Pushed to the limit, laundry workers strike

ON STRIKE FOR LIVING WAGES AND AFFORDABLE HEALTH CARE: Striking New System laundry workers Phung Nguyen, Tram Nguyen and Yim Chin say they and their 70 coworkers can’t get by on minimum wage.

By Don McIntosh

After more than 20 years laundering linens for Portland’s top hotels and restaurants, Yim Chin makes $11.75 an hour at New System Laundry — a city-block-sized industrial facility at Northeast 10th and Flanders. Next year, the Portland-area minimum wage will surpass that union-negotiated wage, which was set in 2013 when the statewide minimum was $8.95.

But in negotiations with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49, New System is proposing to pay no more than the new minimum wage — and to double what Chin and her 70 co-workers pay toward union-sponsored health insurance premiums, from $105 a month to $213 a month by 2020.

“Because our wages are so low, if they raise the premium, we can’t make it,” Chin says.

Family-owned New System is run by Mark Rawlinson, the great-grandson of its founder. The company employs Ric Alli of the Bullard law firm to handle its negotiations with the union. Customers include hotels, hospitals, and some of Portland’s most celebrated restaurants: Pizzicato, Departure, Salt and Straw, Sizzle Pie and RingSide.

Local 49 Representative Melissa Espinoza says New System isn’t pleading poverty; it just doesn’t want to shoulder the premium increases and pay above minimum wage.

So on Nov. 28, a week after their contract expired, the overwhelmingly female Vietnamese and Chinese workforce went out on strike. A picket line went up at 6 a.m., with the union providing bright yellow ponchos and umbrellas to protect strikers from the rain. Local 49 has not announced an end date for the strike.

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