By Neal Pollack

On the morning of October 17, nearly 200 laundry workers from across the city converged on the headquarters of their union local. The union’s latest contract proposal called for annual pay raises of 25 cents per hour for the next four years with no improvement in benefits. In the past, these workers had simply accepted whatever the union had handed to them. Now that wasn’t good enough.

Organizers from another union–UNITE, or the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees–had been actively campaigning in the shops against the agreement, telling the workers they could do better. And the members of the Textile Processors International Local 46 were listening.

Led by UNITE organizers, they gathered in a cold drizzle at the corner of 16th and Michigan and banged on the glass doors of their union hall, demanding to be let in. When Local 46 president Marshall Bynum finally emerged, it was the first time most of the workers had ever laid eyes on him. But Bynum had been with the union for 20 years, and they were familiar with his reputation. A graduate of Howard University Law School, he was known for wearing expensive three-piece suits and driving a Lincoln Town Car. His base salary was $112,756 in 1997, and he collects an additional salary as chief trustee of the local’s pension fund.

Bynum told everyone to go home, but the workers said they wanted to vote. “You don’t have to vote,” he replied. “You shouldn’t be troubled with this duty.”

The workers started to chant. “We want to vote! We want to vote!”

“I don’t have time for this!” Bynum shouted. “You have no rights!”

He said he could ratify the contract all by himself, and this was true. Under Local 46 bylaws, the union leadership can approve any contract without consulting the workers. In fact, as one laundry plant manager later told the National Labor Relations Board, Bynum had already signed the contract the previous night over dinner at the Como Inn. “Marshall told me he had the authority,” said Jerry Kwiatkowski of Morgan Services Incorporated, a laundry company at 2330 S. Prairie. When the NLRB held a hearing on the contract last December, Bynum didn’t answer a notice to appear as a witness.

The doors to the union hall remained locked on October 17, and Bynum soon disappeared, leaving the workers shocked and angry.

“He knew we were going to go against the contract,” said Robert Lee Wilson Jr., who’s worked for the last two decades at a laundry seven blocks south of the union’s office. “He knew we didn’t want a 25-cent raise. We’re paying those guys $23 a month for nothing. We’re getting screwed, and we might as well try to get something better. We’re gonna stand up on our feet.”

“They were stepping on our rights,” said his coworker Bertha Huerta. “But we didn’t know what to do. We knew there were problems with our jobs, but we didn’t say anything because we didn’t think our union was going to help us. It was like we woke up from our dream.”

Thelma Williams, a laundry worker for almost 30 years, said her resolve hardened as she stood in the rain locked out of her own union hall.

“I will never forget that day. That’s when I knew. Things have gotta change. We were all in the dark. And we finally came into the light.”

More than 1,000 industrial laundry workers, in shops from Skokie to Roseland, are participating in an NLRB election to choose their union this Friday, February 26. They’ll either stay with the Textile Processors Local 46 or switch to UNITE. In many ways the election embodies the current fight for the soul of organized labor. With unions increasingly viewed as obsolete or worse, some members advocate the creation of a new model, one more directly accountable to the worker and closer to the original ideals of the labor movement. They say the old guard is in for a rude awakening: the days of uncritical solidarity among unions may be gone for good.

“UNITE makes us try to look like the bad guy,” says Local 46’s Marshall Bynum. “In 20 years, we’ve never attacked another union regardless of their affiliation. We feel like it’s a hands-off system. We’re all in the same boat, so to speak. Why would you attack another guy, with no provocation?

“We run a clean operation. Period. Without exception. If somebody had a system to prove what we’re talking about, I would be amenable to any kind of inspection. We are clean 100 percent, 200 percent. There’s nothing there to criticize.”

UNITE is a fairly new union with old roots. It was formed in 1995 through the merger of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. Both unions were favorites of the left during the height of the New Deal, because they effectively concentrated on better wages, hours, and working conditions for their memberships while advocating a larger social democratic agenda. “When New York liberals and intellectuals thought about the labor movement in the 1930s, they thought about the unions that eventually formed UNITE,” says labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan. “That’s the tradition that UNITE comes out of.”

