Election 2004

Industrial Money Laundry-ing

Six weeks after Cintas Corp.'s chairman co-hosted a $1.7 million fundraiser for George W. Bush, the EPA proposed exempting industrial laundries like Cintas from rules that protect workers from handling toxic materials. Maybe it's just a coincidence.
On September 30, 2003, Richard T. Farmer, chairman of the Cincinnati-based Cintas Corp. -- the largest industrial launderer in the country -- co-hosted a $1.7 million fundraiser for President Bush.

On November 20, 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released new draft regulations that, if adopted, will weaken federal safeguards for employees who handle poison-soaked "shop" towels. The new rule would exempt industrial laundries like Cintas "from federal hazardous and solid waste requirements for shop towels contaminated with toxic chemicals."

This is no small exemption. Each year, 3.8 billion industrial shop towels, which are used to clean up toxic materials or spills in the workplace, or to wipe-down machinery, are sent to be cleaned.

The Bush Administration's proposed rollback is particularly worrisome because Cintas has been found to have repeatedly violated worker safety and environmental protection standards.

"We were never told about all the chemicals we were forced to handle, and never really warned about the toxic dangers from these chemicals. The towels were often in plastic bags dripping with solvent. Our supervisors knew all about this," says Mark Fragola, of New Haven, Conn., a former driver for Cintas Corp.

According to the EPA, the rule will also will lead to higher profits for Cintas. The EPA predicts "this proposal would... save affected facilities over $30 million per year."

For the record, Cintas and Farmer, are already doing quite well. Cintas made $249.3 million in profits in fiscal year 2003 and Farmer is ranked by Forbes as the 140th wealthiest man in America with a net worth of $1.5 billion.

Farmer is a "Ranger," meaning that he has personally raised more than $200,000 for the President's re-election campaign. In addition, Farmer was instrumental in George W. Bush's 2000 campaign. Not only was he was a "Pioneer" in 2000 (having pledged to raise $100,000), Farmer and his wife gave the second most of any family to the Republican Party in 2000.

Since the 2000 election cycle, Cintas and its employees have given almost $2.2 million to federal candidates and parties, with 100 percent of that money going to Republicans. So far this election cycle, in addition to Farmer, 15 Cintas executives have contributed to Bush, with eight of them giving the maximum $2,000 contribution.

Farmer told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1997, "I don't expect any special treatment when I give my money. All I want is decent government."

What is "decent" government from Cintas Corp.'s point of view? It could be a government that rewrites environmental law to increase their profits, and one that gives them big government contracts. In addition to the EPA draft regulation, Cintas, as the nation's largest launderer, would likely to have been in line to receive a contract for laundry services from the Department of Veterans Affairs if the VA had proceeded with plans to privatize laundry services at facilities around the U.S. Richard T. Farmer served on Bush's Veterans Affairs transition team.

But the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 federal workers, sent a cease-and-desist letter telling the VA that contracting out the services would be in violation of federal law.

Will Cintas get its way? They have a long history of bullying and silencing their opponents. The public comment period on the EPA rules is open until April 9. Sierra Club, United Students Against Sweatshops and UNITE have joined together to oppose the EPA proposal that helps Cintas Corporation at its workers' expense. Cintas has sued UNITE for defamation, and sued a shareholder activist to silence his efforts to bring forth shareholder resolutions about Cintas' labor conditions.

Stories like this that expose the connections between the private gains of corporate America with the political gains of elected officials are all too common in the nation's capital, and in the Bush White House. Sadly, the health and safety of workers and the protection of our environment could become the casualties.

David Donnelly is director of the Washington, DC- and Boston-based nonprofit Campaign Money Watch. This op-ed was adapted from Campaign Money Watch's weekly Special Interest Spotlight, a regular email report on the influence of special interest money in the Bush Administration.
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