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Know Your Rights
Source: Queens Chronicle
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Jamaica car wash workers unionize

Workers at one Jamaica car wash believe they have taken an important step forward in ensuring that they are treated fairly, paid adequately and work under safe conditions, by unionizing.

Employees at the Sutphin Car Wash have voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. It is the second site owned by John Lage, and the fourth one in the city, to become part of the RWDSU. In 2009, Lage was forced to pay $3.4 million in back pay and damages to workers after a federal lawsuit.

“The old ways of doing business at these establishments are over,” RWDSU President Stuart Applebaum said in a prepared statement. “Car wash workers across the city have had enough and are fighting back against abusive conditions.”

The Sutphin Car Wash workers held a demonstration outside the business back in April to call for better treatment and pay. Among those in attendance was City Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton), who is the chairman of the Council’s Committee on Civil Service and Labor.

“I am happy to hear that these workers are now part of a union,” Sanders said Tuesday. “It is a natural evolution. This is a job, that for a long time, no one paid attention to. It was low paying and somewhat dangerous.”

According to the WASH New York campaign, which was launched early this year to fight widespread mistreatment in the car wash industry, there are some 200 car washes citywide with 5,000 employees, mostly immigrants, who are paid low wages and often denied overtime, to which they were entitled by law. WASH is a joint effort between Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change and is supported by the RWDSU.

WASH recently conducted a survey of 89 workers at 29 different car washes and found that more than 71 percent put in at least 60 hours a week while some worked 105 hours a week. Nearly 75 percent, however, were not paid overtime for anything exceeding 40 hours.

“We deserve a fair salary, job security, and other benefits,” said Santos Lopez [member of Make the Road New York], a Guatemalan immigrant who has lived in this country for eight years and worked at the Sutphin Car Wash for four. “With a union, they will treat us with respect and dignity. I’m very happy for myself and my co-workers because of the changes we think will happen at our workplace.”

The car wash industry has long been accused of exploiting workers, according to the coalition. In 2008, New York State investigators found numerous labor law violations in the industry, including $6.5 million in underpayments to 1,380 workers.

The workers at Sutphin Car Wash are not the only industry employees to join the RWDSU. Staffers at three others — Lage Car Wash in Manhattan, Webster Car Wash in the Bronx and Astoria Car Wash Hi-Tek 10 Minute Lube in Elmhurst — have also joined within the past two months.

“The union movement is primarily responsible for the growth of the American middle class,” Sanders said. “Unions have taken workers from jobs that were dangerous and that no one respected and made them into much safer jobs that have dignity. The union is responsible for the eight-hour work day.”

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