UNITE’s union hall at 333 S. Ashland was built in 1929 under the supervision of Sidney Hillman, founder of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers. It stands in the center of what was once the west-side garment district, former capital of the nation’s clothing industry, a world memorialized in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Hillman intended for the hall to be a community center–complete with a theater and a lending library–for the area’s 30,000 workers.

When UNITE held its first convention almost four years ago, its leaders pledged to pursue the social agenda of its predecessors. Since then, the union, affiliated with the AFL-CIO, has asked its members to actively support prolabor politicians and to push for political initiatives that would improve the lot of working people as a whole, such as a higher minimum wage and national health insurance. True to their democratic ideals, union members elect their national president, as well as the officers of local chapters. UNITE provides ESL classes for Spanish-speaking members and seminars on how to become a union organizer. The goal, it says, is to become ever more inclusive. “We are going to keep organizing workers,” says research director Joe Costigan. “That’s what we’re all about.”

Local 46, on the other hand, is a small independent trade union, one of dozens nationwide that operate independently of the AFL-CIO. These unions are typically run like family businesses, with a large percentage of their membership dues going to pay for the salaries and perks of union officers. Most were formed during the 1940s and ’50s, the heyday of labor’s political might. Tom Geoghegan believes many employers welcomed the independents because they feared the alternative. “Local 46 comes out of a tradition of employer-manipulated sweetheart labor,” he says. “It was put up as a kind of Potemkin village to keep unions from coming into certain kinds of industries. There were lots of these ‘independent’ unions that popped up. They were attractive to employers. I’m not saying that the employers set this one up, but they didn’t mind having it around and they would prefer it to a stronger AFL-CIO union.”

The Textile Processors International is based in Chicago; it consists of 21 units nationwide, with larger chapters in Detroit, Cleveland, Saint Louis, and Minneapolis. Bynum says Local 46 was started “more than 50 years ago,” though there is no NLRB record of the laundry workers ever holding an election to accept the union. Their presidents and officers are hired by four trustees, not elected by the employees; two of these trustees are selected by the laundry owners themselves, and the other two are picked by the union’s executive board. The structure resembles the management side of business more than labor, and as such, says Geoghegan, it represents a real threat to the rights of workers.

“Labor is in a battle for survival, and it can’t tolerate these kinds of unions. They were fine when the big AFL-CIO was this giant in American life. Now the giant is small, and it’s not strong enough to tolerate all these things. It’s time to bring these unions into the fold.”

UNITE organizers began receiving phone calls from laundry workers in Local 46 late last summer. The workers complained about inadequate pension funds, bad health care plans, and union officials ignoring their problems. But the organizers were still surprised once they looked into Local 46.

In May 1992, Gus Zappas, then Local 46’s secretary-treasurer, was subpoenaed to testify in a federal investigation of several car bombings. A prominent mob hit man, Lenny Patrick, had turned government informant, agreeing to finger a higher-up for a reduced sentence in six killings. While on the stand, Patrick admitted to taking $7,000 from Zappas to pay off a gambling debt (Zappas has since died). That same year, the Tribune reported that Local 46 staffer Louise Temple was indicted on charges of stealing benefit checks. From 1986 to ’90, she allegedly embezzled more than $200,000 by forging the names of recipients and depositing the checks in a private bank account. Her sister, Lisa Railton, was also indicted for cashing $136,000 worth of benefit checks. Their indictments coincided with the embezzlement of more than $175,000 in pension funds from Textile Processors Local 1 in Ohio, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In 1991, a federal judge ruled that from 1983 to ’87 four union officials had received “excessive payouts for administrative expenses, gifts, and donations.”

Since then, the union appears to have cleaned up its act. There haven’t been any documented cases of embezzlement for almost seven years, and Local 46, in particular, has made an effort to clear the decks, promoting Marshall Bynum to president and hiring a raft of new trustees unassociated with the previous incidents of corruption. But when UNITE organizers began talking to laundry workers, they found some fundamental problems remained. They heard horror stories about retired members who were receiving pensions of just $150 a month after 30 years on the job. One woman was collecting $107 a month after 25 years. Another was getting $65 a month after 18 years.

