Last month, Duke University Health System (DUHS) announced it was selling its laundry plant to the Angelica Corp., one of the largest hospital laundry services in the country. Duke built a new facility two years ago, hoping to turn a profit cleaning the laundry of other area hospitals, but when administrators found the market response unsatisfactory, they threw in the towel.

It was a simple business decision to those who made the call. But to student activists, the replacement of 32 unionized jobs paying $8 to $10 an hour with the $5.25-an-hour jobs Angelica typically provides was an unacceptable compromise for an institution that has been at the forefront of the collegiate anti-sweatshop movement.

Angelica has been in a contract battle with textile-worker union UNITE at dozens of its laundry plants across the country. When UNITE leaders found out Angelica was coming to Duke, they contacted Duke’s Student Employee Relations Committee (SERC) about the approximately 70 accusations of unfair labor practices against Angelica that UNITE has pending before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). According to UNITE organizer Sonny Suchdev, Duke’s eight-year contract (worth an estimated $4.5 million a year) makes it Angelica’s largest customer.

Students quickly organized an April 8 meeting with Duke President Nan Keohane. Administrators told students that Angelica’s labor relations were taken into consideration during the contract negotiations and found to be “satisfactory” by Duke negotiators. According to Duke Vice President John Burness, students were told to find “8-10 of [Angelica’s] most egregious labor violations” and return to the administration for review.

According to Burness and DUHS spokesperson Jeffrey Molter, the contract Duke signed with Angelica contains an escape clause that allows Duke to rescind if Angelica is found to be violating labor law at any of its facilities in the United States.

“When there’s an organizing effort, it’s not surprising for each side to portray the other in the worst possible light,” Burness says. “The mere fact that a charge was made is not conclusive.”

At the center of Angelica’s contract dispute with UNITE is Angelica’s Houston plant. The union, which is in the midst of an organizing drive, has filed nine complaints with the NLRB alleging unfair practices since January.

Miguel Flores says he was fired from the Houston plant for improperly pushing a cart down a ramp–one week after he denounced a company-organized anti-union meeting. Worker and organizer Florencia Rodriguez says she was fired for cursing and refusing to wear goggles that did not fit her a few days after she and seven workers presented a letter to Angelica requesting neutrality in UNITE’s organizing drive.

An Angelica spokesman said in an e-mail he cannot comment on individual employees to “protect their privacy.” He said UNITE’s allegations “are attempts to pressure the company to recognize the union without an election,” a reference to UNITE’s push for a “card-check” election in which the signatures of more than half the employees collected over time certify union recognition in lieu of an NLRB-supervised election.

Flores, who didn’t become a union activist until after he was fired, says two reasons he supports unionization are that the supervisors engage in verbally abusive behavior and that the company deliberately employs workers just under the minimum weekly hours at which workers must receive benefits. UNITE organizer Rodolfo Chavez says before Angelica bought the Houston plant from Metodista Laundry 10 years ago, workers received $7-8/hr and had sick and vacation pay. Angelica reset salaries for Metodista workers at $4.50/hr and stripped those benefits.

Flores finds another problem with Angelica’s work policies. He says he never received job manuals to explain workplace disciplinary procedures, which he says are arbitrarily enforced. And he says workers “who have an emergency like a sick child are not allowed to leave and fired if they do so.”

Multiple attempts at obtaining oral and written statements from Angelica Vice-President James Shaffer’s office were unsuccessful.

In coming months, UNITE’s accusations against Angelica could become NLRB rulings. According to student activist Jessica Rutter, “For many companies during organizing drives, this is standard operating procedure. They know they’re breaking the law when they fire workers for speaking out, but they just plug the potential fines into their cost-benefit analysis.”

But Angelica may face problems if it turns out they have used illegal tactics in their contract battle with UNITE. According to Duke’s Burness, the university played a decisive role in helping the Land’s End company improve their labor relations. “After we put them on notice,” Burness says, “They rectified their behavior.”