The second, legally stickier effort is the result of a landmark million-dollar living-wage case in Hayward, won by workers against the country's biggest industrial launderer three years ago. There, hundreds of workers filed a class-action suit when it was discovered, after initial probes by the union, that Cincinnati-based Cintas Corporation had reneged on its contractual promise to pay employees that city's living wage, which is generally several dollars more per hour than the federal or state minimum wage. After that case was won, says Moran, the union began conducting audits of living-wage contracts held by Prudential and other industrial launderers.

Between 2002 and 2006, Prudential signed contracts with Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland, specifically agreeing to pay its workers the higher mandated wages under those cities' living-wage ordinances. Investigations by city officials and city attorneys from all three cities, prompted by a series of union complaints filed on behalf of workers last year, have revealed that Prudential repeatedly either failed to pay or chose not to pay workers those wages, and the company effectively owes employees tens of thousands of dollars.

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Priscilla Iezzi
Elva Lopez, Isabel Pea, Lupe Valle, Maria Paniagua and Lupe Ortegon of Prudential's Riverside facility say they deserve a living wage
Not your neighborhood laundromat: A typical industrial laundry machine holds hundreds of pounds of dirty clothes
Not your neighborhood laundromat: A typical industrial laundry machine holds hundreds of pounds of dirty clothes

Isabel Peña lights a cigarette and stares out at the highway from a coffee shop in Riverside. Her hand shakes a little, but she straightens up when she starts to speak, her eyes as black as her thick bob. She pulls her sleeves back and reveals a series of soft brown lines etched into the underside of her forearms. The almost ritualistic markings are the result of years of working with large, hot presses at Prudential, she says in Spanish.

Like other industrial laundries, Prudential is in the business of renting, selling and cleaning uniforms for biotech companies, city governments, hospitals, school districts, hotels, restaurants and hundreds of other types of companies. Prudential, founded by John Clark in 1932, has 1,700 employees and 32 facilities in seven states, plus one in Mexico and one in Malaysia. Last year, the company made $150 million in sales; it has contracts with 110 Fortune 500 companies and developed the first dust-free, contaminant-free garments. Although Martin says less than 1 percent of the company's contracts are with governments, those agreements represent millions of dollars.

Etched into her memory, Peña says, are the logo and the smooth, thick buttons on the beige and soft-green uniforms of the Ontario International Airport. For the past five years, the 18-year company veteran would place the uniforms, one by one, on headless mannequins, snap a pin to the bottom, close each button shut, and then send the dummy high above her head to a massive industrial steamer for an instant press.

What she and 72 other employees at Prudential's Riverside plant didn't know in 2002, when they first began laundering the airport uniforms, was that their employer had entered into the contract with Los Angeles World Airports under the city's strict living-wage rules, which required that Peña and all the other employees be paid a little bit more for every hour they spent with those particular uniforms.

"They never said anything. And we all cleaned those uniforms for years," says Peña.

Last July, Peña, who was elected to be a shop steward by her compañerasat the unionized Riverside facility, filed a complaint with the city of Los Angeles, alleging Prudential owed its employees thousands of dollars in back wages for the Los Angeles World Airports contract.

"We're all asking for the living wage that the law says they must pay us. The city pays so that workers will get that salary, and he pockets it," says Peña of company chairman Don Clark, son of founder John. "We've never ever been paid that salary."

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The epicenter for the living-wage movement was Baltimore in the mid-1990s. It was there, in 1994, that the first local ordinance was passed requiring companies who leased public land or held contracts with the city to pay a minimum wage higher than the federal standard.

Advocates of the ordinances, which are often aggressively opposed by the business community, have sought the increases so that workers can afford to live in the cities where they toil. Victories and losses have come after long campaigns and much controversy. Many of the ordinances have included mandates for health-care coverage or equivalent pay, something the federal minimum wage has never required.

Los Angeles passed one of the first living-wage ordinances in California in 1997; Oakland followed in 1998, San Diego in 2005. To date, 140 cities, counties and universities around the country have passed similar laws. Although the new wage rules haven't significantly increased the cost to cities, they are proving a bit messy to keep track of. It is up to the employers to determine how they will document the work done on living-wage contracts and pay their employees accordingly. Every year, the wage increases on July 1; employers holding living-wage contracts must likewise adjust their payrolls.

Three years ago, the first and biggest living-wage class-action lawsuit involving an industrial launderer was won by workers in Hayward, who demanded back wages from Cintas, the country's largest industrial launderer. The company appealed the decision, which was overruled June 1. A California appeals court upheld Hayward's ordinance and ordered the company to pay $1.4 million in back wages, interest and penalties to more than 200 workers. Cintas was beset by negative press last year when its repeated safety violations culminated in the death of an employee who fell into an industrial, 300-degree dryer and was buried beneath hundreds of pounds of jeans.

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