The union’s health coverage wasn’t much better. Members’ families weren’t included on the plan, and several workers complained they’d been turned away from treatment after presenting their union insurance cards. They claimed officials from Local 46 told them to pay the doctors’ bills themselves and they’d be reimbursed from a private account.

Workers complained that Local 46 never consulted them on important decisions. If they had problems, they said, Bynum or other officials would always meet with the bosses first. Most of the time, though, the union wouldn’t even respond.

“My experience with Local 46 has been pitiful,” said Thelma Williams. “Ridiculous. They don’t let us vote on our contracts, never even seen a contract. The only time they come to the job is when they’re getting ready to pick up the money. And then they just come to the front, pass a slip to the boss, and leave. We’ve had no contact. Nothing.”

UNITE decided to stage a takeover.

There are nearly 100,000 industrial laundry workers in the United States. They put in long hours in hot enclosed spaces and face a high risk of on-the-job injuries. They rarely make more than $10 an hour, often as little as $6. Their jobs are low-skill and don’t require much training. Usually laundries are located in urban centers and attract immigrant, minority, and women workers. In Chicago, the laundry industry has traditionally employed African-Americans, though that’s changed in recent years. Now about 60 percent of all laundry workers here are Latino.

UNITE has been organizing laundry workers for the last few years. In November it took over the Textile Processors Local 218, which represents 2,800 employees in southern states. It was the union’s largest campaign for laundry workers, and when the election was over, UNITE had racked up 70 percent of the vote; the other two competing unions–the Teamsters and the Textile Processors–were favored by a slight 20 percent of the workers, while the remaining 10 percent voted for no union at all. Currently, UNITE represents more than 10,000 laundry workers nationwide.

In an increasingly service-oriented economy, these employees may signal an important future for the union, says Jason Coulter, UNITE’s organizing director for this area. “Laundry workers are never going to get rich. But laundry work has to be done regionally in the United States. You can’t get your hospital linens for Chicago laundered in Tijuana. Laundry jobs are not the kind of jobs that anyone grows up wanting, but it’s always been our union’s position that if you do have to do that kind of work, you should have a little dignity to go along with your paycheck. But it’s going to take the power of a real union to go along with that reality, and that’s what these workers have been missing. It’s hard to put a number on it, but I think that these can become good stable jobs that sustain families, with insurance for children and a pension when you retire. These might not sound like lofty goals, but for a lot of laundry workers they’re just a dream.”

Coulter grew up in Milwaukee, the son of a truck driver who belonged to the Teamsters. He went to Macalester College in Minneapolis in the 1980s and, as was the fashion of the time, protested against U.S. involvement in Central America. After graduation, he took a job in a group home for the mentally ill, where he got his first taste of organizing, trying to get the other employees into a union. He quit after losing the election, and ended up at an organizing institute run by the AFL-CIO. He firmly believed in the power of unions. But years later, with a few victories under his belt, he had grown angry at what he calls “bad trade unionism.”

“These kinds of unions contribute to the negative public perception of unions,” he says. “They make people cynical about the labor movement.”

In October Coulter and his team of a dozen organizers began meeting with laundry workers in their homes and at fast-food restaurants near their work sites. Local 46’s union contract was coming up for renewal, and UNITE was prepared to petition the NLRB for a new election. The organizers passed out cards, in English and Spanish, that said, “In a real union, members have a voice in decision making. With UNITE you will elect a bargaining committee from among your co-workers to negotiate your union contract with the changes and improvements that are important to you. The contract will be accepted only after a vote of UNITE members in the plant. That’s called union democracy.” Organizers collected more than 1,000 signatures and submitted them to the NLRB on November 15. These same workers–from 18 companies–signed a petition that was sent to their bosses; it demanded that the companies stop deducting dues for Local 46 from their paychecks.

