To-Date Laundry in Baltimore voted to accept a three-year contract. The company agreed to recognize their union –UNITE! (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) –for the first time. The workers also won some wage increases, as well as health and pension benefits and paid vacations for the first time.

Up-To-Date is the largest industrial laundry in Baltimore, employing over 250 people at its main plant. The company provides laundry services to several major hospitals and hotels in the area.

Most of the Up-To-Date workers are recent Hispanic immigrants or black and most of them are women. Racial discrimination and sexual abuse were rampant in the plant. Wages at Up-To-Date were miserable –only $6 an hour for many of the workers. On-the-job conditions were disgusting –very high heat and humidity, laundry contaminated with germs, blood, even hypodermic needles and pieces of body tissue. The company didn't even provide gloves for workers handling this dangerous dirty laundry –except whenever there was a quick government inspection of the plant. The workers had few employee benefits.

In 1999, during an organizing campaign at Up-To-Date, enough workers signed union cards for the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) to order a union representation election. But, as is so often the case these days, the Up-To-Date bosses then used threats, intimidation and firings to try to stop the workers from voting for union representation. After months of this one-sided fight, the majority of the workers voted against the union in June 1999. The union then filed over 100 charges of unfair labor practices with the NLRB.

The NLRB eventually upheld many of these charges and ordered another election –it wasn't until 21 months after the first election that the order came through. As part of an agreement with the NLRB, the company gave back pay to over three dozen fired workers, reinstating them in their jobs. It also agreed to allow UNITE! organizers into the plant.

None of this meant that the company was ready to accept the workers' union. Shortly after a new union organizing campaign was started, ten more pro-union workers were fired by the Up-To-Date bosses. It appeared that the campaign to get a union was going to founder in the same trap as the first one had.

Instead, the workers walked out, beginning a strike on April 23. For ten weeks they maintained around-the-clock picket lines at the plant. They also got support from other workers and students who came to downtown lunchtime rallies. The strike was put in front of the working class of Baltimore.

The poor, largely female and minority workforce –workers who are all too frequently despised –showed that it is possible to take on the bosses directly and win.

The union continues to lose ground as they ask the workers who want a union to wait on NLRB elections or on a "friendly" boss who will agree to recognize the union just because the workers ask.

The Up-To-Date workers used their own strength against bosses who had always treated them with contempt... and they forced the bosses to begin to take their interests into account.