Union organizers are seeking to build local support for a nationwide strike May 5 against Angelica Corp., a fast-growing laundry contractor that cleans the sheets, towels and surgery scrubs of hundreds of hospitals across the country.
The company employs about 800 workers in Southern California, and cleans about half of the region's hospital linen, said Connie Razza, a senior researcher with the union, Unite Here. She said work speed and health and safety issues were top concerns for workers, most of whom earn less than $10 an hour.
Hospitals looking to cut costs are increasingly outsourcing laundry and other services. Chesterfield, Mo.-based Angelica has taken a large share of that market by aggressively opening or buying industrial laundries.
The publicly traded company owns 33 plants and employs more than 5,000 workers.
All but 10 of the plants are unionized. Unite Here is trying to organize the rest.
A spokesman for Angelica was traveling Friday and could not be reached for comment. In recent statements, the company has chastised the union for "maligning Angelica to our employees, customers, shareholders and anyone else who would listen."
The company also said some employees in Dallas signed a petition to decertify Unite Here because "they do not wish to be pawns in the union's attempt to organize workers in other plants who may not wish to be organized."
Contracts for several East Coast plants have expired, and others will expire next month, setting the stage for a broad-based strike in May. Although the Southern California contract won't expire for two years, it allows workers to honor strikes called at other plants, Razza said.
She said a strike here could severely disrupt hospital operations, because many institutions have eliminated their in-house laundry facilities.
For weeks, union organizers have traveled from plant to plant with a contingent of Angelica workers from New York, North Carolina, Texas and elsewhere in a roving pep rally meant to build national solidarity in an industry that historically has been local.
Friday at noon, visiting workers in matching white T-shirts clapped and shouted "si se puede" ("yes we can"), trying to work up enthusiasm in the dingy lunchroom of an Angelica plant in South Los Angeles.
Some workers warily eyed supervisors and walked away. But most appeared happy to sign the bright red forms pledging to support a strike. The union plans to tout the pledges at a press conference today.
"There's a lot of pressure to work fast, the bosses treat us badly, and frankly, we need more money," said Francisco Munoz, a 24-year veteran who earns $8.15 an hour loading sheets into giant rollers.
Other workers complained of a shortage of proper gloves and masks for work in the receiving area, where sheets sometimes come sodden with blood.
"Last week, I found two needles," said Heliodoro Garcia, who has worked at Angelica for 16 years and earns $8.55 an hour. "This isn't ordinary laundry we're handling."