Bynum called Coulter and asked him why UNITE was doing this to Local 46. “They said we should back off and show solidarity with a brother union,” Coulter says. There was some talk of an affiliation agreement–making Local 46 part of UNITE–but such an arrangement would have left Local 46 in charge of its pension fund and future contract negotiations. The proposal was never seriously considered, and both sides now claim it was the other’s idea.

On December 6, a Sunday afternoon, more than 200 laundry workers showed up at UNITE’s main union hall on Ashland for the first-ever meeting of the Chicago Laundry Workers’ Council. UNITE chose to hold the meeting on a Sunday afternoon because on Saturdays the workers had do their own laundry and run errands. Sunday mornings were reserved for church. The council produced a Laundry Workers’ Bill of Rights, which claimed the workers’ right to vote on their own union contract, to elect their own shop stewards, to select a bargaining committee, and to receive copies of the contract in English and Spanish. The workers also asserted their “right to union representatives who will defend our interests. Not those of the company.” At the end of the meeting UNITE organizers unveiled a banner that read, “Chicago Laundry Workers’ Council. Fighting for a Real Union.”

Over the next month, that banner traveled from laundry to laundry; workers who wanted to sign on received their own copy of the Bill of Rights during their lunch breaks. UNITE organizers were struck by how readily these workers were abandoning their former union. Coulter became more determined to oust Local 46.

“The biggest rap against unions is that they make empty promises,” he says. “The only promise we wanted to make to these workers is that we’d stand side by side with them and fight until the end. That’s part of our philosophy. It’s not about making somebody a better offer. It’s about helping them build something that matters.

“When we first started organizing this, I was skeptical. Was this what we really wanted to spend our time doing, going after another union? But I thought about it, and I realized that in the interests of this industry it was something that I had to do. I had to get these guys retired permanently.”

The Laundry Workers’ Council met for a second time on Sunday, January 17, in a conference room at the UNITE union hall. Hundreds of workers showed up; they were overwhelmingly black and Latino, and 70 percent were women. They sat in red leather chairs and read a flyer distributed by UNITE, written in English on one side, Spanish on the other. “Our laundries pay $18.75 a week for each of us into Local 46’s Pension Fund,” it said. “If a company paid that much into UNITE’s Pension Fund, our pension would be much bigger. At age 62, a worker with 30 years of service under UNITE’s fund would get $735.54 a month, but Local 46 can’t give us a straight answer about what our pension will be. What is Local 46 doing with our pension money?”

The meeting was led off by UNITE organizer Benny Dillon, a 25-year employee of Xerox. He first read an excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s “Thoughts on Fear”; then he consulted the Bible. Dillon assured the workers, “God has not given us the spirit of fear but of power and a sound mind.”

Jason Coulter asked how many people were attending their first meeting. Dozens of hands went up. “When you finish your work here,” he told them, “you will have left a major imprint on the labor movement in Chicago.”

Next, three workers–Thelma Williams, Anthony Belt, and Ofelia Sianes–got up to speak. They all worked at the American Ideal Cleaning Company at 103rd and Michigan. They had some news to report.

American Ideal’s election would be held on Friday, January 22, well in advance of the other laundries. Of the 37 employees there, only 12 belonged to Local 46, and all 12 were black. The majority of the workers there were Latino, and not one of them had been allowed to join Local 46. One woman, Shirley Rodriguez, said she had been told by Local 46 representatives that she couldn’t join because she didn’t have a union job description. Yet she was a clerk, and all the other clerks belonged to the union. The NLRB subsequently ruled that American Ideal could hold its election immediately, ahead of all the other plants.

In November UNITE had held five quick organizing meetings in two weeks. Just before Thanksgiving, the company informed its Latino employees that they had to bring in their documentation the next day or they’d be fired. That night, an emergency meeting was held at Ofelia Sianes’s house. The room was full of folding chairs, and the workers ate spicy Cheetos and drank red soda pop. They told Coulter and two Latino organizers that some of them had papers and some of them didn’t. The organizers told them that didn’t matter–it was illegal for the bosses to ask for their papers. Everyone put on stickers that said “NO PAPERS.”

