Things finally began to look up last week for 16 long-suffering workers at Five Star Car Wash in Elmhurst, Queens.
On Wednesday evening David Amar, the owner, who had not paid his employees their meager salaries for two weeks, agreed to pay them what they are owed, stop retaliating against them for having joined a union and, after months of refusing to comply with the law, he also agreed to sit down to negotiate a contract.
The workers had voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in November 2013. Since then, and until last week, Amar, while raising their pay to the legal minimum wage level, began to cut their hours and refused to meet with the union as the law mandates.
This prompted the carwasheros — who say they have had their wages stolen for at least five years, receiving only $4 an hour and no overtime pay — to go on strike on Feb. 20. That day, members of the union filmed Amar kicking snow and making an obscene gesture at the striking workers.
Fortunately, six days later, things took a turn for the better.
“The union and the workers met with Amar last night (Wednesday, Feb. 26) and he agreed to pay them the money he owes and restore the number of hours they used to work before they became members of the union. Also, we will meet on Monday at 4 p.m. to start negotiating a contract,” said Rocío Valerio, an organizer for the WASH NY campaign.
WASH NY is one of the community groups supporting the workers, together with Make the Road New York, NYS Coalition to End Wage Theft, and New York Communities for Change.
Last Thursday the workers called off the strike and went back to work but held a rally outside their place of employment to reaffirm their willingness to keep fighting for their rights and to show their appreciation to their supporters.
“We wanted to show our gratitude to the carwasheros from the Bronx and Brooklyn who came to support us while we were on strike,” said Refugio Denicia, 35, a Five Star employee for 15 years. Denicia said that because he had been an employee for so long, he was making all of $5.75 an hour.
“The ones who were hired after me were being paid $4 and although when we became unionized they raised our salary to 6.50, the owner cut our hours from the 60 to 70 per week we used to work to less than 40 to punish us. This is changing now.”
The workers, Denicia said, are not asking for much. “We only want better wages, to be respected as workers, and safer working conditions,” he said.
The workers and the union also wanted to give another message during the rally. Remembering that a previous owner still owes three former workers more than $200,000 in a back wages judgment, the carwasheros wished to make clear how difficult it can be for hard-working New Yorkers to get their lawful pay, even after joining a union and having the support of community organizations.
“We need stronger enforcement of wage and hour laws,” Denicia said.
“This victory would not have been possible without the support not only of the union and the other community organizations, but of the people of Elmhurst who made Amat hear their voices. He told us that he had been getting many calls from the community around Five Star asking him to be fair to the workers,” Valerio said. “We want to let the neighbors know that we won this battle thanks to their support and the we are ready for war if necessary.”
“The next step,” Denicia said, “is to negotiate a good contract.”
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