Coalition Building Central To RWDSU Organizing Of Car Washers

October 22, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco

Last month, for the first time ever, the RWDSU welcomed New York City car washers into the labor family. But the North American union that includes thousands of workers from both the United States and Canada did not achieve the history-making organizing victory alone. The union had help from the WASH NY campaign and a committed coalition of grassroots advocacy groups like Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change.

“It was important that folks trusted us and trusted our coalition,” RWDSU Director of Communications Tara Martin told LaborPress. “It wasn’t just a union entity at the table. We sat with Make the Road, and also with New York Communities for Change, who had inroads into the community beyond what we were doing.”

When workers at Hi Tek Car Wash in Astoria, Queens voted 21 to 5 to become part of the RWDSU on September 8, it marked the culmination of months of coalition effort trying to build sufficient levels of trust with employees.

“It was important that workers felt comfortable with us and they understood what they could do to change their situations,” Martin said.

The overwhelming vote to unionize now awaits certification, but once that process is complete, organizers say they’ll be ready to convene further discussions with the newly unionized members and start direct contract negotiations with Hi Tek management, where wages and workers’ safety will be key issues.

“Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change have a long history working with low-income and immigrant communities,” Make the Road New York Lead Organizer Hilary Klein said. “That, combined with the RWDSU’s commitment to organizing low-wage and immigrant workers, allowed the WASH NY campaign to gain the workers’ trust, and has contributed to victories like the one at Hi Tek Car Wash & Lube in Queens. This cutting edge campaign also combines worker organizing with legislation, wage and hour litigation, and support from community allies to bring a wide array of tools into the fight for worker justice.”

The entire car wash industry in New York City has become notorious for abusing workers rights. This past summer, a number of Hi Tek employees in Queens, as well as those working at another site in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, filed federal lawsuits claiming that workers had been improperly paid for years.

“Car wash workers work in one of the most exploitative industries in New York City,” Klein said. “Long hours, low pay, exposure to harsh chemicals, and violations of labor laws are common practices at car washes throughout New York. Many of these workers are recent immigrants, often making them even more vulnerable to injustices on the job.”

The coalition’s drive to win a strong union contract for workers at Hi Tek Car Wash is now hoping to gain the support of still more allies – this time, car wash customers visiting the site located at 83-03 24th Avenue.

This weekend, members of the coalition began handing out signs at the site declaring support for car wash workers that customers can display in their automobiles, as well as cards they can present to Hi Tek cashiers.

“Customers believe in fairness and equality for all workers,” Martin said. “We really want them to know that it is important that they show their support for these new unionized workers. You’re going to spend money washing your car – everybody does – why not spend money at a union location?”

By enlisting the support of the paying public, the RWDSU and its coalition members hope to convince Hi Tek management that running a union shop is a “win-win” for everyone involved.

“We spent an extraordinary amount of time working with the workers on the ground,” Martin said. “It was important that we gained their trust, and that they understood that we are looking out for their best interests, and that we are working alongside them in order to improve their working environment. And that our goal will be to solidify support not only amongst the workers, but the customers.”

Since its success in organizing workers at Hi Tek Car Wash in Queens, the RWDSU and its coalition has grown increasingly optimistic that other workers throughout the city will soon follow. A number of other car wash votes could be held before the year is out, according to Martin.

“From here on out they have a union that will stand behind them,” Martin said. “We will work very closely with them to ensure that they get the fair contact that they deserve and that they are treated with dignity and respect on the job.”


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