The next day, a Jamaican woman asked her bosses why they hadn’t demanded everyone’s documentation. The other employees started to ask the same question, and a few hours later the bosses came out onto the plant floor to apologize.

“That was the defining moment,” says Everleanna Richardson, a UNITE organizer. “They realized that they could stand together, that they had the power to accomplish things.”

“Everybody here needs to stand with American Ideal,” Coulter told the laundry workers at the January meeting. “They’re going to be the first people in laundries to join UNITE.”

The workers broke off into small discussion groups; English speakers went to a room on another floor, while Latinos gathered in a basement meeting hall. In essence, though, they were all speaking the same language: better pensions, better health insurance, better representation. The voices of the organizers echoed throughout the building.

“Estamos un union, right?”

“Look at me! I used to be a worker like you. I joined a union, and now I have a desk upstairs!”

“You are workers, but you’re being treated like slaves! I guarantee you that if you vote for our union, things will be better. You will have a better pension. You will have health insurance for your family. You need to vote for UNITE. If you work, you will have a better union!”

For his part, Coulter didn’t want to make too many grand promises. “What we’re really offering,” he said, “is not a set of promises or a program that people sign on to. We’re offering them the real foundations of a fighting union. That is going to involve people first and stand up to the bosses second. UNITE people do have better pensions and better benefits. Good things are going to happen. But it’s not about making an offer or making promises. It’s about building a union.”

Still, when Coulter saw hundreds of workers enthusiastically responding to the organizers’ chants, he couldn’t help but feel a little cocky. A win in every laundry where UNITE was working would mean 1,300 new members for the union. A 1,000-worker “unit,” in organizer parlance, was a serious coup.

“This is a thread that works through decades of different struggles in Chicago,” Coulter said. “The packinghouse workers, the steelworkers. And now we’re in the 90s, and it’s laundry workers.”

Back in the meeting hall, with a Spanish translator by his side, Coulter rallied the troops at the end of the afternoon.

“I’d like to put a little more spirit in the room! This is what it’s all about. We’re fighting for a real union! And I think each and every person in this room knows deep down in their heart that yes we can!”

“Pienso que cada una persona en este cuarto quiero en su corazon que si se puede!” the translator said.

“And that’s gonna be our chant,” Coulter said. “That’s gonna be our slogan. Si se puede, yes we can! Are you with me on this? Let’s stand up.”

“Si se puede, yes we can!” all the workers shouted together. “Si se puede, yes we can!”

Coulter tried another chant: “What time is it?” he asked. “Union time!”

But by that time people had already started to file out of the room. “I gotta get going,” one woman said. “I gotta work tomorrow.”

A few days before the election, American Ideal workers received a letter from Marshall Bynum of Local 46.

“Dear Employees of American Ideal Cleaning Company,” it said. “On January 22, 1999, you will be allowed to vote for a Union. You must vote for Local 46, for the following reasons:

“Local 46 is a 60 year old Union that has stood the test of time.

“We can guarantee you a higher rate of pay and a raise every year.

“We offer good benefits for you and we will soon offer benefits for your family.

“Our Principal Officers are Black and Hispanic and we have Spanish-speaking persons in the office to help with problems.

“In the last two years we have increased our benefits in Pension and Insurance, and we will continue to do so.

“Local 46 is only as strong as you make us.

“UNITE is a group of thieves who are trying to steal members. They are afraid to organize the unorganized, but rather steal members from other unions. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT A THIEF? VOTE FOR LOCAL 46.”

On Tuesday, January 19, Local 46 trustee Rick Cristo showed up at American Ideal at 11:30 AM. “He told me that if I go over to UNITE I’d lose everything,” Thelma Williams says. “I’d lose my pension, lose my wages. I’d have to start back from scratch. I told him he was a liar. He said, no, you’re the liar.” The next day Cristo returned to apologize. That night after work, 23 employees met with UNITE representatives at a White Castle on 103rd. They were mad.

