The modern carwash is a minor marvel. A car sits on a track and is pulled past purifying machinery: A grid of pipes shoots high-pressure streams of water, then soap; flapping, jiggling cloths lower from tracks to slather every inch of the car body; spinning brushes rise along the sides, to begin the drying, and then a wide vacuum rides just over the hood and roof to suck the water away.
It is the first robot most of us have ever met.
But at either end of the machine are people who do the dirty work that cannot be left to robotics. At the front end, they pull open the doors, stoop to lift floor mats that have taken on the leavings from shoes. They hand-vacuum cup holders and the upholstery and all the seams where the cruft of other people’s lives and journeys has settled. At the back end, there are others waiting with towels to dry and polish, and to clean the interiors of the windows.
“When I began, I think it was $3.65 an hour,” said Patricio Santiago, 45, who does detailing at a carwash in Flushing, Queens.
“Tres cincuenta,” another worker called out, correcting him. That is, $3.50 an hour, not $3.65.
The workers of the New York carwash operations are almost all men and immigrants from Latin American countries or West Africa. In the winter months, when cars quickly get filthy from slush, the work becomes most difficult, Mr. Santiago said. “The hardest is hand drying the cars when it is frigid cold,” he said.
Mr. Santiago came to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, 14 years ago and has worked at carwashes ever since. Improbably, a fight by Mr. Santiago and his co-workers that began more than three years ago has led to union contracts at nine carwashes in the city.
“The shifts are 12 hours,” Mr. Santiago said. “Before the contract, it was seven days. Now it is six days.”
Workers at many carwashes have said there was no such thing as overtime; it was as if neither the 40-hour workweek nor wage-and-hour laws had ever existed. Now, Mr. Santiago said, he makes $8.65 an hour for the first 40 hours, and $11.36 for overtime. He and his wife live in Elmhurst, Queens, and have two boys, ages 11 and 6, and a girl, age 2. Next week, Mr. Santiago and two other carwash workers, Jose Reynaldo Sanches and Refugio Denicia, will be part of a group meeting Pope Francis at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem. The pope asked specifically to meet with migrants and refugees, said Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, of Catholic Charities.
So along with the carwashers, there will be Hudson Valley farmworkers, day-laborers, immigrant mothers, and teenagers and children who have crossed the border without their parents, many in desperate flights from violence in Central America.
Mr. Santiago seemed abashed about his selection. “I am happy and humble, but I am representing the other workers,” he said. “I’ve seen the pope on television. He’s helped people and given a voice to working people and immigrants.”
They may be symbols, but they are hardly props. Francis is far from the first pope to have spoken about justice for the poor and the marginalized, though his winning personal style has carried his words far beyond his own pews. Through Catholic Charities, the infrastructure of the church in New York has long been built on working with people who, broadly speaking, have no political or economic power.
In the case of the carwashers — they call themselves car washeros — the role of Catholic Charities was casual, Monsignor Sullivan said. The organizing effort was led by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, in concert with Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change. “The union president, Stuart Appelbaum, asked if I would meet with the workers at a couple of places in the Bronx,” Monsignor Sullivan said. “I talked to the workers, expressed support for their efforts, and said a prayer for its success.”
Some of the church’s principal guidance on the poor and forgotten is contained in 53 words from the Gospel of Matthew. They are printed in the program for the East Harlem gathering: “For I was hungry and you gave me to eat,” it begins, listing acts of kindness to the thirsty, the naked, the sick the estranged and the imprisoned. Matthew’s account did not explicitly anticipate workers who put in 80-hour workweeks helping robots to clean cars, but it looks like they’re covered.
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