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Snooping on Workers Will Cost Union a Pretty Penny

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - A textile union must pay more than $4 million under the settlement of a federal class action that claims it illegally accessed motor vehicle records to coerce Cintas workers into unionizing.

U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell signed an order granting final approval of the settlement on Tuesday.

Workers from Cintas' factory in Allentown, Pa., and their families had sued the Union of Needlestrades, Industrial and Textile Employees in 2004 for violations of the Driver's Privacy Protection Act. The workers claimed that the union, which goes by the acronym Unite, harassed them in unannounced visits to their homes. To find out workers' private home addresses, Unite monitored the factory parking lot and searched motor vehicle records for their license plate numbers.

"It was winter, it was late afternoon, it was getting dark, people were coming to their house uninvited, unexpected," plaintiffs' attorney, David Picker, of Philadelphia-based Spector Gadon told Courthouse News.

The Cincinnati-based Cintas is a leader in uniform manufacturing.

As of Feb. 3, roughly 249 claim forms, which are used to determine an individual's class eligibility, were received by the escrow agent handling the funds, according to court records.

The $4 million settlement includes $2,500 in statutory damages for each of the roughly 1,200 class members, plus $1 million in attorneys' fees. The $2,500 figure is the minimum amount of damages for a single violation of the Driver's Privacy Protection Act.

Picker said that any funds remaining following disbursement to class members will be returned to Unite.

As part of the settlement, the union is permanently enjoined from using personal information about the class members that was obtained in violation of the act, court records show. The judge had granted preliminary approval in October.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which Picker said was part of a joint organizing campaign with Unite, was originally a party to the complaint, but was dismissed as a defendant in September 2005, according to court records.

Though Unite and its attorneys could not immediately be reached for comment, court records show that they stridently argued against Cintas workers' 2004 complaint, calling the claims "an echo of employer tactics a century ago."

"It would stand decades of federal labor policy on its head to conclude that this alleged conduct - the precise activity which federal law expects and encourages unions to undertake - is somehow unlawful," according to documents filed along with Unite's 2004 motion to dismiss.

The defense claimed that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has primary jurisdiction over regulation of union organizing, and that the plaintiffs' claim should have been dismissed because it encroached on that jurisdiction.

It pointed out that the NLRB plainly considers it acceptable to gather data from license plate, calling it the "usual channel that non-employee union organizers have attempted to use to communicate with employees about the advantages or organization."

The union also tried to draw a distinction between legitimate use of license plate information for organizing and use that would constitute "coercive surveillance."

"Recording license plate numbers of nonstrikers is a form of coercion recognized by the board" as a statutory violation, Unite's attorneys had argued.

In 1998, NLRB attorneys "listed recording of license plates as one of the methods that must be proven futile before a union can request an employee list from an employer," Unite claimed.

The union added that Cintas workers were not following congressional intent for the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which they say was passed "to preclude stalker-type conduct." Unite added that the act's principal sponsor in the Senate, Barbara Boxer, was primarily concerned with stalkers who preyed on women by accessing local Department of Motor Vehicle records.

"There is nothing in the legislative history of the DPPA that suggests Congress considered the impact of applying this statute to traditional union organizing activities," the defense had argued.

Unite had also that the plaintiffs were "entirely lacking in the kind of specificity that allegations of criminal conduct are required to meet," calling the plaintiffs' amended complaint "nothing more than a fishing expedition in which plaintiffs suspect the existence of, and hope to develop, a case of criminal misconduct through discovery."

The defense also said the act specifies certain permitted uses of personal information derived from motor vehicle records, including use of such information in connection with court proceedings and "investigation in anticipation of litigation."

Unite said there was a "welter of proceedings" between Cintas and the union, rendering the visiting of homes "plainly lawful to the extent it occurred in connection with any of the permitted uses."

The case was litigated for over six years, wending its way through the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the 3rd Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court and generating at least seven reported decisions, according to court records.

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