At a carwash in an industrial patch of Astoria, Queens, Adan Nicolas, a Mexican immigrant, is preparing to open the newest front in New York City’s labor battles.
His bosses have often paid him and the other carwash workers less than minimum wage and have cheated them on overtime pay, Mr. Nicolas said. The workers, he said, are not provided with protective gear but are forced to use caustic cleaners that burn their eyes and noses.
Community organizers say these kinds of violations are rampant among local carwashes.
So for the past several weeks, under the tutelage of immigrants’ advocates, Mr. Nicolas, 31, has been briefing his colleagues in rudimentary labor law and the language of organizing. Out of the sight of bosses, similar conversations have been unfolding at other carwashes around New York City.
“We’re all ready to fight for our rights and have a dignified place to work, and not to be abused like we are today,” Mr. Nicolas said.
On Tuesday, a coalition of community and labor organizations plans to introduce a citywide campaign to reform the carwash industry. The union advocates, in turn, hope to use the campaign to unionize carwash workers across the city, most of whom are immigrants.
“This is a real partnership between community organizations and organized labor to try to tackle these problematic working conditions,” said Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an advocacy group that is leading the coalition with New York Communities for Change, another advocacy group, and support from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
A similar campaign in Los Angeles has resulted in collective bargaining agreements between at least three carwash companies and their workers. Two of the deals were completed last month.
The campaign in New York faces many challenges. Carwash workers — a population of about 1,600, by the coalition’s estimates — are scattered across about 200 locations, many of which are under individual ownership. Each company would require a separate organizing effort.
Many of the workers are illegal immigrants who might be unwilling to speak out for fear of being fired or drawing the attention of the immigration authorities.
Carwash managers and owners said in interviews that they were paying and treating their employees fairly, and vowed to resist unionizing efforts.
“We’re going by the law,” said the manager at Queensboro Car Wash in Long Island City, who would not give his name.
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