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Know Your Rights
Source: Crain's New York Business
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Union, advocates push for car-wash crackdown

A coalition of labor and community groups will launch a campaign Tuesday to improve conditions for workers at the city’s 200 car washes, labor sources said.

Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union are teaming up on the multi-pronged campaign, which is aimed at organizing the city’s 5,000 car wash workers into a union and increasing city and state oversight of an industry that they say has a history of violating workers’ rights. The Central Labor Council, the umbrella organization of the city’s 300 unions, will back the effort.

“All too frequently, workers in this industry are mistreated—be it through unpaid overtime, earning less than minimum wage, or exposure to toxins and chemicals without proper protections,” said Vincent Alvarez, president of the Central Labor Council. “The Central Labor Council is deeply concerned about the well-being of these workers, and supports efforts to reform the industry and organize its employees.”

Make the Road and New York Communities for Change have organized with the RWDSU before, using wage-theft lawsuits as leverage to win improvements for workers in supermarkets and retail outlets. The tactic is likely to be used in the car wash campaign to persuade employers to agree to unionization. A report about conditions in the industry is expected this week.

Representatives from the three organizations declined to comment about the campaign before its official launch on Tuesday.

A labor source said the city campaign would include a push for annual city and state inspections to make sure car washes are following labor laws; a code of conduct for the industry; and government hearings to determine whether legislation is needed to safeguard workers.

Under its former commissioner, Patricia Smith, the state Department of Labor conducted a sweep of the industry in 2008, uncovering nearly $6.6 million in unpaid wages. Violators were most prevalent in the city. More than 78% of car washes in the five boroughs were in violation of minimum wage and overtime laws, while statewide nearly half were not following the law.

The U.S. Department of Labor has also targeted the industry in the city, recovering millions of dollars in back wages for the predominantly immigrant workers in local car washes.

The planned campaign here follows an aggressive one in Los Angeles by the United Steelworkers that has so far resulted in the unionization of three car washes.

The executive director of the New York State Car Wash Association did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the campaign. In an article posted on the group’s website earlier this year, attorney William Crowell referred to the unionization campaign in Los Angeles and wrote, “A failure by the New York carwash industry to effectively police itself may result in California consequences.”

Mr. Crowell, who did not respond to a call requesting comment, noted in the article that legislation or added government oversight of the industry “would negatively impact the vast majority of operators who follow the labor law with paperwork burdens and additional costs.”

The consequences of some car washes not addressing wage and other improper labor practices “potentially would extend to the entire car wash industry in New York State,” he wrote.

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