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

Queens Carwash’s Employees Are First in City to Join Union

Workers at a carwash in Queens have overwhelmingly voted to join a union, organizers said Sunday, in the first major victory in a six-month effort in New York City to unionize workers in an industry the organizers say is rife with labor law violations.

The workers of Astoria Car Wash and Hi-Tek 10 Minute Lube Inc., most of whom are immigrants, voted 21 to 5 on Saturday to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which will now seek to begin collective-bargaining negotiations with the company’s owners, the union’s president, Stuart Appelbaum, said.

The vote marks the first time workers at a carwash in New York City have agreed to join a union.

The victory, Mr. Appelbaum said, “sends an important message that workers, and especially immigrant workers, are ready to stand up.” He added: “They took personal risks of all sorts to make this happen and yet the conditions are so bad in the industry that they felt they didn’t have much to lose by standing up.”

In July, more than a dozen employees at the carwash filed a federal lawsuit alleging that for at least six years, workers had been subjected to many violations of state and federal labor laws, including paying employees less than the minimum wage and not paying overtime wages. Employees at a carwash in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, that is under the same ownership filed a similar lawsuit in July.

Both suits were filed with the help of Make the Road New York, an advocacy group. With New York Communities for Change — another advocacy group, — and the support of the union, it has been leading a campaign to change the carwash industry in the city.

Juan Antonio [member of Make the Road New York], 29, an immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, who has been working at Hi-Tek for five years, said he and his fellow workers were “very happy” about the results of Saturday’s vote.

“It’s a historic thing,” Mr. Antonio said in Spanish. “It’s been a very intense fight.”

Messages left for the company’s owners and managers were not returned, and an employee who answered the phone on Sunday at Hi-Tek’s East Elmhurst location said they were not available because “it’s Sunday.”

The challenges facing the advocacy group and the labor organizers have been immense. The carwash industry is highly atomized, with perhaps 5,000 workers in about 200 locations, most of which are under individual ownership. In addition, many of the workers are illegal immigrants hesitant or unwilling to join a public campaign, for fear that it might cost them their jobs or somehow expose them to a greater possibility of deportation.

A similar campaign in Los Angeles has resulted in collective bargaining agreements at several carwash companies.

In 2008, a New York State investigation of the industry found widespread labor law violations. In a survey of 84 carwashes, inspectors reported $6.5 million in underpayments to 1,380 workers. The state labor commissioner at the time, M. Patricia Smith, said the industry was “a disgrace,” and state officials levied millions of dollars in fines against carwash companies.

This past July, a judge ordered a carwash owner in the Bronx to pay $150,000 in restitution to employees and serve four months of weekends in jail followed by three years of probation for failing to pay the minimum wage, according to the state attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, who has also been seeking to bring carwashes into compliance with labor laws.

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