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Know Your Rights
Source: New York Times
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Challenging Owners to Raise Wages, Workers at a Second Carwash Vote to Unionize

Maintaining that they face widespread minimum-wage violations, workers at a Bronx carwash belonging to one of the city’s largest carwash owners voted to unionize on Saturday, making it the second of New York City’s 200 or so carwashes where workers joined a union.

The workers at Webster Carwash, nearly all of them immigrants, voted 23 to 5 to unionize after a six-month campaign, according to officials with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which joined with several worker advocacy groups to organize the employees.

The effort was part of a campaign to unionize dozens of New York City carwashes with the aim of achieving better wages, worker treatment and safety conditions. Last month, workers at Astoria Car Wash and Hi-Tek 10 Minute Lube in Queens became the first carwash not just in New York, but on the entire East Coast, to unionize, voting 21 to 5 to do so.

Webster Carwash is owned by Lage Management Corporation, which owns several dozen carwashes that have faced a wave of wage lawsuits and investigations.

The company, headed by John Lage, agreed to pay $3.4 million in back wages and damages in 2009 to 1,187 current and former employees to settle a lawsuit accusing it of many wage violations. And last spring, officials in the office of the New York State attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, said they were investigating Mr. Lage’s carwashes over possible wage violations.

Ernesto Salazar, an immigrant from El Salvador who has worked at Webster Carwash for six years, said he was delighted about the vote. “This is a time for immigrant workers to earn a voice through their union to speak up to their bosses,” Mr. Salazar said in Spanish through an interpreter. “The union will support us in pushing to raise wages. You can’t afford to live here on the amount they pay us.”

Mr. Salazar says he earned $6.50 an hour, 75 cents below the federal minimum wage. He said he had been earning $5.50 an hour, but received a raise after the unionization drive started. He said he does receive some cash tips. He added that the workers wanted better safety training and conditions in light of the many chemicals they use in cleaning and polishing cars.

An employee at Webster Carwash who answered the telephone on Sunday said that no manager was available to answer questions from a reporter. And an employee who answered for Mr. Lage’s main corporate office in Pelham Manor, N.Y., said to call back on Monday because the office was closed.

Mr. Lage’s son Michael Lage, who is also part of the business, has in the past denied accusations of wage violations, saying that the lawsuits and claims the company’s carwashes face were part of an effort by the union to attract new members — and their dues payments.

The retail workers union had worked closely with two advocacy groups, Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change. The groups have submitted petitions to unionize two other Lage-owned carwashes, one in SoHo and one in Queens. There are an estimated 5,000 carwash workers in the city.

“We are proud of the employees at Webster, who have taken a significant step toward improving their jobs and their lives by voting to join the union,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “These brave workers stood up to their employer, like David slaying Goliath.”

Last April, the city’s public advocate, Bill de Blasio, pointing to the wage violation charges, urged city agencies to stop using Lage-owned carwashes to clean city vehicles. He said that since 2010, the city had paid the Lage Management Corporation more than $170,000 for cleaning city cars.

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