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Cintas Corp. made $2.8 billion last year doing other people’s dirty laundry. Thanks to a labor union and a group of local lawyers, the company is having a harder time dealing with its own. Since March 2003, the uniform supplier has faced a fusillade of litigation — including at least five proposed employment class actions — that shows no sign of letting up. That’s largely due to a litigious organizing drive by the hotel and textile workers’ union Unite Here, which has been collaborating with lawyers suing the company on several fronts. The litigation began two months after the union began what labor-side lawyers call a corporate, or comprehensive, campaign aimed at pressuring Cintas to stop opposing the union. Such campaigns have become the norm for unions trying to organize large employers. But few have ever been linked to so many large lawsuits, with Cintas now facing at least eight separate actions from Connecticut to California. “It probably has some sort of record there,” said Richard McCracken, who represents labor unions. But, aside from the litigation, he added, the Cintas campaign seems “fairly standard in animosity.” McCracken, a partner with Davis Cowell & Bowe who is not working on the Unite Here effort, began working on corporate campaigns in the 1970s as a lawyer for one of Unite’s predecessors. The campaigns use pressure tactics, which include lawsuits, picketing and critical advertisements, to force companies to stop opposing union organizing efforts. “You use every weapon possible to bring pressure to bear on these companies,” said Ray Rogers, a New York union consultant. He masterminded the country’s first such effort, against textile maker JP Stevens in the 1970s, and credits himself with coining the term “corporate campaign.” Rogers said unions adopted the strategy as an alternative to National Labor Relations Board elections, which are the traditional means of organizing a company. McCracken said labor leaders and their lawyers realized 30 years ago that the election process was inefficient and gave employers too much of a chance to oppose the union. More effective he said, is using a range of tactics, including lawsuits, to pressure the company to let the union in without a formal vote. “The corporate campaign concept has to work closely with class action attorneys in order to bring more pressure on these companies,” Rogers said. In the case of Cintas, that means union participation in an ever-growing list of legal claims that includes labor and employment class actions in California and Michigan, regulatory complaints with several federal agencies, and three environmental lawsuits in Connecticut and New York. “It may be worthwhile, if you’re trying to organize a company across the country, to have that kind of litigation strategy,” said Charles Birenbaum, a partner with Winston & Strawn in San Francisco who represents employers fending off unions. He calls union-led environmental suits “greenmail,” and said they — along with employment litigation — are an increasingly common tactic to publicly embarrass a company and gain access to records that become public through discovery. The link between litigation and an organizing campaign is a touchy subject for plaintiff lawyers, who emphasize that cases are brought on behalf of their clients, not the union. Unite Here is not a plaintiff in any of the employment suits. “The union has been communicating with us and is very interested,” said Morris “Mike” Baller, who represents plaintiffs in a nationwide sex and race discrimination case against Cintas filed in January 2004 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. But “we’re not scheming with them. “We like unions. They’re our friends. We cooperate with them,” added the Goldstein, Demchak, Baller, Borgen & Dardarian partner. “But it’s very clear that they have an organizing campaign and we have a lawsuit.” SEEKING REFERRALS The distinction is less important to the union, which says that an aim of its organizing effort is to refer employees to the class-action lawyers. Unite Here and the Teamsters have set up a Web site and hotline for employees seeking to join the Cintas discrimination suit. “One of the principal things organizers are speaking to workers about is any information about violations by Cintas,” said Brent Garren, a senior associate general counsel with Unite Here. “The key role we play is linking workers with information to lawyers.” The California litigation began with a 2003 overtime suit filed in San Francisco federal court by attorneys Eileen Goldsmith and Michael Rubin. Their firm, Altshuler, Berzon, Nussbaum, Rubin & Demain in San Francisco, has represented Unite Here in NLRB and OSHA proceedings. Rubin said the lawyers began work on the case before the union campaign kicked off. “The union helped us with some investigations in the case, but this is independent of the union organizing campaign,” said Rubin. Soon after, Rubin and Goldsmith filed another suit in Alameda County Superior Court claiming that Cintas failed to comply with the City of Hayward’s living-wage law in violation of its contract with the city. Cintas “was telling the city that it was in compliance with this ordinance,” said Goldsmith. “But these were people who made $7 an hour.” The living wage is currently more than $9 an hour. That suit made news last spring when Cintas’ challenge to the Hayward living-wage law was struck down by Alameda Superior Court Judge Steven Brick. The Hayward class action was certified in November, marking the first time a class action has been approved under a living-wage law, said Paul Sonn, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which advocates living-wage laws. Close on its heels is a case in Los Angeles County Superior Court making similar allegations against Cintas. A judge heard class certification arguments there Tuesday. As in Hayward, Cintas is arguing that the city of Los Angeles’ living-wage law is illegal. Della Bahan, a Pasadena labor lawyer who has also represented Unite Here in NLRB proceedings, represents the plaintiffs. She said the union brought the living-wage issue to her attention. “We interviewed the workers and agreed that there was a problem, and we did an investigation and filed a lawsuit,” she said. Cintas does not allow its lawyers at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker and Squire, Sanders & Dempsey to speak publicly about the suits. In an e-mailed statement, Cintas spokeswoman Pam Lowe wrote, “Litigation has been a frequent strategy of unions in organizing campaigns, and the campaign against Cintas appears no different.” And a section of the company’s Web site “designed to separate the truth from the unions’ lies” accuses the union of “highly sensationalized misinformation, false allegations and lawsuits, staged rallies and media events, and a series of other typical union organizing tactics.” SO MANY LAWS Lawyers for unions and employers agree that litigation is an increasingly common pressure tactic in corporate campaigns. “There are so many employment laws out there right now, many of them pushed through by unions,” said Jeffrey Tanenbaum, a Nixon Peabody partner who represents employers. “The unions are more familiar with these laws, and are willing to use them as organizing tools.” The corporate campaigns are a response to employers’ increasing success in fighting unions in the NLRB election process, said management lawyers Tanenbaum and Birenbaum. And union lawyer McCracken said that the three years of contentious campaigning it often takes to lead up to an NLRB vote — along with the NLRB’s relatively light sanctions for illegal anti-union campaigns — makes it extremely difficult for unions to prevail in that process. But, while McCracken is a longtime proponent of such campaigns, he generally discourages litigation. Since lawsuits move slowly and can last for years beyond an organizing effort, he said they are not always beneficial for a union, especially if it reaches a labor accord before suits are resolved. But Bahan, the L.A. lawyer representing Cintas workers, said litigation is often settled when a union and employer sign an agreement. Until that point, the plaintiff lawyers said, a union dispute can make it more difficult to settle claims against an employer. For example, in early 2003, Cintas settled a California overtime case, similar to the one brought by Altshuler, Berzon, for $10 million. But the company might be reluctant to settle another such case now that it is under siege by the corporate campaign. “Cintas seems so eager to fight the union and its workers that it’s lost sight of the legal issues,” Rubin said. Aside from the union issues, the plaintiff lawyers say, the Cintas suits address substantial employment law questions. The Hayward and Los Angeles cases, Goldsmith said, are some of the first legal tests of relatively new living-wage laws. Rubin adds that the federal overtime case — in which lawyers from Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins and the Pasadena firm Traber & Voorhees are co-counsel — will likely produce a ruling on class-action arbitration, which is an ongoing issue for ADR providers. And the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission joined the federal discrimination complaint last month. For the union, pressure on Cintas continues to be the priority. “You need to take on companies nationwide, and you need to find another process” than the NLRB’s election system, said Jason Oringer, a Unite Here researcher. He said the union will file another action against Cintas under another California city’s living-wage law next month.

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