After an 18-month campaign, workers at two car washes in the Bronx and two in Queens signed uniion contracts that will give them job security, posted work schedules and paid time off.
WHEN we began the WASH NY campaign about 18 months ago, to bring justice for all the “carwasheros” across New York City, no one thought we had a chance to win.
Especially against the largest car wash owners.
You will never be able to unionize the car washes, people told us; they are too big and too spread out, and there are too many owners. No one took us seriously.
But we did it! We have won six union contracts — four at car washes owned by the biggest players in the industry, and two at independent car washes.
In the space of about 24 hours in October, workers at Webster Car Wash and WCA Car Wash — both in the Bronx — and at Jomar Car Wash and Sutphin Car Wash — both in Queens — signed union contracts.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union contracts are for three years, and our wages will ultimately hit a minimum of $9.18 an hour, including tips. We also now have job security and posted work schedules and, for the first time, we will get five days of paid time off a year, in addition to two personal days and increased holiday bonuses.
It was not easy to win this fight, but the organizers explained our rights to us and gave us encouragement. They overcame doubts many of us had that we could win. They told us if we stuck together, we could get support from our communities and our customers.
Slowly, we began winning union elections — and now we have contracts.
We know the campaign to organize car wash workers faces distinct challenges, and we know it’s about social justice in addition to having the right to join a union.
There are a couple of hundred car washes in New York City, mostly independently owned. That alone makes any campaign to change industry standards a difficult one.
Unionizing each car wash is a separate battle. Workers at some of the nonunion carwashes are still not earning minimum wage and overtime, as required by law.
These unlawful, sub-minimum wage car washes threaten the ability of good employers to pay lawful wages and the even higher, union-scale wages and benefits.
Still, the gains we won with the assistance of the RWDSU and two advocacy groups, New York Communities for Change and Make the Road NY — prove that you can fight and win, even against the biggest owners, if you stick together and stay strong.
We know this is just the beginning. The problems in the car wash industry go beyond any one owner. Workers at some of the other car washes say they work 50 or 60 hours a week and don’t get overtime or even minimum wage.
Some workers have also complained about not getting all of their tips, or having to share that money with supervisors. They complain about not having protective gear for the chemicals they use. And they complain about not having any protection against an employer who seeks to exploit immigration issues in violation of the law.
We know these issues will motivate workers citywide to organize, especially now that we can share our successes with them. We are telling them about our own experiences — and how the union brings to carwashes the protections we need for our wages, safety, regular schedules and paid time off for illness or personal reasons.
Most of all, bringing the union to our car washes has meant we are treated with respect and dignity.
Now we can proudly say to carwasheros throughout New York City: Yes, we did — and so can you!
Ernesto Salazar works at the Webster Car Wash in The Bronx. Miguel Portillo works at Jomar Car Wash in Queens.
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