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Federal court: Cintas policy violated rights

A federal appeals court Friday rejected a Cintas Corp. policy, saying it violated employees' rights to discuss working conditions at the nation's largest uniform supply company.

The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld a National Labor Relations Board conclusion that a company handbook policy violated federal labor protections. The Unite Here union that has been trying to organize Cintas workers had challenged the confidentiality policy as unlawfully interfering with employee rights to discuss unionizing and collective bargaining.

"Although it does not expressly forbid protected employee discussions, an employee would reasonably construe it to. We affirm the board's decision," wrote the three-judge panel in Washington.

Messages for comment were left at Cintas' Cincinnati headquarters. The company could appeal the ruling. Otherwise, it must remove the disputed language and distribute revised handbooks to employees, and also post a notice of the federal ruling in its workplaces.

At issue was a part of the employee guide in which the "principles and values" of Cintas culture are described.

It says: "We recognize and protect the confidentiality of any information concerning the company, its business plans, its partners ..."

The handbook, in which employees are called "partners," also warns they can be disciplined for "unauthorized release of confidential information."

The court ruled that employees could assume from the policy that they would be disciplined for discussing their conditions, pay and other details of their employment.

"It allows workers to talk to each other about their working conditions as a first step toward trying to improve those conditions," Wilfredo Lirancuent, a Unite Here vice president in New York, said of the ruling. "It's a victory for workers, it's a victory for Cintas employees and it's a victory for free speech."

Cintas had contended that the handbook language was being misread and that there was no evidence that it had been applied against protected activity.

But the court ruled that simply having such a rule "whether explicitly or through reasonable interpretation, can amount to an unfair labor practice, even absent evidence of enforcement."

It said Cintas could revise the policy to avoid interfering with employee rights and still "accomplish the company's presumed interest in protecting confidential information."

Unite Here said Evangelina Orozco, a worker from Cintas's Vista, Calif., plant, claims she was fired because of union activism. "Now with the court's ruling, workers know we have the right to talk to each other and speak out against injustices on the job," she said in a statement.

The company says it has some 32,000 employees in 350 facilities across North America, including 15 manufacturing plants and seven distribution centers. It reported revenues of $3.4 billion for its 2006 fiscal year.

Last week, five congressmen called for a nationwide investigation of machinery safety hazards at Cintas, after the March 6 death of a worker caught in a dryer at a Tulsa, Okla., plant.

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