Blowing whistles and shouting slogans, a crowd of laundry workers, labor organizers, city residents and Yale students protested what they called squalid and potentially illegal working conditions at New England Linen Supply’s New Haven factory on Wednesday afternoon.
Chanting catchphrases like “No contract, no peace” and “The people united will never be conquered” alternately in Spanish and English, 110 protesters — including a trio of New England Linen Supply workers — marched up and down Derby Avenue. UNITE HERE, an international labor organization that represents approximately 500,000 workers in the United States, organized the protest in response to the “appalling working conditions” that the plant’s employees face, the group’s International Vice President Wilfredo Larancuent said.
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“The workers here reached out to us,” he said. “They make terrible wages that are below the poverty level, they can’t afford to buy the health care their company supposedly provides, and generally, they have very little say in their work lives.”
The company is currently under investigation by the National Labor Relations Board for allegations that its management tried to intimidate workers in order to prevent them from unionizing. The allegations followed the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s citation of New England Linen Supply last year for breaching labor regulations.
New England Linen Supply did not return calls for comment, but it has denied all OSHA and NLRB allegations in past media reports.
One of the workers at the plant, who wished to remain anonymous, said the company’s management has discouraged workers from unionizing.
“The company has meetings where they tell the workers that they don’t want a union,” she said in Spanish. “[But] a majority of us want a union.”
The worker, who has been an employee of New England Linen Supply for nine years, said she earns $7.95 per hour, less than 50 cents more than the state’s minimum wage. As she announced her wage, a protester standing next to her, Margarita Casaine, shouted “Es un abuso!” — “That is an abuse!”
Casaine, who works in a similar plant in Edison, N.J., was just one of many tri-state area workers who journeyed to New Haven to participate in the protest. Casaine said unionization has dramatically improved the working conditions at her home plant, and she hopes to help the New Haven workers achieve a comparable outcome.
“I’m here because there are workers who need justice, who need respect, who need good salaries,” she said in Spanish. “Where I work, it’s unionized, we have good salaries, there is medical insurance and we have a good pension.”
Yale students and employees constituted a sizeable portion of the crowd. The Graduate Employees and Students Organization sent 20 students to the rally. Undergraduate Organizing Committee members also joined in the protest.
Yale students have taken action in the campaign in other ways as well. After discovering that Yale’s golf course is a customer of New England Linen Supply, a delegation of Yalies delivered a letter to Athletics Director Tom Beckett requesting that he reconsider his support of the company.
Beckett could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Phoebe Rounds ’07, who was one of the students who delivered the letter to Beckett, said she has been involved with UNITE HERE’s unionization efforts well before yesterday’s protest. Rounds said she is concerned about the working conditions at New England Linen Supply and wants to make sure Yale takes an active role in setting high standards for labor relations.
“There’s such good labor relations right now at Yale, and specifically at the Athletic Department,” she said. “And when you have Yale not stepping in and insisting on certain standards being met for the linen for its own golf course, it’s important that we as students have a stake in what’s going on.”
Though UNITE HERE has been working with New England Linen Supply workers since this summer, this was the first public protest the group has organized. But it will not be the last, organizers said.
Toward the end of the rally, Larancuent, sporting a bullhorn, introduced a parade of speakers, including two local clergy members, the presidents of Locals 34 and 35, which represent Yale workers, and a number of UNITE HERE members. One member read a letter of support from Ward 26 Alderman Sergio Rodriguez to the crowd.
After the final speaker cleared the impromptu stage, Larancuent and the assembled protesters chanted “We’ll be back.”