Unions, like any kind of organization, want to increase their membership. And they have every right to do so. But that right at some point has to yield to the right to privacy of those who might not want to join. That was the view of a federal court in Pennsylvania in rendering a decision in favor of dissenting employees of the nation’s largest uniform and laundry service. On August 30, U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell ruled that representatives of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, or UNITE, violated federal privacy laws by copying down license-plate and other information from motor vehicles parked on the lot of the Cintas Corp. plant in Emmaus, Pa. The union’s intent was to track down the residences of vehicle owners in the hopes of organizing them. While the ruling wasn’t a complete victory – the court absolved the union’s international president, Bruce Raynor, of complicity in the scheme – it sent a clear message that certain actions undertaken in the name of organizing are out of bounds.
UNITE represents the garment and laundry workers portion of UNITE HERE, a union of about 450,000 active members created through a 2004 merger with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees. The union has become highly aggressive in its organizing, leaving the AFL-CIO last year to join the fledgling breakaway federation, Change to Win. UNITE, even prior to joining forces with HERE, had been in a running battle with the management of Cintas, the Cincinnati-based uniform rental and laundry service with 27,000 workers at some 350 locations throughout the U.S. and Canada. The union claims Cintas pays substandard wages and skirts around federal overtime rules. Company management denies these charges. A few years ago the conflict came to a head.
In 2003, UNITE HERE and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, also a Change to Win affiliate, announced an international drive to organize Cintas employees. UNITE HERE targeted laundry workers; the Teamsters targeted drivers. In their enthusiasm, the unions went beyond the call of duty. Several union members allegedly copied down information from cars parked on the lot of Cintas’s Emmaus plant, a practice informally known as “tagging.” Union representatives during late 2003 and early 2004 allegedly hired private investigators to access motor vehicle records, enabling them to pay unexpected visits to employee homes, and mail them union materials. They also allegedly contacted immediate family members who, though not Cintas employees, were the vehicles’ owners. Nine nonunion workers sued UNITE HERE and the Teamsters in federal court for civil damages.
In the spring of 2005, Judge Dalzell granted class-action status to the plaintiffs. That opened the gates later in the year for about a thousand nonunion workers to join the suit. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the unions violated the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994, a federal law that with few exceptions prohibits the release of addresses or other personal information from driving records. As the original nine workers were not listed in the local telephone book nor provided the unions with addresses, they argued that UNITE HERE representatives couldn’t possibly have contacted them without violating the act. Union organizer visits, the suit read, also caused “anxiety and emotional stress.”
In the end, the plaintiffs prevailed. Judge Dalzell ordered UNITE HERE to pay the workers $2,500 each, plus attorney’s fees and other costs. Court records show the workers had settled separately with the Teamsters in September 2005. It’s a modest award, but its long-run significance for dissenting workers in all unions can’t be underestimated. UNITE HERE officials understandably are not happy, even with President Bruce Raynor off the hook. In a statement released the day after the ruling, the union announced plans to appeal. Liz Gres, an organizing director, said UNITE HERE “will continue to support Cintas workers in their struggle for justice.” One has to wonder how the union defines justice. (The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa., 9/1/06).