Joel Martinez of Make the Road New York protested Sunday at the Sixth Avenue Car Wash, where workers unionized last year.
On a typical post-snowstorm weekend, the Sixth Avenue Car Wash in Greenwich Village is all bustle and business, with as many as 400 cars passing through the brick building between sunrise and sunset, according to employees.
On Sunday morning, though, the workers promptly dropped their sponges, turned off several monster-size hoses and walked out. The business then shut down until midafternoon, when the workers returned. For the second time in a week, they were protesting the sale of the carwash, at Avenue of the Americas and Broome Street. They charge that the sale was an act of retaliation against the workers, who voted to unionize last November.
The sale occurred last June, but the employees said they were not told until Feb. 1. The business will close at the end of the month and the 19 employees will be out of work.
The owners are “sending a message to other workers: don’t organize,” said Rocío Valerio-González, a community organizer with New York Communities for Change, one of the organizations that promoted the unionization drive.
State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat who joined the protest, called the property sale “suspicious.”
The Sixth Avenue Car Wash, also called Lage Car Wash, is a 24-hour operation manned by immigrant workers, or carwasheros, who, until several months ago, were always paid in cash. On Nov. 21, the carwash became the fifth in New York to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, part of a larger citywide campaign to organize an industry in which violations of labor laws are common. (A 2008 New York State investigation of the industry found widespread abuse at 84 carwashes, including $6.5 million in underpayment to 1,380 workers.)
On Sunday, one of the workers, Alberto Nolasco, waved cracked hands tipped with corroded fingernails. He said that his bosses never offered gloves or masks — even after the employees asked — and never offered safety or training courses. He added that he and other workers handled unmarked bottles containing chemicals. Mr. Nolasco, 55, who is from Puebla, Mexico, said he had worked at the location since 2007. “This isn’t right,” he said, speaking in Spanish.
Juan Carlos Rivera, 26, began working at the Sixth Avenue Car Wash seven years ago. At the time, he earned $4.50 an hour, plus tips. Today, he earns $6 an hour. The owners can legally pay less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, but they must ensure that workers make that wage once tips are included, Ms. Valerio-González said.
But Juan Rivera, who came from El Salvador, and several other employees said that the money they make often winds up being less than the minimum wage. “He knows we’re good workers, but he doesn’t care,” Mr. Rivera said of John Lage, the head of Lage Management Corporation. “Each one of the carwashes needs to organize, like us. Because this is messed up. Messed up.”
Lage Management owns more than a dozen carwashes in the city. In 2009, the company agreed to pay$3.4 million in back wages and damages to 1,187 current and former employees to settle a lawsuit accusing it of many wage violations.
Mr. Lage’s lawyer, Dennis Lalli, said that Mr. Lage had sold the controlling interest of the Avenue of the Americas operation to a man named Fernando Magalhaes 10 years ago. Mr. Magalhaes “makes all the operating decisions” at the location, Mr. Lalli said. Efforts to reach Mr. Magalhaes for comment were unsuccessful.
Mr. Lalli declined to say who had bought the property and denied that the sale was connected to the unionization. “They’re lying and they know it,” he said. “The property was sold last June. The unions did not appear on the scene until October, maybe September.”
Mr. Lage, he added, will not be moving the workers to jobs at his other carwashes, as they have requested. Mr. Lage “would be willing to consider the applications” of the laid-off workers,” Mr. Lalli said. “But he doesn’t have any job openings.”