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Laundry workers allege abuses


About 450 protesters rallied outside University of Maryland Medical Center yesterday, denouncing the institution for using a Baltimore laundry they call a "sweatshop."

Striking workers at Up-To-Date Laundry, the state's largest industrial laundry, allege the company has been abusing its staff -- which is mostly African-American and Latino -- with sexual harassment, racial discrimination, unfair working conditions and union busting over the past two years.

Up-To-Date's lawyers dispute the claims, which are being investigated by the Maryland Commission on Human Relations. The commission, which is expected to render a decision soon, cannot comment until the findings are made public.

Scores of the shop's 250 workers went on strike April 23 to demand a living wage, health benefits and union representation. University of Maryland Medical System, Johns Hopkins and several other of the region's largest hospitals send their bedding, scrubs and towels to Up-To-Date Laundry, on the southwest edge of Baltimore.

"We are evaluating the performance of our contract," said Arthur A. McCombs, vice president of human resources for University of Maryland Medical System. Three hospitals in the system use the laundry service. "We expect to continue to do business with Up-To-Date."

The issue has gained national prominence and attracted support from Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who two weeks ago picketed with disgruntled employees and union representatives outside Up-To-Date in the 1200 block of DeSoto Road.

Mfume told workers in the angry crowd at Greene and Redwood streets yesterday that they have a "quiet dignity" and should continue fighting for their rights.

"You do the work others don't want to do. You do the work others think they're too good to do, and you deserve health benefits and the right to unionize," Mfume said, eliciting cheers. "I am astonished that the University of Maryland Medical System doesn't seem to get the message."

Gary Stephenson, a spokesman for Johns Hopkins Hospital, said the hospital does business with Up-To-Date, but is "considering a number of options" though he wouldn't offer specifics. Mfume is on the Johns Hopkins University board of directors and says the hospital is rethinking its contract.

Up-To-Date, a family-run company founded in 1946, washes 28 million pounds of linens a year. Its clients also include the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel in Baltimore.

Many employees are recent immigrants, do not speak English and are bused in from the Washington suburbs. The majority earn $6 an hour.

Workers told tales at yesterday's rally of abuse and mistreatment.

"I saw the company tell workers they'd be deported if they supported the union and given raises if they didn't," said Mary Espinosa, who worked for the laundry for four years and went on strike two weeks ago. "I saw inhumane working conditions, and I realized I couldn't watch it anymore."

Since the strike began, Up-To-Date has been operating normal hours, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., with temporary employees and workers who did not strike.

The Union of Needletraders, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!), which has 250,000 members nationwide, tried to organize the workers and held an election 1999, which they lost.

Election results "were thrown out because of extreme intimidation the company used in the weeks prior to the vote," said UNITE! spokeswoman Katie Shaller. "When workers went in to vote, company supervisors were there telling them to 'do the right thing.'"

The National Labor Relations Board called for another election in a March settlement agreement, which requires Up-To-Date rehire workers it fired, pay back wages and allow another union election.

Under the agreement, the laundry also has to let UNITE! representatives on the property each shift to allow the union to talk to workers.

Up-To-Date offered jobs back to fired workers who were involved in union activity and paid $50,000 in back wages to employees.

Up-To-Date signed the settlement agreement, which has a clause saying the company admits to no wrongdoing, because "the cost would have been astronomical," said company lawyer Joseph K. Pokempner

Brad Minetree, Up-To-Date president, said he has no problem with another election.

"I want to do what's right for employees by letting them have an election," Minetree said. "Whatever results from the elections, I'll abide by."

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