Business that caters to the rich mistreats laborers, says union
Employees at a Port Morris cleaning service that delivers sheets and towels to some of the city’s fanciest hotels say they are routinely underpaid and threatened while subjected to dangerous working conditions.
Workers at Carnegie Linen complain they are not granted paid time off while recovering from injuries suffered while cleaning, packing and delivering towels and sheets for luxury hotels like the Waldorf Astoria and the Ace.
In addition, workers say they are not paid overtime and are frequently transferred to different jobs in the factory, only later to find their pay has been cut.
To make matters worse, they say, Carnegie’s owner, Gary Perlson intimidates and threatens workers.
“A lot of us are scared of him because he acts like he’s crazy,” said one employee as she traveled to her afternoon shift. The woman asked not to be identified for this story, fearing reprisals by management.
Perlson did not respond to requests from The Herald for comment.
Current and former workers have made similar allegations about Carnegie and its two sister companies, Danielle Uniforms and Valet Services, all of which operate on East 139th St., an industrial area a block east of the Bruckner Expressway. The workers complain that the linen workers’ union, Local 1964, is ineffective.
“You would tell them something was happening, and then a day later [Perlson] would call you up to his office and yell at you about what you had said,” said the worker. “They don’t help us.” Many want to join a different union, Workers United.
Although the group does not officially represent the Carnegie Linen employees, the group says it advises many of the workers.
“The climate of fear persists there,” said Workers United organizer Megan Chambers. “We have been told by numerous workers that they are told they will be fired if they talk to us.”
Even the courts have failed to improve working conditions, Chambers said. In February, Perlson pleaded guilty to a 2009 misdemeanor charge for flinging coffee in the face of an employee who was leading a push for employees to join Workers United.
A coalition of unions has launched Clean NYC, a campaign to ensure linen and laundry workers who serve some of the city’s richest hotels are treated fairly. The posh hotels Carnegie serves should be more sensitive to the workers’ conditions, Chambers said.
“They have no business balancing their books on these workers’ back,” she said. “They don’t need to take from those who can least afford to give by letting these folks be exploited and then turning a blind eye to it.”
Most of Carnegie’s workers are paid slightly above minimum wage, along with meager health care and pension plans, regardless of how long they’ve worked there, she added. Retirement benefits are especially important, she said, because the work is physically demanding.
Mott Haven resident Edgar Gonzalez, 33, said he worked at Carnegie between 2006 and 2011, then was laid off when he submitted medical bills to the company for back problems he began to suffer on the job. Gonzalez urged his supervisors to load fewer towels and sheets, he said, to prevent his back problems from getting worse, but they did not heed his pleas. He contacted Workers United to inquire about organizing, but Perlson threatened him, he added.
Gonzalez now works odd jobs and does maintenance at a barbershop. His former co-workers assure him conditions have not improved at Carnegie Linen, he said.
“There are so many things going on in there, and no one feels like they can say anything,” Gonzalez added.
The following letter by Gary Perlson and Eric Schweitzer of Carnegie Linen was submitted in response to the story. Numerous calls to reach Perlson during the reporting of the story were not returned.
To the Editor:
We write in response to your recent article, “Linen Workers Complain of Inhumane Conditions.” Unfortunately, this article tells just one side of the story, and we want to set the record straight. First and foremost, we are a pro-union company that provides a vital service to a number of hotels in the area. Our employees are represented by Local 1964 of the International Brotherhood of Longshoremen, and our unionized workers are a critical part of our business, and despite claims made by Workers United, our employees are by and large happy and compensated fairly.
So, why is Workers United so critical of our company? Here are the facts:
• Workers United tried to organize Carnegie’s employees about four years ago. There is a well-defined, legal process that a union undertakes if it wants to represent workers that culminates with the workers voting on whether or not they want to be represented by a particular union. At Carnegie, an election was held, and our employees soundly rejected Workers United.
• In these types of situations, it is not uncommon for the union to then file unfair labor charges in an attempt to hold another election. Workers United did this, and Carnegie agreed to hold a new election to give employees another chance to vote on the matter. Now, roughly 4 years later, Workers United has still not proceeded with an election. Why? Because they know they’ll lose again. And if they know they can’t win an election, they’d prefer to put the company out of business – a point they have made explicitly in their conversations with us.
• So instead of taking advantage of the one legal avenue that exists to represent Carnegie employees, Workers United has instead chosen to begin an aggressive attack on the company. They’ve attacked us in the media, and they’ve engaged in picketing and various protest actions outside of our hotel customers, which has already resulted in the loss of one large customer.
At its essence, this was an attempt by one union (Workers United) to raid the membership of another union (the Longshoremen, Local 1964). When that didn’t work, they decided to wage an all-out war against Carnegie because they believe that if a worker can’t be represented by their union, it’s better that they be unemployed.
And make no mistake, if Workers United is successful in its efforts, their actions will result in the loss of 300 union jobs. If they truly have the best interests of our employees at heart, how does forcing our company to lose business and revenue help anyone?
Workers United’s conduct is not only unfair and, we believe, unlawful – it’s counterproductive and damaging to the entire South Bronx community.