I chose to get arrested outside of a car wash in Brooklyn last week in support of the workers who have been on strike there since November. This is the first time I have ever been arrested — even though I have supported many different causes in many different ways throughout the years.
Getting arrested is not something to be taken lightly. But I felt it was necessary to shine a light on the grievous wrong these workers and so many others in New York’s car wash industry — and in other industries across the country — have experienced in their work lives. And I wanted to express my outrage over the treatment of low-wage immigrant workers generally and the growing income inequality in our society.
It is important now because of the times we live in — a time when the income equality gap is greater than ever, when workers and immigrants are increasingly under fire in legislatures across America and in the Halls of Congress, and when low-wage workers in car washes, fast food restaurants, airports and retail stores are feeling the squeeze like never before.
In most parts of the country, millions of these workers make the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. In New York and elsewhere the minimum is higher, but still much too low. That’s why we have seen — and been part of — campaigns like the “Fight for Fifteen” and “Low-Wage Rage.”
And that’s why I and others, including national labor leaders and New York City Council members Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca blocked the streets outside the Vegas Auto Spa in Park Slope, where the ‘carwasheros’ have been on strike for four months against an owner they claim stole money from them through wage and hour violations. They went without paychecks through the holiday season and this cold, harsh winter.
But what is happening at the Vegas car wash — and the entire car wash industry across New York — is just an example of a greater problem across America. Hard-working men and women are not being paid enough to make ends meet and it is the lowest-paid workers who often work in the most horrendous conditions.
The workers at Vegas have sued the owner in court and filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board for unfair labor practices, and with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. These workers are among the many at 10 car washes across New York City who voted to join the RWDSU since the Wash New York Campaign, a joint effort by New York Communities for Change, Make the Road New York and the RWDSU, began three years ago.
In addition to better wages and job safeguards, carwasheros need protections against an industry that is largely unregulated and has been rife with wage theft. In New York alone, one major car wash owner has agreed to pay more than $7 million in back pay and penalties for wage and hour violations.
That is why we have been urging the City Council to pass and the mayor to sign the Car Wash Accountability Act, which would require car washes to be licensed and regulated and would include strong worker protections.
It is sad that here, in the richest city in the richest country in the world, workers and their supporters still have to put their bodies on the line to get economic and workplace justice. Working women and men in this city and country — regardless of whether or not they are low-wage immigrants — deserve better, and we must come together with a collective voice to demand it.
Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and executive vice president of the 1.3 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
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