“I don’t know what made him think I would go with him,” Williams marveled. “He said it’s not over yet, come and talk to him, and he could do this for us and do that for us–better pension, better insurance for the whole family, better wages. I told him no. The cows was out to pasture, and I couldn’t put ’em back in. ‘Why didn’t you show your face before now?’ That’s the first time he ever came out. The first that he’s ever set foot inside American Ideal.”

Marshall Bynum was there the following morning. Driving up with Alicia Padilla, a Local 46 official, Bynum was stopped by Anthony Belt, another employee of American Ideal. Belt wasn’t a member of Local 46, but he had belonged to the union at another laundry in Skokie. When he came to American Ideal, he renounced his union status.

“I was trying to get the rest of the employees out here to take a photo,” Belt says. “Marshall said, ‘No, they don’t want to come out here.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you shut up? I ain’t got nothing to say to you.’ Then everybody came outside for the picture. He tried to talk back to them later on, but they just shut him down. It was too late. ‘They don’t want you to be here,’ I said. ‘Ain’t no sense in talking to you now.’ That was it. He left.”

The next day was January 22, election day. Williams and Belt arrived to work at 6:30, even though their shift didn’t start until 8. Richardson and Israel Matos, another UNITE organizer, were waiting for them, handing out UNITE T-shirts and buttons. Before the laundry opened, workers staged an impromptu parade in front of the window, proudly displaying their new shirts.

Williams waited for her shift to begin. She’d soon get to vote at work for the first time in 30 years. “I was up all night praying,” she said. “I am so happy.”

Coulter, Richardson, and Matos held a conference with Local 46’s Padilla and Cristo and with the NLRB’s election monitors. All voting must be done with no employees of either union present to taint the results.

At 10:30, the voting began. Outside the plant, Richardson used her cell phone to call four workers who were either off that day or had been laid off, telling all of them to come down and vote immediately. She said she was proud of the American Ideal workers. In 1974, when she was a state public aid clerk, she was part of an early organizing effort by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. But, she said, this was her sweetest campaign yet.

“I live around here and used to get my laundry done at American Ideal. I came in one day, and the boss was yelling at a woman named Shirley. They fired her that day and brought her back. I said, ‘Girl, you need a union.’ I had no idea how bad!”

At 11:30, representatives from both unions went back into the shop. The owners of the company stood with Local 46 officials against a rack of dry cleaning. UNITE representatives faced the NLRB monitor, who ripped open the ballot box with a knife.

Of the 39 ballots cast that day, the bosses challenged 11. The monitor began to count the remaining ballots, putting them in a pile. “One, two, three, four…”

When the tabulation was completed, American Ideal owner Kerry Cohn asked, “Where’s the other pile?” But it was over. The final tally was UNITE, 28, Local 46, 0.

“The challenges are not sufficient to affect the results of the election,” the monitor said. “The majority of the ballots have been cast for UNITE.”

Thelma Williams raised her fist. Word spread quickly throughout the shop.

“Congratulations,” Cristo told Coulter. They shook hands. Local 46 was gone for good.

It was lunchtime, and everyone walked outside. Coulter got into his car and hurried back to headquarters–he had to get the news out to the other plants. The first battle had been won. The workers, both black and Latino, hugged each other and posed for a photo.

“Si se puede,” they chanted. “Yes we can!”

“For the first time that I’ve been working in this place, I have seen everybody just pulling together and standing as one,” said Anthony Belt. “That’s what makes this so great. At first everybody was skeptical. Everybody was scared. But once everybody opened their eyes and saw what was going on, they stood together.”

Thelma Williams lit up her lunchtime cigarette. “Can I get a what what?” she shouted.

“What what!” the workers yelled back.

“Can I get a woo woo?”

“Woo! Woo!”

Williams grinned, danced, and chanted along with her coworkers. “I’ve been waiting for this day a long time,” she said. She finally felt proud of her union.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): cover photo 1 by Nathan Mandell; cover photo 2 by Mireya Acierto; Anthony Belt, Thelma Williams photo by Nathan Mandell; Jason Coulter, Israel Matos, Everleanna Richardson photo by Nathan Mandell; misc. photo by Nathan Mandell;.