Exploited car wash workers in New York City continue to buck anti-union sentiment nationwide by doing something they have never done before: organize.
On Monday, October 22, employees at Webster Car Wash in the Bronx became only the second group of car washers in the city right behind Hi Tek Car Wash workers in Astoria, Queens, to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU].
“The vote at the Webster Car Wash has deep ramifications throughout the car wash industry, organized labor and around the country,” RWDSU Director of Communications Tara Martin told LaborPress. “It speaks to the issue that labor unions have had, and still continue to have, a powerful influence on the American economy. The organized labor movement has also prompted many employers and businesses to adopt a pro-employee agenda in the workplace – an agenda that fosters the dignity and respect of all members of the workforce.”
Webster Car Wash owner John Lage isn’t just any car washer operator. He’s the biggest car wash mogul in New York City with 23 locations spread throughout the metropolitan area. In 2009, Lage was forced to pay workers $3.5 million in back pay damages following a federal lawsuit. The New York Attorney General’s office is now currently investigating Lage for still further wage-and-hour violations.
“We are combining legislation, wage and hour litigation and enforcement, and community boycott strategies to support the courageous workers who have now stood up to the biggest kingpin in the car wash industry,” Make the Road New York Executive Director Deborah Axt said. “These NLRB election victories are part of a much broader, multilayered joint campaign deploying the strengths of the two largest community organizations in New York City – Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change – with the support of one of the most innovative and progressive unions, the RWDSU.”
Newly unionized workers at Hi Tek Car Wash, located at 83-03 24th Avenue are already well on their way to start bargaining for a fair contract with their employer. And now other workers in addition to those at Webster Car Wash, located at 1783 Webster Avenue, are expected to follow shortly.
“At least two more NLRB elections are planned for the fall among multiple other strategies,” Axt said. “Low wage immigrant workers like these car wash workers are not only organizable – they are on the cutting edge of rebuilding the labor movement in this country.”
Organizers say that workers from over 40 other car washes located throughout the city are currently active in the areawide steering committee to organize the industry.
“Car wash workers are declaring loud and clear that the old way of doing business at these establishments is over,” RWDSU Organizer Joseph Dorismond said. “Their courage in standing up for themselves sends a powerful message to other car wash and low-wage workers throughout New York City: You can fight back against poor wages and working conditions, and you can win by joining the RWDSU.”
In all, there are about 200 car washes located throughout the city with some 5,000 low-wage workers that could soon vote to unionize. Many of them work anywhere from 60 to 105 hours a week.
A recent WASH New York study found that many are not being paid overtime, and when they are paid beyond the standard 40-hour work week, it’s less than the legally mandated rate of time-and-a-half. Others participating in the survey said they were being paid less than the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 and hour.
“These car wash workers united and spoke out against unfair labor practices in their workplace, sending a clear message that ‘business as usual’ within this industry will not stand,” Martin said. “They have gained a key ally, in the RWDSU, in their effort to secure a decent wage and better working conditions – not just for themselves, but future employees.”
According to New York Communities for Change Executive Director Jon Kest, workers need only look at Lage’s labor record to understand that the need to organize is vital.
“We are proud of the workers at Webster Car Wash for standing up against their employer, Kest said. “John Lage is a giant of the New York City car wash industry, whose bad practices in the past are perfect proof that car wash workers need to be organized to protect themselves against mistreatment. We hope that workers in Lage’s many car washes are as inspired by the courage of the Webster workers as we are.”
RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum characterized Webster Car Wash workers’ decision to organize in biblical terms.
“The RWDSU has long been dedicated to improving the lives of low-wage workers, and 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 today,” Appelbaum said. “These brave workers stood up to their employer, like David slaying Goliath. Across the city, car wash workers are standing up, speaking out and demanding that they be treated with dignity and respect. This is a building movement.”
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