A union’s right to confidentiality has limits – at least when it comes to violating the confidentiality of workers whom they seek to organize. That’s what a federal judge ruled on December 4 as part of a running battle between the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees-Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (UNITE HERE) and Cintas Corp., one of the nation’s largest industrial uniform companies. U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell in Philadelphia agreed that the union, in its zeal to organize workers at the Cintas plant in Emmaus, Pa. (Lehigh County), must be transparent about its overall organizing strategy.
Back in June 2005, several employees at the plant sued the union, alleging organizers had violated their privacy by copying down motor vehicle license-plate information in order to track down vehicle owners for home visits. In rulings last August and October, Judge Dalzell agreed with the plaintiffs that UNITE HERE organizers had improperly obtained vehicle information. That portion of the case is under appeal. But in a separate procedural case, the union sought to keep discovery about its organizing tactics under wraps. UNITE HERE argued that releasing the information would be the equivalent of a firm revealing trade secrets to a competitor. Moreover, the union’s lawyers argued, forcing full disclosure would set a dangerous precedent by allowing employers to learn strategies through litigation, thus putting in jeopardy the jobs of pro-union workers. Cintas’ attorneys countered that the court documents were presumed to be public and that most union strategies were common knowledge anyway.
The decision should keep UNITE HERE a little more honest, but it was at least a partial victory for the union. Judge Dalzell continued the sealing of most personal information, including the names of employees sympathetic to the union drive and information about union “probes” – that is, organizing efforts that never became full-fledged campaigns. The information ordered released pertains only to broad strategy. “We were gratified that the judge did protect the employees who had made complaints about Cintas,” said Susan Jennik, a partner in the union’s law firm of Kennedy, Jennik & Murray. (Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/7/06).